It’s a natural progression for freak successes of the publishing world to become fodder for motion picture audiences. (The Catcher in the Rye remains a stubborn holdout.) Many of these surprise bestsellers, like Peyton Place, are potboilers; a few, like To Kill a Mockingbird, are great literature. Whatever their merits, these works captured the public’s imagination and spurred many a casual conversation. Here are 12 books that became the talk of the town and, occasionally, a hit movie.
The Bridges of Madison County
Book released 1992, 12 million copies sold
Film released 1995, $71 million at the box office
Meant to be a gift to family and friends, the manuscript penned by Robert James Waller, about a romance between a photographer and an Iowa housewife, fell into the hands of a literary agent, who saw dollar signs. Waller was persuaded to publish, and sentimental slobs from coast to coast snapped up the modest little page turner.
Book released 1961, 10 million copies sold
Film released 1970, $12 million at the box office
The book was big; the movie underwhelming. Both posited a resilient little term for an absurd, no-win situation—Catch-22—that became so commonly used that it no longer needs any explanation.
Book released 1971, 11 million copies sold
Film released 1973, $165 million at the box office
After winning a wad of dough on TV’s You Bet Your Life, William Peter Blatty was asked by host Groucho Marx what he was going to do with the money. Blatty informed Marx that he planned to take some time off to write a novel. The Exorcist was the result.
Book released 1969, 21 million copies sold
Film released 1972, $215 million at the box office
The Johnny Fontaine character, commonly assumed to be based on Frank Sinatra, was diminished for the movie version as a result of the tensions between Sinatra and author Mario Puzo. Puzo denied that the character was based on the Ol’ Blue-Eyed Chairman of the Board.
Gone With the Wind
Book released 1936, 30 million copies sold
Film released 1939, $20 million at the box office
“I hope I never write another thing as long as I live,” said one-hit wonder Margaret Mitchell about her epic novel. Paid $50,000 by David O. Selznick—then another $50,000 when Selznick felt guilty over low-balling the movie rights—Mitchell refused to have anything to do with the filming of the Civil War-era tale.
The Grapes of Wrath
Book released 1939, 15 million copies sold
Film released 1940, no box office figures available
John Steinbeck reportedly loved what John Ford did with his acclaimed work and singled out Henry Fonda’s Tom Joad as making him “believe his own words.” The pro-union stance of the film resulted in both Steinbeck and Ford being brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee for suspected pro-Communist leanings.
Book released 1974, 20 million copies sold
Film released 1975, $196 million at the box office
Author Peter Benchley ended up writing three drafts of the screenplay, all of which were turned down by director Steven Spielberg. In addition, a conflict over the film’s ending got Benchley thrown off the set. His cameo as a reporter on the beach was met with far less rejection, however, and it remained in the film.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull
Book released 1970, 40 million copies sold
Film released 1973, $1.6 million at the box office
The tale of everyone’s favorite rebel bird became one of the few movies Roger Ebert completely lost patience with. Wrote the film critic, “At this point when I walked out of Jonathan Livingston Seagull—some 45 minutes into the movie—the hero had learned to avoid garbage and fly high, but the film, alas, had not…This has got to be the biggest pseudocultural would-be metaphysical ripoff of the year.” Songs by Neil Diamond.
Book released 1970, 21 million copies sold
Film released 1970, $138 million at the box office
The screenplay came first, oddly enough. The story of doomed love between college kids Oliver (Ryan O’Neal) and Jennifer (Ali Macgraw) began as a script that author Erich Segal then turned into a novel prior to the film’s release. Both book and movie were tremendous hits, though the movie fared better with the critics.
Book released 1956, 12 million copies sold
Film released 1957, $26 million at the box office
A turgid melodrama set in small-town America, Peyton Place purported to show the seamy underbelly of normal family life. Adultery, incest, abortion and murder were all covered, and readers ate it up. So did moviegoers and, eventually, television audiences. The film featured Lana Turner, Russ Tamblyn, Diane Varsi and Hope Lange; television audiences saw the town populated by the likes of Dorothy Malone, Ryan O’Neal and Mia Farrow.
To Kill a Mockingbird
Book released 1960, 30 million copies sold
Film released 1962, $13 million at the box office
Author Harper Lee wept when she saw Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch, a character based on Lee’s father. After her father died during the filming of the movie, she gave Peck her father’s pocket watch and chain, which he carried with him on Oscar night when he won the prize for Best Actor.
Valley of the Dolls
Book released 1966, 30 million copies sold
Film released 1967, $44 million at the box office
Jacqueline Susann’s book is a loose account of her experiences as an actress in the 1940s and 1950s. For the film version, the time of the story was changed to the 1960s, irking Susann, who has a cameo in the movie as a reporter.