Film Adaptations of 17 Classic Children’s Novels by Women Authors

Mary Poppins Returns 2018

It’s fun and fascinating to watch film adaptations of classic children’s novels. Does the cast of characters match how you imagined them while reading? Is the film true to the book, or does it depart too much?

It’s a good idea to read a book first before seeing a film adaptation. That way, the cinematic visuals and actors don’t interfere with your imagination. Who can ever read the Harry Potter books again without picturing Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and the rest of the actors in the film series?

Film and television adaptations can be helpful for kids who aren’t big on reading. In those cases, having them watch the movie first might be a way to get them more excited about reading the book it’s based on. Then, comparing the film and written versions might spark lively discussions.

For adults who have somehow missed reading certain classic children’s books and don’t want to invest the time (so many books to read, so little time …), the film adaptations can be a way to at least become familiar with classic stories. Though as I’ll point out, some adaptations are much better than others.

Once you’ve watched any book-to-movie adaptation, though, you may want to explore how the film differs from the original material. After all, they are interpretations, and often take liberties.

I’d hate to consider that viewers of “Anne with an E,” which was presented on Netflix, for example, would think that this series reflects the spirit of the Anne of Green Gables books. It doesn’t, but we’ll get to that later.

And now to the list of films based on books intentionally written for children. Many of their film counterparts are meant for audiences of all ages. For more films based on classics by women authors, see this site’s Filmography.

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101 Dalmatians

101 Dalmatians 1996 film poster

The 101 Dalmatians (originally published as The Hundred and One Dalmatians) by Dodie Smith was published as a book for young readers in 1956. The story of Dalmatians Pongo and Missis, and the Dearlys (their humans), became an instant classic.

The intrigue, carried to the screen, involves Cruella de Vil and her plot to steal the Dalmatian puppies and make coats out of them.

The story’s screen debut was a 1961 animated film produced by Disney. The 1996 live-action remake starring Glenn Close as Cruella received mixed reviews; many critics called the remake pointless.

Audiences felt differently, apparently, and there was enough interest to release a sequel in 2000 titled 102 Dalmatians. Once again, audiences seemed happier with the film than the critics, and it did well at the box office.

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A Little Princess

A Little Princess 1995 film

The classic tale by Frances Hodgson Burnett, A Little Princess  was published in full in 1905 after first appearing as the novella Sara Crewe and then being serialized. 

It tells the story of Sara, the daughter of a wealthy man who is indeed treated like a little princess upon her arrival at a posh English boarding school. But when her father goes missing, she is kept on at the school as a charity case, compelled to work as a servant.

Though Sara is abused by the headmistress and tormented by her fellow students, she holds her head high. The story of courage and kindness has resonated with audiences for generations and has been filmed several times, including the 1939 tearjerker (The Little Princess) starring Shirley Temple, a 1986 mini-series, and a lavishly produced 1995 film.

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A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time 2018 film

Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 classic fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time, written for middle grade and up, blends religion, philosophy, mathematics, satire, and allegory.

What’s surprising is that the prolific author had quite a hard time finding a publisher for it — editors thought that the exploration of good and evil was too dark and difficult for children. But in effect, the success of L’Engle’s work paved the way for related works like the Harry Potter series.

Wrinkle was first made into a 2003 television film that got mostly negative reviews. 2018’s star-studded remake, starring Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling didn’t fare much better, though it was commended for casting a Black actress in the role of the lovably nerdy heroine, Meg Murry.

Fans of the book were generally disappointed in this film; I list it here because of all the hype it received. The definitive adaptation of this beloved novel is yet to be made.

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Anne of Green Gables

Anne of Green Gables 1995 film

Anne of Green Gables (1908) the first of many books by L.M. Montgomery and the start of a series, has been adapted to film numerous times.

“Anne with an E” — a 2017 adaptation for Netflix — received mixed reviews, and some viewers even panned it for its somewhat dystopian presentation of the Anne story. It was released at a time when the sunny original was needed more than ever.  One of the best versions is the 1985 two-part CBC series

Another beloved series by L.M. Montgomery is Emily of New Moon, yet another literary orphan who is sent to live with icy relatives in Prince Edward Island. Her character, a plucky girl who wants to be a writer, is one that the author identified with more than the more famous Anne.  This series of books was adapted to a multi-season television series starting in 1998.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find a way to stream the series without a subscription service, which is why I didn’t list it separately. You might see if you can find it at your local library system.

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Bedknobs and Broomsticks

Bedknobs and Broomsticks 1971 film

This movie title needs an explanation, since it wasn’t an actual book title, but rather, the name of the film, which combines two books by Mary Norton.

Her first novel, published in 1943, was The Magic Bed-Knob; Or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons. The books tell the story of three young siblings in World War II London who embark on some fantastic adventures as they seek shelter from the Blitz.

This book and its sequel, Bonfires and Broomsticks, were very popular. Eventually, they were combined and adapted into the 1971 Disney film Bedknobs and Broomsticks, which won an Oscar for best special visual effects for its combining of live-action and animation. Despite mixed critical reviews, it was nominated for four other categories, which might hint at its crossover appeal to adults as well as children.

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Harriet the Spy

Harriet the spy 1996 film

Harriet the Spy, the 1964 children’s novel by Louise Fitzhugh is set in Manhattan’s upper east side. Its 11-year-old heroine, Harriet M. Welsch, already knows that she wants to be a famous writer when she grows up.

To prepare for her ambitions, she keeps a notebook in which she records details of the world around her in minute detail — and which ultimately leads to big trouble. Harriet the Spy became an entertaining 1996 Nickelodeon film

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Heidi - 2015 film

Heidi, the story of an orphaned (of course!) little girl who lives in the Alps with her gruff grandfather and helps him tend goats, is a children’s classic by Swiss author Johanna Spyri, published in 1881.

Heidi is taken to a distant city to become a companion to an invalid girl and longs to return to her home in the mountains.

Heidi has been adapted to film several times, the best known of which are the well-received 2015 Swiss-German film, and the 1937 version starring Shirley Temple. There are far too many adaptations of Heidi to discuss, here is a thorough, if  not complete list.

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Little Women

little women 1994 film

Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 classic, Little Women, was originally written as a “girl’s book” that she thought would be a throwaway. Of course, it has been beloved by generations of readers of all ages. And it has been adapted for film and television numerous times.

My personal favorite is the 1994 movie starring Winona Ryder as Jo March. Little Women has made a statement on the big screen numerous times, from the hit 1934 film starring Katherine Hepburn to the 2019 adaptation with Saoirse Ronan. I have a feeling the latest one won’t be the last.

For thoughtful commentary on  how the book’s film adaptations have been treated through the generations, see this video by Be Kind Rewind and this one from By the Book. They’re both excellent, and will make you want to watch all the adaptations, if only to compare them for yourself!

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Mary Poppins

mary poppins 1964 film

One of the best-loved (if most understood) characters in children’s literature, Mary Poppins grew from a story that its author, P.L. (Pamela Lyndon) Travers made up while minding two young children.

If Mary Poppins brings to mind Julie Andrews’ portrayal of her in the 1964 film, you’ll be surprised by her portrayal in the books as a more prickly and complex character. Still, the 1964 film is an iconic Disney movie musical.

Late 2018 saw a cinematic revival with Mary Poppins Returns starring Emily Blunt in the title role and Lin Manuel Miranda in altered iterations of the roles created by Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke in the 1964 Mary Poppins film. The film, released in time for the holiday season, evidently brought more cheer to audiences than to critics. 

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National Velvet

National Velvet 1944 film

National Velvet is the story of a horse-crazy fourteen-year-old girl, Velvet Brown, who trains her horse, Pi, in hopes of winning Britain’s Grand National steeplechase. The 1935 novel of the same name was successfully adapted to film in 1944 and featured the young Elizabeth Taylor in her first leading role.

National Velvet remains the best-known work by Enid Bagnold (1889 – 1991), the British author not otherwise associated with children’s literature.

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Pippi Longstocking

Pippi Longstocking film

The original three books in the Pippi Longstocking series by Astrid Lindgren have made this Swedish author one of the world’s most-translated, with 144 million copies worldwide. The story plunges the reader into the adventures of Pippi, a nine-year-old pigtailed redhead with superhuman strength.

Pippi Longstocking was first made into a Swedish film in 1969, and was actually a compilation of the Swedish TV series episodes. It was released in the U.S. in 1973. Pippi in the South Seas debuted in 1970. The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking, which came out in 1988, was a Swedish-American joint venture.

All of the films received mixed reviews from adult critics, though they’re fine — and fun — for kids. Still, it’s best to start with the hilarious books, which have been entertaining young readers for generations.

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Pollyanna 1960 Disney film starring Hayley Mills

The 1913 novel Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter (1868 – 1920)  is perhaps less familiar now than the lasting expression that grew from its sentimental story. The first film adaptation appeared in 1920 with Mary Pickford in the title role.

The 1960 Disney adaptation is the best known. Hayley Mills won a special Oscar for her portrayal of Pollyanna. The film departs in some significant ways from the book; still, it was a major box-office and critical success. More recently, Pollyanna was adapted into a 2003 made-for-TV film.

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The Railway Children

The railway children 1970 film

Until the railway children’s father was sent to prison they had lived a conventional existence — watched and looked after every moment of the day. But when the children came to live in Three Chimneys, all these things vanished.

There were no modern conveniences at all, not even running water. But what child cares about such things? What was thrilling for the children was that there was no school and no one to look after them. 

In a nutshell, that’s the best-known book by E. Nesbit, the author of many imaginative books for children. Suprisingly, The Railway Children isn’t even better known, given that there have been several adaptations — two televisions series (1957 and 1968), and a few films, the most recent of which was in 2016. The 1970 film seems to be the most universally acclaimed.

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Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm - 1938 Shirley Temple

When Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm first came out in 1903, a reviewer wrote: “For anyone suffering with the blues one could not do better than to prescribe this last book of Kate Douglas Wiggin, with the certainty that it would effect a cure. The writer may have done better work than this, but surely she never created a more wholly delightful character than Rebecca.”

Rebecca was one of several literary orphan girls of the era, along with Anne of Green Gables and Pollyanna, who won the hearts of dour spinsters and entire towns. It was adapted to film several times — first as a 1917 silent movie, then  again in 1932, before emerging as a much-altered movie musical in 1938 starring Shirley Temple.

More recently, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm was a 4-part television series that aired in 1978.

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The Borrowers

The Borrowers 1997 film

The Borrowers, the first of a series of books by Mary Norton (1903 – 1992) first published in Great Britain in 1952 and in the U.S. in 1954, the Borrowers are miniature humans who live behind the wainscoting or under the floors of big old houses. They survive by borrowing whatever it is they need, as their name implies.

The first film version of The Borrowers was released in 1997.  It’s loosely based on the book, rather than a faithful adaptation, and it received mixed reviews. A Japanese manga-style animated version of The Borrowers called The Secret World of Arrietty, with an all-star Western cast, came out in 2010.

In 2011, a British television film version of The Borrowers premiered. I suspect we haven’t seen the last of The Borrowers on the large and small screen, so it may be wise to read the books before exploring these or any future film adaptations!

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The Boxcar Children

The boxcar children animated film

Created by grammar school teacher Gertrude Chandler Warner, the original volume of The Boxcar Children was first published in 1924. It proved so popular that it grew into a series of more than 150 titles.

Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny are four orphans who live in an abandoned train boxcar in the woods. They meet their grandfather, a kind and wealthy man, and when they move in with him, they keep the boxcar in the back yard to continue to use as a playhouse.

The Boxcar Children came out in 2014 as an animated film, followed by a sequel, The Boxcar Children: Surprise Island. Given the enduring popularity of the books, it’s rather surprising that a live-action film has yet to be made.

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The Secret Garden

The secret garden 1993 film

The Secret Garden, the timeless 1911 tale by Frances Hodgson Burnett tells of  Mary Lennox, a sickly and neglected 10-year-old born to wealthy British parents in colonial India. After being orphaned, Mary is sent to England to live with her uncle in a mysterious house.

The tale follows Mary as she slowly sheds her sour demeanor after discovering a secret locked garden on the grounds of her uncle’s manor. She befriends Dickon, a free spirit who can communicate with animals, and Colin, her uncle’s son, a neglected and lonely invalid.

There were two minor film adaptations (one silent) before what is considered the definitive screen version of The Secret Garden  premiered in 1993. Rotten Tomatoes said that it “honors its classic source material with a well-acted, beautifully filmed adaptation that doesn’t shy from its story’s darker themes.”

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