Here’s a list of the best on-screen versions of the most compelling female characters in literature, brought to life by a series of great actresses that just seemed to get the parts.
Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, The Grapes of Wrath
Henry Fonda gained the most attention of the performances in John Ford’s 1940 film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic novel, but Jane Darwell’s role as family matriarch Ma Joad also won her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
While Tom Joad is the heroic figure of the novel and the movie, Ma Joad is really the one that does all the work. She’s stuck holding the family together after they’re kicked out of their Dust Bowl home and arrive in California to find it not as hospitable as the flyers had promised. Ma Joad rides in the truck next to the dead grandmother for hours, helps Rose of Sharon through her miscarriage and abandonment by her fiancee, and listens to Tom’s big final speech before he’s forced to abandon the family completely in her hands. The moment when she holds a pair of earrings up to her ears in a dusty mirror before the family vacates their home for their long journey west is completely heartbreaking.
Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Both Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara portrayed the kick-ass hero of Steig Larrson’s Millenium Trilogy in their own kick-ass way for the Swedish and American versions of the franchise respectively. Lisbeth is a tortured heroine, who has had to deal with abusive men her entire life after being declared a mentally incompetent ward of the state. When she grows into her own abnormally high intelligence, she’s able to turn the tables on her abusers and fight to defend both herself and other women. Rapace and Mara were both praised for their takes on Salander.
Emma Watson as Hermoine Granger, Harry Potter
Hermoine Granger was every millenial girl nerd’s hero growing up, and J.K. Rowling was sure to over-emphasize that Hermoine’s greatest skill is first and foremost her intelligence. Her smarts get her less intellectual pals out of trouble time and again. Emma Watson proved to be the perfect actress to take the role of Hermoine from childhood through adolescence in the film franchise, and the recent Brown grad shares many of the character’s strongest traits herself. When it comes to female role models in literature and the movies, Hermoine is a great pick that doesn’t come off as obnoxious or misguided.
Winona Ryder as Jo March, Little Women
The most strong-willed and unconventional of the March sisters, Jo is usually the favorite sister of modern readers of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel and is cited as an early feminist character. Jo is referred to throughout the novel by the other characters in masculine terms due to her independent streak and her hot temper, but that impassivity makes her the easiest of the sisters for modern readers to relate to. Jo long refuses marriage in order to not be separated from her beloved sisters and instead pursues her dreams of becoming a writer.
Winona Ryder plays Jo in the critically acclaimed 1994 film adaptation, which appears too sweet on the surface but got rave reviews for the performances from the ensemble cast of actresses.
Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, The Silence of the Lambs
Clarice is a strong, smart, and realistic female FBI agent, not some sexed-up Charlie’s Angels-esque heroine. Jodie Foster had to fight for the role, but her performance landed her an Academy Award for Best Actress, as well as the No. 6 spot and highest-ranking heroine on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest heroes and villains in the movies. Clarice has to negotiate complicated clues from the sociopath Hannibal Lecter in order to stop the serial killer Buffalo Bill, all while dealing with being a woman in the predominantly male FBI. She of course shows up all of her co-workers by catching the insane Buffalo Bill.
Sissy Spacek as Carrie, Carrie
Stephen King’s novel grants the abused loner Carrie telekinetic powers to wreck revenge on her mean classmates and evil Christian fundamentalist mother. Brian de Palma’s 1976 adaptation of the book stars Sissy Spacek in a terrifying performance as the social outcast who gradually loses control of the powers and emotions she barely had the capacity to understand in the first place. The bloody prom massacre is a hugely satisfying revenge scene, as is her final battle with her mother that results in the religious woman being repeatedly stabbed with knives controlled by Carrie’s mind while their house collapses around them and is eventually sucked into the earth, or perhaps Hell.
Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen’s creation Elizabeth Bennet is considered to be one of the most beloved characters in literature, and the 1995 BBC mini-series starring Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth and Colin Firth as Darcy is considered by many to be the best film adaptation of the classic novel. Elizabeth is intelligent, a brilliant conversationalist, and an independent thinker. Her major fault, of course, is prejudice, as she’s quick to judge Darcy. Elizabeth is so compelling that he sticks around to change her mind, and their love story has remained so beloved since the book’s 1813 publication that it has spawned a Bollywood version, Bride and Prejudice, and a YouTube video blog series as well, but 1995 BBC version is the definitive film depiction of the story.
Helena Bonham Carter as Marla Singer, Fight Club
Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel and David Fincher’s 1999 film adaptation are both cult classics focused on male bonding and the gaping man-shaped void left in modern society by capitalism, and Marla Singer is the female foil for the nameless narrator’s boys-only macho experiment with muse-like figure Tyler Durden. Helena Bonham Carter is delightfully dirty and totally unhinged in her take on the story’s only female character. At first the narrator is repulsed by her very presence, because by faking cancer and attending the same support groups he does she’s wiping his own status as an imposter in his face. But by the end of the book and the movie Marla is of course the only one that can save him from himself.
More from Wall St. Cheat Sheet:
- 8 Actors Who Brought Our Favorite Book Characters to Life
- Big-Budget Fantasies Rule the Kingdom of the Box Office
- Taking a Stand: 10 Celebrities Who Fight For a Cause
Follow Jacqueline on Twitter @Jacqui_WSCS