Netflix’s instant streaming catalogue is a wonderful thing, made more wonderful by the immense number of bookish TV shows, feature films, and documentaries to which it grants us access. Unfortunately – and this sometimes depends upon the device that you use to access Netflix – it can be difficult to find some of what’s out there, especially if a given title doesn’t fit into the algorithm that suggests what you might like to watch next.
Enter your humble streaming video servant. What follows is a huge list of what the bookish side of Netflix has to offer. Enjoy responsibly (and don’t neglect your books; they have feelings too).
Adaptations of Classics
Sherlock – 2010-2012: I think I’ve heard a couple of people mention this somewhere. Series 1 and 2 of the BBC’s Cumber-tastic contemporary take on Conan Doyle’s consulting detective.
The Grapes of Wrath – 1940: Henry Fonda’s iconic turn as Tom Joad is the highlight of director John Ford’s adaptation of one of John Steinbeck’s most enduring works.
The Sword in the Stone – 1963: Disney’s underrated animated gem covers young King Arthur’s life until just after he takes the throne, which covers the first section of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King.
Doctor Zhivago – 2002: A two-part mini-series/movie starring Kiera Knightley.
Poirot – 1989-1995: Six seasons’ worth of mystery, starring Agatha Christie’s mustachioed detective Hercule Poirot.
Merlin – 2009-2012: Another Arthurian Legend, focusing this time on the youthful exploits of the O.G. wizard.
Robin Hood – 2006-2009: The BBC strikes again. This retelling features a young Robin, locked in familiar struggle with the Sheriff of Nottingham. Not to be confused with…
Robin Hood – 1973: … this one, starring animated, anthropomorphic animals (Robin is a fox, of course) playing the part of Robin and his merry men. Goofy music and inexplicable southern accents to boot? Yes, please.
The Diary of Anne Frank – 2009: A Masterpiece Classic version of the young girl and her family’s attempt to evade the Nazis during World War II.
As I Lay Dying – 2013: The much yammered-about, less frequently seen (which is kind of a shame, ’cause even if it isn’t perfect, it’s both faithful and ambitious) James Franco-directed adaptation of Faulkner’s fractured family drama.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s – 1961: Audrey Hepburn plays Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly (although the adaptation makes its share of noticeable changes) in one of her career’s defining roles. This one goes away April 1st, so if you haven’t seen it, now’s the time.
Les Misérables – 1998: A non-musical adaptation (though its score was nominated for an Oscar) starring Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, and Claire Danes) of Victor Hugo’s doorstop. If the prospect of Russell Crowe singing put you off the more recent version, then maybe this one’s for you.
Les Misérables – 2000: Or maybe this one is. Gérard Depardieu and John Malkovich take the lead in this two-episode miniseries version.
The Great Gatsby – 1974: You know the one – Robert Redford as Gatsby, Mia Farrow as Daisy, but zero swimming zebras. We can’t have everything, it seems.
Mansfield Park – 1999: The description for this one says that it’s “loosely based” on Jane Austen’s novel, so wade in warily, especially if you’re the type that orders up your adaptations as note-for-note as they can be. In which case…
Mansfield Park – 1983: … maybe this six-episode BBC miniseries is more your cup of tea.
Corolianus – 2011: Ralph Fiennes, directing for the first time, takes a little known Shakespeare play about the revenge of an exiled general and modernizes everything except for the Bard’s Elizabethan dialogue.
Jane Eyre – 1996: As with a lot of the classics, Jane Eyre has been remade on a whole mess of occasions. This feature film version stars William Hurt, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Anna Paquin (as young Jane)…
Jane Eyre – 1983: …while this older BBC version features Timothy Dalton (James Bond!) and spans 11 episodes.
Wuthering Heights – 2009: Masterpiece Classic’s two-part miniseries adaptation of Emily Brontë’s novel stars a pre-Inception and The Dark Knight Rises Tom Hardy and The Walking Dead‘s Andrew Lincoln, who presumably does more than broodingly stare into the distance.
Atlas Shrugged Parts I and II – 2011-2012: Ayn Rand’s much-beloved, much-abhorred tome finally made it to the silver screen after years of toil, and both parts, totaling 209 minutes (which, considering the book’s length, is a lot shorter than I would have figured) are available.
What Maisie Knew – 2013: The Henry James novel gets a contemporary re-telling starring Julianne Moore, Philomena‘s Steve Coogan, and Alexander Skarsgârd.
Brighton Rock – 2010: Helen Mirren and John Hurt both have supporting roles in this adaptation of Graham Greene’s tale of murder and gang violence run amok in the south of England.
Catch-22 – 1970: Joseph Heller’s darkly hilarious satire had to be a tall order to adapt, which maybe explains why there’s only been one attempt. Alan Arkin plays the perpetually halted Captain Yossarian who tries with little success to escape his job as a bomber pilot in World War II.
True Grit – 1969: The goofier of the two adaptations of Charles Portis’ tongue-in-cheek Western. John Wayne plays cycloptic U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn, on the hunt for the murderer of a young girl’s father.
North and South – 2004: Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel about the changes wrought in England during the Industrial Revolution gets the BBC treatment in a four episode miniseries.
Hamlet – 2000: No, not the Olivier version. And no, not the Gibson version. Not the Branagh one filmed on stage, and not the David Tennant / Patrick Stewart one from the BBC. It’s the Ethan Hawke one that replaces the Dane’s kingdom with a contemporary corporate setting (the Denmark Corporation).
The Dead – 1987: There aren’t a lot of Joyce adaptations out there, but John Huston took a crack at Joyce’s seminal short story in his final film as a director. Bonus: besides Huston’s daughter Angelica, the cast is all-Irish.
Daniel Deronda – 2002: Hugh Bonneville (of Downton Abbey fame) features in the cast of this BBC adaptation of one of George Eliot’s “other” novels.
Death of a Salesman – 1985: Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich star in this made-for-TV take (Hoffman won an Emmy for his portrayal of Willy) on Arthur Miller’s classic play.
The Trial – 1962: Directed by Orson Welles and starring a post-Psycho Anthony Perkins, The Trial attempts to capture Franz Kafka’s frightening vision of a man whose life is sent into upheaval when he is arrested and prosecuted for an unnamed crime.
The Glass Menagerie – 1973: Tennessee Williams’ play, adapted for TV and starring Katherine Hepburn and Sam Waterston as parts of an unbalanced, dysfunctional family.
Middlemarch – 1994: It’s been called the greatest English novel of all-time, so the BBC couldn’t very well leave this one alone, right? Six episodes capturing the trials and travails of Dr. Lydgate, Dorothea, and co.
Bleak House – 2005: Another marriage of Dickens and the BBC. Carey Mulligan and Gillian Anderson make appearances in this eight-part adaptation, filled with more orphans and legal drama than you can shake a stick at.
The Count of Monte Cristo – 1998: This four-episode miniseries stars Gérard Depardieu and gives us a little more time with the plot of Dumas’ gargantuan novel, even though some things still have to be changed, shifted around, or omitted.
Great Expectations – 2011 Dickens’ novels have probably been adapted nearly as often as Shakespeare’s plays, and Great Expectations probably most frequently. This Masterpiece Classic version tells young Pip’s story over three episodes, each an hour long.
Capote – 2005: This isn’t strictly an adaptation, but the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s (boy, is that depressing to type) portrayal of Truman Capote is incredible, and there is a whole lot of overlap between the film and Capote’s masterwork In Cold Blood.
Shakespeare in Love – 1998: Again, not an adaptation of any particular work, but John Madden’s Oscar-winning film (try not to hold the whole Saving-Private-Ryan-totally-should-have-won thing against it) does pack in the literary charm.
House of Cards – 2013-2014: Though it plays like the contemporary spiritual cousin of a Shakespearean revenge plot (complete with fourth wall-breaking asides), House of Cards is actually based on a British book of the same name…
House of Cards – 1990: … which has already had its own BBC miniseries, presented as a twelve episode trilogy.
The Road – 2009: Arago… er, I mean Viggo Mortenson plays the father in this faithful (read: bleak as endless night) adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-winning post-apocalyptic novel.
Freedom Writers – 2007: Oscar winner Hilary Swank stars as a teacher using literature to reach out to marginalized high schoolers in East L.A. Based on the book by teacher Erin Gruwell.
Dexter – 2006-2013: Jeff Lindsay’s book series about a vigilante who tracks down and dispatches other murderers gets the TV treatment from Showtime.
Orange is the New Black – 2013: Another Netflix-produced series (season two is coming down the pipe soon) based on Piper Kerman’s prison memoir of the same name.
The Avengers – 2012: Marvel’s beloved superhero team (While we’re here, can someone tell me where to start reading Avengers comics? I love graphic novels, but established heroes, with their multiverses and multiple arcs and what have you intimidate me) got a movie and made a jillion dollars. If you feel like maybe you’ve already seen it, it’s possible that you just visited the toy aisle at your local Target.
Hellboy – 2004: The inimitable Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim) directs this adaptation of Mike Mignola’s comic series, which got a(n even better sequel) in 2008.
Black Hawk Down – 2001: Mark Bowden’s real-life tale of U.S. Rangers whose helicopters were shot down in Mogadishu, Somalia is harrowingly recreated by a big name cast.
Friday Night Lights – 2006: Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t Lose. (Am I saying it right?) This much-beloved series uses as its jumping-off point Buzz Bissinger’s non-fiction account of the swirling insanity that is high school football in Texas.
American Psycho – 2000: When Bret Easton Ellis was more controversial than exhausting, Christian Bale starred as Patrick Bateman, whose murderous second life pushes him to the brink of sanity in this adaptation of Ellis’ best-known work.
There Will Be Blood – 2007: Though Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant, brutal film (for which Daniel Day-Lewis deservedly won an acting Oscar) is only “loosely-based” on Upton Sinclair’s whistle-blowing book (called Oil!), it’s probably better for it.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas – 2008: John Boyne’s bestselling novel is the basis for this film depicting one boy’s friendship with another who lives on the other side of the fence surrounding a concentration camp during World War II.
Into the Wild – 2007: Sean Penn directs this adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s non-fiction account of the life of Christopher McCandless, a young man who graduates from college, gives away all the money his bank account and plans to escape into the dangerous Alaskan Wilderness.
The Cider House Rules – 1999: An Oscar-winning adaptation of John Irving’s 1985 novel about a young orphan’s complicated relationships with his father-figure and a young couple.
Lonesome Dove – 1989: Larry McMurtry’s bestseller gets the miniseries treatment, and in the process, my mom develops a major crush on Robert Duvall. Duvall stars alongside Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover, Angelica Huston, and Chris Cooper.
Brokeback Mountain – 2005: The Oscar-nominated adaptation of E. Annie Proulx’s short story about two ranchers, played by Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger, and the challenges of their secret relationship.
The Walking Dead – 2010-2012: Seasons 1-3 of AMC’s undead ratings monster. Based upon Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels, the series follows a sheriff who wakes from a coma to find the world overrun by zombies and sets out to find his family.
The Hunger Games – 2012: Suzanne Collins’ mega-hit series comes to the big screen. Jennifer Lawrence plays the novel’s hero, Katniss Everdeen, as she fights to survive the brutal competition established by corrupt and merciless government forces.
The Hours – 2002: The Oscar-winning (Nicole Kidman won Best Actress) adaptation Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer-winning novel follows three women linked by Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway, including the great author herself.
Blue Like Jazz – 2012: The adaptation of Donald Miller’s semi-autobiographical bestseller tells the story of Don, who rebels against his parents by choosing to attend the least religious college he can think of, an experience which unexpectedly pushes him closer to an understanding of the nature of God.
The Rainmaker – 1997: For a time, if John Grisham wrote it, it was guaranteed to show up in your local cineplex as soon as could be managed. Matt Damon stars as a young attorney who has to open his own firm to help the family of a terminally ill boy sue their insurance company.
Hannibal – 2001: Anthony Hopkins (but not Jodie Foster, alas) return in this sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, featuring Thomas Harris’ super-intelligent serial killer.
Less than Zero – 1987: Another Bret Easton Ellis sighting! Ellis’ debut gets the “loose” treatment, as the film takes the basic idea of the book (college student returns home during a break to find that his best friend has a bad drug habit) and does its own thing. On the plus side: Robert Downey Jr.!
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Lisbeth Salander Trilogy) – 2010: Before David Fincher’s U.S. adaptation, Stieg Larsson’s best-sellers (all three) were adapted by his Swedish countrymen. Noomi Rapace stars as hacker/detective/tattoo enthusiast Lisbeth Salander.
The Virgin Suicides – 1999: When the youngest of five daughters commits suicide, a group of young men grows increasingly obsessed with her sisters, who are severely sheltered by their parents. Based on Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel.
Cosmopolis – 2012: David Cronenberg (A History of Violence; Eastern Promises) adapts Don DeLillo’s novel about a young Wall Street titan (Robert Pattinson) stuck in Manhattan traffic while suffering from tremendous financial losses and paranoia.
A Mighty Heart – 2007: Angelina plays Mariane Pearl, whose memoir tells the story of her struggle to find out what happened to her husband after he is kidnapped while researching Richard Reid (the “shoe bomber”) in Pakistan.
Norwegian Wood – 2010: A rare Haruki Murakami adaptation, Norwegian Wood follows two people who suffer the aftereffects of a tragedy from their youth, which complicates the course of their relationship with each other.
The Shipping News – 2001: E. Annie Proulx strikes again. This adaptation of her Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning novel stars a massive cast, including Kevin Spacey, Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, and Judi Dench.
The Last Temptation of Christ – 1988: Willem Dafoe plays Jesus in Martin Scorcese’s controversial take on Nikos Kazantzakis’ controversial novel. If you open your windows and turn up the volume, you might even attract a few protesters!
Lost in La Mancha – 2002: This documentary tells the story of director Terry Gilliam (12 Monkeys; Brazil) and his failed quest to bring Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote to the big screen.
Freakonomics – 2010: Let’s say non-fiction isn’t really your thing, and so you don’t account for one of the four million or so copies of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s book, which uses economic theories and practices to explain a whole host of other phenomena. Luckily, this film version exists, and you’re reading this post, so, you know, problem solved.
The Real Story: James Bond – 2009: Something called the Smithsonian Channel produced this documentary, which investigates Ian Fleming’s naval intelligence service and how it inspired the creation of James Bond.
Salinger – 2013: Though critical reception was mixed, the subject matter proved too compelling for many to resist when this documentary was (finally) released (alongside a book written by Shane Salerno, the creator of the film). Salinger features interviews with authors and actors, who offer us a taste of J.D. Salinger’s massive cultural influence, while the bulk of the film attempts to provide clarity about the author’s mysterious life (including his later reclusive period).
Gonzo – 2007: The manic buzz of Hunter S. Thompson takes the stage in this documentary, which uses interviews (including Pat Buchanan!), TV footage, voice recordings, and Johnny Depp’s narration to sift through the remains of the outsized legend and offer a clearer picture of what propelled and tortured the inventor (and maybe sole true practitioner) of Gonzo Journalism.
National Geographic: The Lord of the Rings – 2001: There are two “Beyond the Movie” docs from the National Geographic channel on Netflix Instant, one focused on The Fellowship of the Ring and another on The Return of the King. No idea why The Two Towers doesn’t get some love, but these two take a look at the real-life influences on Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. For when you don’t have four hours to watch one of the extended editions of Peter Jackson’s films.
Shakespeare Uncovered – 2013: Admittedly, the title sounds a little cheesy, but this PBS doc features interviews with Ethan Hawke, Vanessa Redgrave, David Tennant, Helen Mirren, and Jeremy Irons (among others), who all offer insight into the ways that six of Shakespeare’s most enduring plays and their influence on theater.
Searching for Richard – 1996: Go backstage as Al Pacino chronicles his attempt to get the bard’s Richard III exactly right during a revival.
30 for 30: The Guru of Go – 2010: I will admit that this one is only tangentially related to the world of books, but it’s March, and it isn’t everyday that a basketball coach used to also be an English teacher whose deep love of Shakespeare found its way into the coaching of his team.
Phew. There you have it. Seventy-eight bookish films and shows to watch on Netflix Instant. I can’t promise you that I found everything, but this should be a start.
Please use the comments to add to the list anything I missed. Happy watching (and reading)!