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The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and the Best Book-to-Screen Adaptations

May 14, 2023
May 14, 2023

Congratulations to Rachel Joyce on the film adaptation of her award-winning novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which is in cinemas now! The novel was published in 2012, and the film was released on 28th April 2023 – and it’s already getting rave reviews. The Guardian, for example, noted how it manages to be both ‘a cosily familiar tale of British eccentricity’ and ‘a wrenching examination of grief, guilt and eventual closure’. If you haven’t yet, make sure you head to the cinema and watch Rachel’s stunning adaptation.

The novel has also been tremendously successful; it sold more than six million copies and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Rachel was awarded the Specsavers National Book Awards ‘New Writer of the Year’ in December 2012 and shortlisted for the ‘UK Author of the Year’ 2014.

An award-winning novel – now an international film

When Harold Fry nips out one morning to post a letter, leaving his wife hoovering upstairs, he has no idea he is about to walk from one end of the country to the other. He has no hiking boots or map, let alone a compass, waterproof or mobile phone. All he knows is that he must keep walking. To save someone else’s life.

Harold, played by actor Jim Broadbent, is a seemingly unremarkable man in his sixties who, when he learns his old friend Queenie (Linda Bassett) is dying, walks for 600 miles until he reaches Queenie’s hospice, much to the despair of his wife Maureen (Penelope Wilton).

The screenplay was also written by Rachel, and as we discuss later in this article, there’s a real art to adapting beloved books for the screen!

How did Rachel Joyce come up with the idea for The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry?

Writing for The Novelry in 2021, Rachel Joyce said: ‘By my mid-forties, I knew a few things – about children and school runs and laundry, and feeling unseen. I knew real grief and happy love, and I knew sad love too.’

But the writing path is never a straight line – even for multi-million-copy bestselling authors! Rachel wrote for us about how she still faces doubt:

I suffer crippling, awful, nasty self doubt. But I have learned something about self doubt: it is part of being creative. It’s part of the writing process. So I sit at my desk and I think, This is awful! Why can’t I write better? And then I think, Oh hello doubt! Take a chair but we have some work to do if you don’t mind. And on I go.
— Rachel Joyce

Despite her self-doubt and inner critic, Rachel is both prolific and successful, having published six novels. Harold Fry was followed by The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey in 2014, and the final book in the trilogy, Maureen Fry and the Angel of the North, was published in 2022. Miss Benson’s Beetle was a New York Times bestseller and the winner of the 2021 Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize.

Write your novel with Rachel Joyce

Are you writing literary fiction and would like to be coached by Rachel? We offer one-to-one coaching on our novel writing courses from published authors in a range of genres.

If you’re aiming to get published, you need a good writing mentor to develop your story faster and with more depth. Almost all professionals benefit from a mentoring relationship to develop their skills and in every other walk of life, an apprenticeship is considered a wise idea.

A great writing coach is the best way to achieve your writing goals. One-on-one mentoring means you get dedicated help with your own work to go beyond what MFA programs or standard writing courses can offer to progress you with more speed and certainty towards that book deal. Imagine if you had access to not only one great coach, but the benefits of a coaching team? At The Novelry we work with you one on one, and work collaboratively to ensure we are giving you our combined advice. The writer is at the heart of our offering.

Write your novel with Rachel Joyce today.

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Favourite Book-to-Screen Adaptations

To celebrate the release of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry in cinemas, we asked our team of authors and editors here at The Novelry for their favourite book adaptations – and why!

The Remains of the Day, chosen by Kate Riordan

For me, the best book-to-film adaptations fall into two distinct camps: those that track so closely to the original that they seem to magically capture the essence of the writing on screen, and those that are brave enough to use the book as a jumping-off point only – creating something completely fresh to better suit the cinematic form.

A favourite that falls firmly into the first camp is the 1993 Merchant Ivory production of The Remains of the Day. The film, starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, does a wonderful job of capturing Kazuo Ishiguro’s delicate, often exquisitely painful story of English repression. For more like this, see also the 1971 Oscar-winning adaptation of L.P. Hartley’s classic The Go-Between, starring Julie Christie.

At the other end of the spectrum, Steven Spielberg is the master of taking the germ of a great literary idea and making it his own for the big screen. First up in 1975 came the superlative, ground-breaking Jaws, based on Peter Benchley’s novel of the same name. Subplots were jettisoned in order to focus on the shark and the result was the first summer blockbuster, and (what was at the time) the highest-grossing film to date. He worked the same alchemy with Michael Crichton’s complex, science-led Jurassic Park and turned it into edge-of-your-seat box office gold: way less chaos theory and a lot more T-Rex.

The English Patient, chosen by Emylia Hall

The delicate but muscular beauty of Michael Ondaatje’s novel is brought to exquisite life on screen by writer and director Anthony Minghella. Ondaatje’s non-linear novel is treated more sequentially in the film version, but the structural differences feel inconsequential when the story’s heartbeat is so strong. With electric performances, stunning vistas, and a heart-lifting – and heartbreaking – score, it’s simply stunning. I remember watching it in Exeter Picture House as an impressionable 17-year-old and going back into the outside world feeling like something had shifted: I’d witnessed love and loss like never before.

Am I allowed another, with Anthony Minghella as the bridge? Because Minghella also wrote three episodes of Inspector Morse, the long-running series based on Colin Dexter’s novels – and that show is definitely one of the reasons why I’m writing crime today. While I admire Dexter’s spry and erudite novels, the version of Morse I fell in love with was played by the actor John Thaw. While Morse in the books has intelligence, and a number of amusingly curmudgeonly qualities, Thaw’s Morse sparkles with charisma and humanity which makes it my go-to comfort watch.

Fleishman is in Trouble, chosen by Lizzy Goudsmit-Kay

I think it’s rare to find an adaptation that goes beyond the original book and develops the story in new and interesting ways, but this one absolutely does. Perhaps that’s not a surprise given that the author wrote all but one of the episodes! This is an easy watch, full of suspense and tension and has a phenomenal cast. I found it unnerving at times, propulsive throughout and I’d very much encourage you to watch it (on DisneyPlus in the UK at the moment!).

Minority Report, chosen by Katie Khan

Screen adaptations of Philip K. Dick’s stories have a great hit rate for me – I was going to choose Blade Runner for this list, based on his novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, but while I love both versions individually there are elements in the book I’d love to see in a different adaptation one day. (The neighbour tending his electric animal on the roof! The bizarre Mercerism religion where they climb hills while being hit with rocks!)

Minority Report, based on another Dick novella, comes to life for me on screen in a way it only ever hinted at on the page. Steven Spielberg’s epic movie starring Tom Cruise visualizes a dystopian and utopian future in which crime can be predicted and therefore stopped. It rattles along at a cracking pace – part detective story, part science fiction epic, its prescient production design predicted technology in 2002 long before it became mainstream in our lives; those touch-screen gestural computer screens, spotted quite a few years before the mass production of iPads and tablets? Personalized algorithmic advertising? Smart!

We have the ubiquitous dystopian theme – can those in power be trusted with it? – and a detective (the excellent and ambiguous Colin Farrell) going after the truth like a dog with a bone; a wronged man being framed who must clear his name, who happens to be a flawed hero with a drug problem; a moral dilemma, and the popular mysticism seen in so much great science fiction and fantasy (think ‘the Force’ in Star Wars): the three pre-cogs of Minority Report, lying in a quasi-religious birthing pool (aptly called ‘the Temple’) lost to our world as they lie stricken, visualising the future.

The Shawshank Redemption, chosen by Josie Humber

Adapted from Stephen King’s novella, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, I always think short stories and novellas make for the best film adaptations, because they allow filmmakers to add colour and depth to the original work, rather than forcing them to make cuts to the much-loved source material. In fact, three out of the four novellas in the same Stephen King collection were made into films, including the cult coming-of-age classic, Stand By Me.

Daisy Jones and the Six, chosen by L.R. Lam

I’m fascinated by how the Amazon Prime series moved from a device-heavy novel by Taylor Jenkins Reid to a fully immersive, documentary-style TV show, and how it’s grown a whole new life of its own. The production hired actors who could really perform as musicians, so now there’s real music from this fictional band – and rumours they might even tour. The titular character being played by Elvis Presley’s granddaughter added a whole other layer.


Starship Troopers, chosen by Craig Leyenaar

The novel is a classic work of science fiction that perhaps hasn’t aged hugely well, but has its own merits. The film version is a satire that completely subverts the meaning and intention of the novel while remaining beautifully true to the story and characters. It’s incredibly well done and just a hugely fun film I can watch over and over again. ‘Would you like to know more?’

The Notebook, chosen by Tash Barsby

Like presumably every other person who was a teenager (or even just a sentient being) when this film was released in 2004, I completely lost my heart to The Notebook, the adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’s 1996 romance novel starring Ryan Gosling (both bearded and clean-shaven, swoon) and Rachel McAdams. It’s a beautifully structured story with a heartbreaking concept – everything from the cast, the chemistry, the setting, the random split-second cameo of Dan from One Tree Hill* won me over. This is a film I have watched hundreds of times since, and I defy you not to cry at least three times.

*I did warn you I was a teenager when it came out.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, chosen by Mahsuda Snaith

Fear and Loathing is the only film adaptation that neither disappointed me nor felt better than the book. The crazed world Hunter S Thompson created in his fictionalised account was splashed across the screen with a vibrancy that immersed me in the viewpoint of the main character and felt as real (and surreal) as the original text.

Brooklyn, chosen by Libby Page

I love both the film and book of Brooklyn by Colm Toibin equally. It’s so subtle and beautifully observed – plus Saoirse Ronan can do no wrong in my eyes. A heart-aching romance with an evocative setting.

The Lord of the Rings, chosen by Tasha Suri

There is no book-to-film adaptation like the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. I remember watching The Fellowship of the Ring in the cinema and falling in love with the way it captured the strangeness, majesty, magic – and warm friendship and humanity – of the books, and of fantasy as a genre.

Little Women, chosen by Alice Kuipers

I went with my daughter to see Greta Gerwig’s adaptation, starring Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Timothée Chalamet and Meryl Streep, which my daughter had also read. Connecting with her through the movie and the book was a wonderful way to share a story. I loved the film differently from how I loved the books, as did she, and we both found the movie layered and lovely.

Winter’s Bone, chosen by Francine Toon

Based on the novel of the same name by Daniel Woodrell, the film captures the novel’s bleak Ozark setting brilliantly, as well as the slow-burn sense of mystery. A young Jennifer Lawrence gives a fantastic performance as teenager Ree Dolly, trying to track down her missing father.

Do you have a favourite book-to-screen adaptation? Let us know by tweeting us @thenovelry on Twitter.

Members of The Novelry team

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