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Celebrating the classics with 8 book & film pairings

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Some works of art are built to last. These are the classics, the works that generations have found meaning in, discovering truths about life and history, reveling in ageless artistic beauty, and sometimes, just having a good laugh.

To celebrate the golden age of cinema, I’ve rounded up a few of my favorite classic films on Kanopy, the free streaming service from your library. These movies tell timeless stories, and some pioneered new technical advances in filmmaking and storytelling. They’re made by iconic directors and feature some of the biggest stars to ever grace Hollywood and beyond.

I’ve paired each movie with a classic book or two you can read or listen to on the Libby app. Some of these titles launched new genres or won Pulitzer Prizes. All of them are written expertly, whether they’re horror stories, comedies, or dramas for the stage. Some are even books I’ve read multiple times. Because, honestly, that’s always been the sign of a true classic to me — you want to experience it again. And with a true classic, a film or a book, every time you approach it, it’s still as compelling as it was the first time, only it contains even more insights into life and art.

Nosferatu

🍿 Movie: Nosferatu, directed by F. W. Murnau (1922)
📚 Based on the book: Dracula by Bram Stoker

The Vampyre👍🏽 Recommended read: The Vampyre by John William Polidori
🎧 Audiobook

Nosferatu, from legendary director F. W. Murnau, is one of the great classics of the Silent Era and the German Expressionist movement. Loosely based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the vampire here is a frightening monster of the shadows, more of a terrifying nightmare than an alluring dream. With its visual style, reveling in the play of shadow and light, this movie provides much of the visual language still seen in horror films today. In much the same vein, Stoker’s novel might not have been the very first vampire book, but the ideas and mythology he explores in his novel have impacted the vampire genre more than any other book.

So, if not Dracula, what was the first vampire book? This can be debated, but a strong contender for the title is John William Polidori’s The Vampyre, written in 1819. Polidori was inspired to write this tale of a brother and sister who befriend and are eventually undone by a vampire during the same party with Lord Byron and Percy Shelley that spawned Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The myth of the vampire existed before this, but Polidori managed to work these charming monsters into a true literary work for the first time.


A Farewell to Arms

🍿 Movie: A Farewell to Arms, starring Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes (1932)
📚 Based on the book: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

The Guns of August👍🏽 Recommended read: The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman
🎧 Audiobook

In the midst of WWI, Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, an ambulance driver and a nurse, fall in love. The two struggle to be together as the war constantly pulls them apart. The only way they can be assured of staying together, though, is to run away, but that comes with dangers of its own. There was a lot of debate at the time whether the studio should stick with Hemingway’s original ending, or make it more appealing to audiences, and in fact, several endings were filmed. You’ll definitely want to watch and see which version Kanopy has.

For a look at how WWI began, Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize winning history The Guns of August cannot be beat. By focusing on the opening month of the war, but from every side in the conflict, Tuchman shows how much was destined from the opening salvos, and she lays the perfect groundwork for anyone wanting to dive deeper into the history of the Great War. If you’re only going to read one nonfiction book about WWI, this is the title I’d recommend. Personally, I especially enjoyed it on audio.


Of Human Bondage

🍿 Movie: Of Human Bondage, starring Bette Davis and Leslie Howard (1934)
📚 Based on the book: Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

This Side of Paradise👍🏽 Recommended read: This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
🎧 Audiobook

Anyone who didn’t know her before Of Human Bondage certainly knew Bette Davis after her turn as Mildred, the crass, cockney waitress. Based on the autobiographical novel by Maugham, Of Human Bondage is a coming-of-age story about Philip Carey, a young man with an artistic soul who tries to settle down to the study of medicine. But his passionate and destructive relationship with Mildred threatens to ruin everything. Philip is played beautifully in the film by Leslie Howard; he and Davis are a perfect oil-and-water match.

A classic coming-of-age story about another artistic soul in search of direction is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. Fitzgerald’s debut novel follows Amory Blaine from his home in Minnesota to college at Princeton, then off to war, and finally back to America for the disenchantment of the Jazz Age. Will Amory find himself, or is he destined to be another member of the Lost Generation? Fitzgerald’s stunning prose makes it very worth reading to discover the answer.


His Girl Friday

🍿 Movie: His Girl Friday, starring Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, and Ralph Bellamy (1940)

The Code of the Woosters👍🏽 Recommended read: The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse
🎧 Audiobook

I can actually still remember watching His Girl Friday for the first time. I was a freshman in college, and my roommate and I squinted at it on the tiny TV we had in our dorm room one evening. I’m not entirely sure what I expected — yes, I loved Cary Grant, and I’d heard this was supposed to be funny. But I don’t think I was ready to laugh more than I had at any other movie I’d ever seen. Honestly, in the decades since, I still haven’t laughed at anything harder than Cary Grant’s newspaper editor coercing his ex-wife and star reporter, played by the delightful Rosalind Russell, to forego her planned nuptials to cover the crime story of the year. When people talk about fast-talking screwball comedies, this is the ideal.

So, what does a silly P. G. Wodehouse Jeeves and Wooster novel about a bumbling Englishman and his uber-competent butler have in common with the very American workplace comedy His Girl Friday? If His Girl Friday is the movie that made me laugh the most, then The Code of the Woosters is the book that caused me to literally laugh out loud the most. The novel revolves around Bertie Wooster going to a country home as a guest in order to steal a cream pitcher shaped like a cow that his aunt wants. The ridiculous cast of characters involved, such as Bertie’s friend Gussie Fink-Nottle, a newt enthusiast, just adds to the hilarity.


The Little Foxes

🍿 Movie: The Little Foxes, starring Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall (1941)
🎭 Based on the play: The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman, performed by Will Brittain, Tim Dekay, et al.

The Sound and the Fury👍🏽 Recommended read: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
🎧 Audiobook

The Little Foxes is another Bette Davis tour de force, as she plays Regina, the conniving woman at the heart of a southern family willing to do anything for money. The plot centers around Regina and her brothers arranging funds from a Chicago businessman to buy a cotton mill, where their profits will be huge, thanks to cheap labor. But none of the siblings trust each other, and they need the help of Regina’s kindly husband to pull it all off. The film is directed by three-time Oscar-winner William Wyler, who along with his cinematographer, were among the first to take advantage of new camera technology allowing deep focus, where objects in the foreground and background can be in focus at the same time. It’s used through the movie, but oh boy, there is one shot in particular you should keep an eye out for when you watch this!

No author says “messy Southern family” quite like William Faulkner. So, if you can’t get enough of the shenanigans of the Hubbard family in The Little Foxes, you’ll want to pick up pretty much any novel by this Nobel Prize winner. If you’re not sure where to start with Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury is a great choice. Using multiple perspectives, it tells the tragic story of the Compson family, and their legacy in Jefferson, Mississippi. The structure — stream of consciousness and non-linear — is a big part of the draw.


Rashomon

🍿 Movie: Rashomon, starring Toshirô Mifune, Masayuki Mori, and Machiko Kyô (1950)
✍🏾 Based on the short stories: Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, translated by Jay Rubin

The Moonstone👍🏽 Recommended read: The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
🎧 Audiobook

Speaking of structure being part of the appeal, Rashomon has become a byword for competing interpretations of events as the focus of a story. Based on short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, director Akira Kurosawa’s film is how most of the world first encountered this what-really-happened tale of murder. Four people are questioned about who killed a samurai in a secluded grove, but even though they're all witnesses, all four have different explanations for the crime. The storytelling is deft and clever and gorgeously shot by the master filmmaker.

If what appeals to you about Rashomon is trying to piece together the events of a crime based on conflicting reports, then Wilkie Collins wrote the book for you! The Moonstone, considered one of the earliest detective novels, investigates the theft of a hugely expensive diamond brought home from India by a British army officer. There are people in India desperate to recover the diamond as well as thieves aplenty in England who want these riches. It’s up to Scotland Yard detective, Sergeant Cuff, to piece together the witness testimony from the house party where the diamond was stolen, if he possibly can.


The Lion in Winter

🍿 Movie: The Lion in Winter, starring Katharine Hepburn and Anthony Hopkins (1968)
🎭 Based on the play: The Lion in Winter by James Goldman, performed by Kathleen Chalfant and Alfred Molina

Ivanhoe👍🏽 Recommended read: Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
🎧 Audiobook

Many folks have a favorite non-traditional Christmas movie they always watch at the holidays. The Lion in Winter is mine, starring Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole at their absolute best. They play Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II in a story of family arguments that will make yours and mine appear calm and sensible. For years, King Henry has kept his Queen, and mother of his three sons, a prisoner in an out of the way castle. But this year, he has invited her for Christmas. In addition to exchanging gifts, and some of the sharpest dialog ever written, these two fight over which of their sons should follow Henry to the throne. The performances by this remarkable cast, which also includes Anthony Hopkins in his first major film role as Richard the Lionheart, are the best gift you can give yourself for the holidays.

And if you love the court intrigue of medieval England, you'll likely enjoy Sir Walter Scott’s classic tale of knightly adventure, Ivanhoe. The story revolves around Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe’s return to England after the Third Crusade. He witnesses tensions between the Saxons, like himself, and the Norman conquerors, as well as the political machinations between Richard the Lionheart and his brother, John. The novel is a great adventure, and it includes other historical and quasi-historical figures of England, including Scott’s own take on Robin Hood.


Aguirre

🍿 Movie: Aguirre, the Wrath of God, starring Allejandro Repullés and Klaus Kinski (1972)

Heart of Darkness and Things Fall Apart👍🏽 Recommended read: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
🎧 Audiobook

👍🏽 Recommended read: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
🎧 Audiobook

I’m not quite sure there's another movie that really needs to be seen to be believed quite like Werner Herzog’s wild Aguirre, the Wrath of God. In its simplest terms, the movie is about an obsessive Spanish conquistador, played by the fiery Klaus Kinski, as he leads his men down the Amazon in search of El Dorado. But there's nothing else simple about this film, certainly not the lengths Werner Herzog and crew went to in order to make it on location in the Peruvian rainforest. Truly, it needs to be seen.

For a classic novel about an obsessive trip along a river, it’s really pretty hard to beat Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. A sailor, Marlow, has recently arrived in colonial central Africa to captain a river boat working in the ivory trade. As he travels farther upriver, he hears about a once talented and promising man running one of the river stations, Mr. Kurtz. There are rumors that Kurtz is ill and has possibly lost his mind. What Marlow finally sees when he finds Kurtz is, well, horrific. What’s magnificent, though, is Conrad’s profound prose.

And I’m going to throw in one more book, just because! Another classic read about colonialism, Things Fall Apart, is written from the other side of the experience, by Nigeria author Chinua Achebe. The book is divided into three parts — the first looking at Okonkwo and the life of his tribe and family before colonialism. The second and third parts examine the influence of colonial powers and missionaries on the lives of Okonkwo’s community. It’s a masterfully written novel exploring tradition and change, masculinity, language, and much more.


*Access to books and films may vary by library and region.

Check out some of these classic books and films from your library on Kanopy and Libby and experience the magnificent artistry that causes the best works to last for generations.

New to Kanopy? Learn how to get started.

RELATED READ: 10 iconic books & films about the wild, wild West

Published Jun 13, 2024

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About the Author

Shelia Mawdsley did everything from answering questions at the Reference Desk to tech training to running a classic lit book club in her 17 years in public libraries. Now she helps other public libraries make the most of their OverDrive collections. In her spare time, she’s either writing or reading, usually with an opera playing in the background. If you ever run into her, ask Shelia about #WITMonth.

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