Literary adaptations have been around since the birth of the movie industry. Legendary filmmaker George Méliès adapted numerous novels, plays, and short stories in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Jules Verne’s From The Earth to the Moon. In fact, some of the greatest cinematic accomplishments are based on books.
Disney didn’t wait too long before adapting and/or paying homage to literary classics — The Lion King, for instance, shares several notable features with Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Although it’s not very easy to portray literature in the form of cinema, animation makes the task significantly less taxing and still maintains the spirit of the source material.
10 Mary Poppins Catapulted Julie Andrews Into The Global Limelight
Book: Mary Poppins By P.L. Travers
Mary Poppins catapulted the formerly unknown Julie Andrews into the global limelight, earning her an Oscar for Best Actress the following year. This Disney live-action feature teems with delightful musical numbers, from the iconic “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” to heart-wrenchingly poignant songs like “Feed the Birds.”
The eponymous eight-book series by P.L. Travers also received critical acclaim. Mary Poppins has been adapted into numerous forms of media, from the Broadway stage to a Soviet Union musical picture. Travers also wrote other books, none of which are nearly as popular.
9 Tarzan Remains A Treasured Jewel In Disney’s Glittering Crown
Book: Tarzan Of The Apes By Edgar Rice Burroughs
Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes was originally serialized in a pulp newspaper, but the story drew enough reader interest to warrant a novelization. On the surface, Tarzan’s adventures seem rather prosaic and innocuous, but academics have raised questions regarding the political and racial undercurrents in Burroughs’ narrative.
Regardless, the story remains a literary classic, explaining the dozens of attributed adaptations. The animated Tarzan takes a far less scathing approach to the source material, crafting a movie that would soon become a treasured jewel in Disney’s crown. Tarzan went on to earn nearly half a billion dollars at the box office, further demonstrating its universal charm.
8 The Many Adventures Of Winnie the Pooh Maintains The Author’s Artistic Vision
Book: Winnie-The-Pooh By A.A. Milne
Disney produced three featurette movies based on A.A. Milne’s Winnie-The-Pooh in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but the 1977 version is the first full-length animated feature. Known as The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, this film was widely praised for its thematic and artistic authenticity.
Moreover, the Rotten Tomatoes critics consensus claims that it’s “perhaps the most faithful of Disney’s literary adaptations.” The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is structured in the form of episodes, each depicting different escapades. Milne’s book series has been translated into countless languages, including Latin.
7 Pinocchio Is The First Animated Movie To Win A Competitive Oscar
Book: The Adventures of Pinocchio By Carlo Collodi
Pinocchio feels like a tale as old as time, but it’s actually around 140 years old. Created by Italian author Carlo Collodi, this adorably untruthful character has become an eternal presence in pop culture. As Disney’s second attempt at making a feature film after Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Pinocchio effectively proved that the relatively new animation studio was not going to be a one-hit-wonder.
Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro released a 2022 stop-motion adaptation with the same title, which earned multiple Golden Globe nominations. Disney’s Pinocchio holds the record for being the first-ever animated movie to win a competitive Oscar.
6 The Jungle Book Is A Delightful Cocktail Of Iconic Songs And Endearing Characters
Book: The Jungle Book By Rudyard Kipling
Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is an anthology of narratively interlinked short stories. Both the book and the Disney version revolve around Mowgli, the “man-cub” raised by a pack of wolves in the forests of Central India. Despite its simplistic tone and carefree atmosphere, The Jungle Book incorporates a host of complex themes, such as child abandonment, social hierarchy, and the seemingly straightforward “law of the jungle.”
Disney’s adaptation grossed approximately $24 million at the global box office, a massive profit margin for 1967. The Jungle Book received a live-action adaptation in 2016, but this Jon Favreau flick failed to wow critics as much as the original.
5 Treasure Planet Captures The Author’s Aesthetic Without Sacrificing Its Uniqueness
Book: Treasure Island By Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island has been adapted so many times that there are multiple films set in outer space. Treasure Planet is the first animated and third Disney adaptation of this era-defining adventure novel. Treasure Planet captures the author’s intent and vision by replacing his sailing ships with solar-powered sail-driven space vessels.
This movie might have won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature if Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away hadn’t also been a contender. That said, some critics didn’t enjoy Treasure Planet very much. The New York Times’ A.O. Scott stated that it was “a brainless mechanical picture,” and “a clumsy and cynical bit of piracy.”
4 Alice In Wonderland Is Considered Among The Greatest Disney Animated Films Ever Made
Book: Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland By Lewis Carroll
Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Alice Through the Looking-Glass, took the 19th century by storm. The early Victorian Era was mostly known for austere writing, but Carroll’s whimsical novels proved that good storytelling didn’t always have to be serious.
Disney’s 1951 adaptation came at the heels of a failed attempt in the ’30s, when the studio planned to release it as a blend of animation and live-action. Alice in Wonderland didn’t make any waves during its first theatrical run; however, the theatrical re-release of 1974 was nothing less than triumphant. Reviewers as well as viewers consider Alice in Wonderland among the greatest Disney movies ever made.
3 The Peter Pan Franchise Is Continuously Receiving Newer & Bolder Adaptations
Book: Peter Pan; Or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up By J.M. Barrie
J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up was the first play to be adapted by Disney. The original play had already become a silent movie and a Broadway production long before Disney, but the animated feature is by far the most popular version of the narrative. Peter Pan soon diversified into Disneyland theme park rides, board games, ice shows, video games, and various other media extensions of the ever-popular franchise.
There are also six full-length Tinker Bell movies, a TV show called Jake and the Never Land Pirates, as well as an upcoming Disney+ live-action film titled Peter Pan and Wendy. Barrie’s vision has arguably spread wider than he could have possibly foreseen but that, in a way, is the point of his story.
2 The Fox And The Hound’s Central Message Is As Impactful Today As It Was In 1981
Book: The Fox And The Hound By Daniel P. Mannix
The Fox and the Hound chronicles an implausible alliance between two natural enemies: a hunting dog and a red fox. Cooper and Tod demonstrate that everyone can rise above their base instincts and embrace different perspectives, even if it means going against their very identities.
Daniel P. Mannix’s 1967 novel won several literary awards, following which it received its only film adaptation. Disney’s version is considerably toned down from the book — while the animated movie doesn’t end with Tod’s death and Copper’s euthanasia, their once-invulnerable friendship is torn to shreds by the conclusion. Nevertheless, The Fox and the Hound‘s central message is just as impactful today as it was in 1981.
1 Oliver & Company Takes A Lighthearted Approach To The Dickensian Dilemmas In The Source Material
Book: Oliver Twist By Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress is a gloomy novel that revolves around the nightmarish experiences of orphan children during the Industrial Revolution. The eponymous protagonist barely manages to escape his fate through a combination of external benevolence and pure luck, but the vast majority of his cohorts were destined to suffer indefinitely.
Disney’s Oliver & Company, however, takes a much lighter approach to the Dickensian dilemmas in the book. This animated movie features an abandoned kitten named Oliver, who teams up with a canine gang in NYC. Many critics were lukewarm toward Oliver & Company, citing narrative incoherence and overtly sentimental dialogues.
NEXT: 10 Most Emotional Disney Songs