The following list is composed of male characters in literature that have been brought to the screen by some of the greatest actors of all time. While this list represents a group of wildly different men — good guys and bad guys, heroes and antiheroes — all of these compelling characters address complicated issues regarding masculinity while taking on the delicate task of transferring a character from the page to celluloid.
Here’s a list of some of the best portrayals of male book characters in film (we’re hoping to follow up with a list of ladies shortly).
1. Sam Spade, The Maltese Falcon
Humphrey Bogart was the natural choice to play private detective and noir hero Sam Spade of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Spade is a chain-smoking, stoic loner who gets sucked in to an increasingly complicated mystery revolving around a deceitful femme fatale and a mysterious falcon statue. Hammet worked as a private detective himself and said of the character in the introduction to the 1934 edition of the novel: “Spade has no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been, and, in their cockier moments, thought they approached.” Bogart’s inimitable charm lent the role the appropriate confidence without making Spade come off like an egomaniac. John Huston’s 1941 film version of The Maltese Falcon is considered to be one of the greatest films of all time and is thought to be one of if not the first major film noir.
2. Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird
Atticus Finch is one of the most beloved characters in literature, an expertly created hero who manages to be highly moral and constantly preachy without ever coming off as unlikeable or egotistical. Novelist Harper Lee based the character on her own father, who was a lawyer in the South that defended Africa- American clients. Finch was voted the seventh greatest character in fiction since 1900 by Book Magazine, and Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus in the 1962 movie is equally as loved, being voted by the American Film Institute as the greatest hero in film.
3. Tyler Durden, Fight Club
Both Chuck Palahniuk’s novel and David Fincher’s 1996 film adaptation are cult classics, as many readers wish the charismatic anarchist Tyler Durden would come save them from their boring, greed-motivated lives. Durden represents freedom from society, the excitement of spontaneity, and the ability to take revenge through cruel pranks that point out society’s hypocrisy. The novel’s narrator and Tyler together create an alternate reality in which they’re allowed to fully embrace their masculinity, rather than be stifled by consumerism. Palahniuk said that he envisioned the novel would present “a new social model for men to share their lives” in the introduction to the 2004 edition. Despite the fact that his ethos is completely unrealistic, many people identify with Tyler’s beliefs, and he has morphed into an iconic character both through the book and via Brad Pitt’s portrayal of him in the film.
4. Stanley Kowalski, A Streetcar Named Desire
Marlon Brando was one of the only actors from the film version of Tennessee Williams’ play that didn’t win an Oscar for his performance, though that performance is now considered to be one of the most important ever filmed. Brando’s take on the drunken, misogynistic Stanley Kowalski is one of the earliest examples of method acting captured on film. In Brando’s hands, Stanley is violent and quick-tempered but also pathetic and desperate, sympathetic due to his awareness of his almost complete lack of worth. While the movie did give the play a more palatable Hollywood ending, Brando’s iconic screams of “Stella!” as his wife hides in fear are simultaneously heartbreaking and blood-boiling.
5. Randle “Mac” McMurphy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Jack Nicholson won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Randle, the anti-authoritarian hero of Ken Kesey’s counterculture novel set in a mental institution in Milos Forman’s 1975 adaptation. While Kesey famously distanced himself from the production after having some creative clashes with Forman, the movie is generally considered one of the best book-to-film adaptations. Nicholson nails Randle’s bravado as a criminal who fakes insanity so he can serve his time in an institution rather than prison, but allows enough insecurity to come through that we’re left wondering if he deserves to be in the institution after all. A famous scene in which the camera lingers on Randle’s face midway through the film is said to be what put the Oscar in the bag for Nicholson. Though Randle is deeply flawed, he is a hero because he ends up sacrificing himself in order to teach the other inmates to stand up for themselves.
6. Rhett Butler, Gone With the Wind
David O. Selznick delayed making his 1939 adaptation of the melodramatic novel set during the American Civil War partly due to that famous search for who would play the lead role of Scarlett O’Hara, but less famously because Selznick knew he had to secure Clark Gable for the role of the suave Rhett Butler. Who better to deliver now-iconic lines like “You should be kissed and often, and by someone who knows how.” Gable was the perfect actor to play the roguish bad-boy with a mysterious past, leaving generations of viewers to wonder why Scarlett didn’t just ditch that Ashley loser for Butler in the first place.
7. Sherlock Holmes
Basil Rathbone is best known for his spot-on portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in a series of 14 films made from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories between 1939 and 1946 alongside Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson. These films are considered to be the best of the many Sherlock adaptations, in no small part because of Rathbone’s complete embodiment of the character. Many film writers have waxed poetic about how Rathbone seems to have been born to play Sherlock, something that resulted in the actor’s greatest legacy but also being typecast, as he was later unable to separate himself from his long career playing Sherlock.
8. Tom Joad, Grapes of Wrath
John Ford’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s great American novel was able to pull through its changed ending with Henry Fonda’s spot-on portrayal of hero Tom Joad. Fonda’s delivery of Joad’s final speech is a great moment in film, one that landed Tom Joad the No. 12 spot on the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest heroes in the movies. To give Ford some credit, the novel’s ending would be nearly impossible to pull off in a movie in 1940, so landing on Joad’s big speech vowing to dedicate his life to Preacher Casey’s cause of championing social justice was the next best way to end the story. “I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look, wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there,” he tells the matriarch of the family, Ma Joad.
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