Greatest Characters of the Last Twenty Years

Entertainment Weekly, or the Bible as it’s called in my house, recently listed the Top 100 Greatest Characters of the Last Twenty Years

As its title indicates, Entertainment Weekly concerns itself with entertainment generally: movies, television, music, the interwebs, theater, and, yep, books.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the bulk of their hundred greatest characters were known from movies and TV.  Omar Little, Cosmo Kramer, Buffy Summers, Lorelai and Rory Gilmore, Homer Simpson.  Hard to argue with most of the choices.

Omar LittleThe list did acknowledge a few literary characters, but most of those were discussed in terms of their dual identities, existing both on the page and in film, such as Dexter Morgan, Bridget Jones, and Harry Potter. 

But as I perused the article, I was struck by how many of the TV and movie characters actually originated in novels and short stories.  My first instinct was critical.  Why, I asked, did the magazine make only brief mention of the original works while reserving celebration for the filmed or televised version of the character?  Why didn’t EW discuss both the literary and films versions, as the article did, for example, with Bridget Jones?

I realized, however, that as much as we readers like to say that adaptations “destroy” our favorite books, sometimes actors, directors, and screenwriters create something entirely new from literary inspiration, or at least sufficiently unique to take on new life.  When I think of Red from the Shawshank Redemption and Annie Wilkes from Misery (who both made the list), I think of Morgan Freeman and Kathy Bates, not the works of Stephen King in which they first appeared.


I confess that I had forgotten that some of my favorite characters had literary predecessors.  I can’t imagine Tracy Flick, for example, apart from Reese Witherspoon’s interpretation of her.

Forrest Gump, in my mind, looks and sounds forever like Tom Hanks.

And, with all due respect to Candace Bushnell, when most of us hear Carrie Bradshaw, we think (for better or worse) of TV Carrie, not book Carrie.

BetterWay worse


Some adaptations stray so far from their source material as to be unrecognizable.  I’m told, for example, that the novel upon which Up in the Air was based did not have either of the two female characters who taught George Clooney so much about life.  Many people did not realize that the film O Brother, Where Art Though? was based on Homer’s Odyssey until the Academy nominated the screenplay for best adaptation.  In our own genre, I can’t be the only Michael Connelly reader who was, shall we say, surprised at filmmaker Clint Eastwood’s take on the character Buddy.

Two questions for discussion, one with subparts:

1) Who are your favorite literary characters of the last twenty years?

2) And which translations of literary characters to TV or film have been most horrific, accurate, or even improvements on the originals?

34 thoughts on “Greatest Characters of the Last Twenty Years

  1. Chris Hamilton

    Always dug Robert B. Parker, so if you put Joe Montegna in Robert Urich’s body, you’d have a reasonable facsimile of Spenser. Robert Urich wasn’t right for the part. Montegna was, but he looked like he couldn’t fight his way out of a paper bag.

    Avery Brooks, on the other hand was exactly as I imagined Hawk.

  2. Alafair Burke

    I think I’ve watched the Toy Story / Wire mash up at least ten times. I love the Omar reference at the very end. Oh yeah, baby, to Cole, Pike, and Spenser. I love me some Kinsey Millhone.

  3. Neil Nyren

    One of the great reasons for the success of the Larsson books is the character of Lisbeth Salander, and the woman who plays her in the Swedish DRAGON film is just brilliant. I’m very much looking forward to the release here of the Swedish FIRE this fall (and somewhat dreading the Hollywood remake of DRAGON…).

    My least favorite book-to-film is somewhat personal. Eleven years ago, there was a TV movie of one of Sandford’s Prey novels, the one and only film adaptation of those books so far. Lucas Davenport is, of course, a big, dangerous, sexy wild card of a character. The actor who played him was Eriq La Salle. For those who don’t recognize the name, he was the uptight, laconic, not terribly sympathetic black doctor in the early years of ER. Noone could have been further from Lucas Davenport and the result was just terrible. The unfortunate promo line for the TV movie was "The line between good and bad just disappeared." And, yes — yes, it did.

    And a note for David at the top of the comments list: Next January is Robert Crais’s new book, THE SENTRY, a Joe Pike novel. It’s hella good.

  4. anonymous

    Part 1)

    Harry Bosch

    Kinsey Millhone

    Kay Scarpetta

    Cadence Moran (gotta love a blind woman who can fly a plane)

    Madeline Dare (the F-word jockey with a string of pearls)

    Hayden Glass (the new Harry Bosch)

    Part 2)

    Atticus Finch…….Gregory Peck

    Boo Radley…. Robert Duvall

    Spartacus……….Kirk Douglas

    Sempronius Gracchus………..Charles Laughton

    John Singer (The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter)….Alan Arkin

    Prof. Humbert Humbert………James Mason

    Lisbeth Salander……..Noomi Rapace

    Hercule Poirot……….David Suchet

    Sherlock Holmes……….Jeremy Brett

  5. Robert Gregory Browne

    You mention the character of Buddy from Eastwood’s version of Blood Work. What I found hilarious is that in a subsequent book, the character complains about his portrayal in the Eastwood movie. One of those wonderful moments where fiction meets reality.

    Oh, and every time I see that photo of the Sex and the City girls in the desert, I want to puke. I actually liked the series. But that movie just looks sooooo awful.

  6. Barbara

    I tend to switch between classics and modern works so a character created 100 years ago might be new to me, but for those created in the last 20 years, just off the top of my head:
    Madeline Dare
    Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (I’d still love to see Alienist/Angel of Darkness films)
    Lisbeth Salander

    "O, Brother" has a special place in my heart because it’s the first film I saw with my husband, though "Big Lebowski" remains my favorite Coen Brothers film.

    When it comes to adaptations, I think "The Silence of the Lambs" translated well from book to screen, though my favorite part of the book was not included. The researchaholic I am loved Clarice’s diligent effort to find "Hester Mofet" because it showed so much of her character, but I understand how it wouldn’t work on the screen.

    I think "Jaws" is a better movie than book. The whole Matt Hooper/Ellen Brody near-affair was awful and would have muddled the film.

    Neil: I too look forward to the Swedish "Fire" and dread the American remake of "Dragon Tattoo." I’m also dreading the remake of "Let the Right One in."

  7. Rae

    Favorite literary characters? Jack Reacher and Elvis Cole, hands down.

    Best translation to film? Not crime fiction, but The Devil Wears Prada for sure. I tried to read the book after seeing the movie, and it was a hot throw-against-the-wall mess 😉

  8. Judy Wirzberger

    I can never wait to spend time with Elvis Cole and Joe Pike but mostly with Cat. And hands stirring the pot – Merrill Street as Julia. However, I’m waiting to see The Last Child to see who plays the marvelous Johnny Merriman and who but Michael Clarke Duncan could play the giant of a man escaped convict.

  9. Alafair Burke

    We haven’t seen the Swedish film for DRAGON but I hear it’s fantastic. Gotta track it down.

    As much as I want the Reacher films to come together for the sake of his creator, Lee Child, part of me does wonder whether anyone would could possibly measure up to expectations.

    I also really enjoyed the reference to the Blood Work film in the Scarecrow. Michael Connelly’s so good at planting those kinds of subtle rewards for long-term readers.

  10. Mike Dennis

    Best character of the last 20 years: no single character stands out, although several come close.

    Best translation to film: THE GRIFTERS (1990/Stephen Frears from 1963/Jim Thompson). Perfectly cast, faithful to the original, Thompson’s vision intact after Hollywood tinkering.

  11. Karen in Ohio

    Lincoln Rhymes
    Spenser and Hawk
    Stephanie Plum’s Grandma Mazur
    Max & Annie Darling
    Amelia Peabody and Emerson
    Temperance Brennan
    Claire Randall Fraser and Jamie Fraser

  12. Alafair Burke

    Karen, Thanks for including Grandma Mazur. Maybe I’ll blog separate down the road about supporting characters. Everyone needs a sidekick. Okay, everyone except Reacher.

    Mike, I love THE GRIFTERS and confess I’ve not read the book. Has anyone seen Killer Inside Me? How is that adaptation?

  13. Karen in Ohio

    For some reason the second part of my post wouldn’t go through before. Had to reboot! Bizarre gremlins in my system, maybe.

    Part 2:

    Harry Potter movies–the first ones were so true to my own imagination, I was astonished. The same goes for the BBC version of Pride & Prejudiced.

    The original book "Sex and the City" was nothing like either the show or the movies. Carrie was not the main character in the book, and she was especially not the narrator. I read the book after having seen a couple of seasons on DVD, so that was a little weird.

  14. Charles Dowdy

    Lonesome Dove from page to screen was very well done and Augustus and Call were great characters on the page and on the screen.

  15. Susan Shea

    Crime characters original or from book to film –

    Loved seeing Omar’s picture at the top – Michael K. Williams brought to life one of the most memorable characters dug deeply and substantively into the best t.v. series ever made.

    Don Cheadle as Mouse in Devil in a Blue Dress – shockingly good. Denzel wasn’t too shabby at Easy Rawlins, either.

    Literary books to film-

    Well, I’m going with Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice and Emma Thompson as Elinor in Sense and Sensibility.

    This could take years – I keep thinking of more!

  16. Robert Carrahet

    Without a doubt my favorite literary characters (I’ll limit myself to the last 10-15 years and to "serials"), Harry Bosch (Connelly), Ez Rawlins (Walter Mosley) Elvis Cole (Crais)Gideon (Eric Jerome Dickey)Jason Bourne. I think only Bourne and Rawlins have made it into film. EZ Rawlins was well done by Denzel Washington, and I hear his voice as Rawlins in all the subsequent books. Tom Hanks was great as Forrest Gump, but the book and the movie might as well be two different works. Clint Eastwoods take on Buddy in Bloodwork was a twist for the film and worked well, but didn’t take into account that the author (Connelly) hadn’t killed him off! Again, two different works.

  17. Jen Forbus

    I’m another one in the Elvis Cole/Joe Pike camp, but I have to add to that: Dave Robicheaux, Lincoln Perry, Mike Chapman (Linda Fairstein), Ellie Hatcher, Walt Longmire & Vic Moretti, John Ceepak, Moe Prager and Jack Taylor…whew.

    I’m a nasty critic when it comes to adaptations of books I love. However, I agree with whoever mentioned Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. I read the book many times before seeing the movie and loved Peck as Atticus. I also loved Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby and Collin Firth as Mr. Darcy. I liked Ed Harris in GONE BABY GONE even though I wasn’t very fond of the movie. And Russell Crowe for A BEAUTIFUL MIND was brilliant. There’s a movie called SIMON BIRCH, which is a reprehensible representation of A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY. They never should have even mentioned a connection between the two. But the saddest part is that I thought the casting was magnificent.

  18. Robert Gregory Browne

    As for adaptations, I’ve always felt the film adaptation of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS was far superior than the book itself. And I read the book first.

    Hannibal Lecter is, of course, an amazing character, but I think Harris’s best book by far was RED DRAGON, and the movie adaptations were pale in comparison.

  19. Karen in Ohio

    Thought of another one: Last of the Mohicans.

    Daniel Day Lewis was downright heroic as the Pathfinder, so much so that I ferreted out the whole series of Fennimore Cooper’s books, and reread them. Bah, what a disappointment! About five minutes of the movie were actually taken from the series, which was pretty damned deadly boring, especially when compared to the movie.

    Definitely different works altogether. In fact, I’d say they should have added at the end: "VERY loosely inspired by James Fennimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans".

  20. Howie Schwartz

    In addition to these nominations for top characters, I was thinking about sidekicks who make the story better and when they don’t appear, you are disappointed. My favorites include Clete Purcell (James Lee Burke) Joe Pike (Robert Crais) and especially Nate Romanowski (CJ Box).

  21. JT Ellison

    My list could go on forever, so I’ll stick with TV adaptations – Dexter Morgan, without a doubt, and Raylan Givens, from Justified, played so perfectly by Timothy Olyphant.

  22. Alafair Burke

    I’m glad Howie gave a shout out to Clete Purcell. I felt a bit nepotistic doing it myself!

    I also liked Silence of the Lambs better on film, but agree that Clarice’s digging was lost in the adaptation.

    Dexter’s another example where the TV show has made a clear decision to depart from the character arc in the novels. I’m a very big fan of Jeff Lindsay’s books, so it’s only serious praise for the TV show and Michael C. Hall to say that I’ve come to like the TV character more than the book character.

  23. Rick Fox

    Book character: Travis McGee, in books by John D. MacDonald. Character in movie adapted from book: Chili Palmer in Get Shorty and Be Cool, books by Elmore Leonard; played on the screen by John Travolta. Cooler on the screen.

  24. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alafair

    Plenty of mentions of Robert Ulrich’s portrayal of Spenser, but Tom Selleck’s rendition of Jesse Stone in the Robert B Parker TV movies is just wonderful. They’re beautifully shot, beautifully acted, beautifully scored mini masterpieces, all of them.

  25. Alafair Burke

    Travolta was great as Chili Palmer! Can’t believe I forgot about that one.

    Zoe, Piece of "what might have been" trivia: for years, Tom Selleck was interested in playing Dave Robicheaux.

  26. Ed in NJ

    Burke from Andrew Vachss’ and Joe Pitt from Charlie Huston’s series are amazing. As are all of the others already mentioned!

  27. PK the Bookeemonster

    A lot of my favorites are from historical mysteries because I read so many of them but I’ll mix it up a little. Favorite characters: Theo and Claudia in Alan Gordon’s Jester series, hunchback Matthew Shardlake of CJ Sansom’s books, I want to have a good conversation with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache (that’s a recent find), Dallas in JD Robb’s books …

    Literary characters to screen: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD in all aspects yes, and I think they got lucky in casting Harry Potter with the kids or crazy smart. Example of a horrible one: Dune from the 1980s. I ADORE that book and series and the movie was so terrible even with terrific actors attached to it. Ugh.

    Hey, did you see the footage of the tornado that went through my town yesterday? I’m on the west side and it hit the east side destroying the roof and so forth of our arena that does concerts, rodeos, arena football, etc. … Billings was on the news and not for hiding a wanted killer or anything. 🙂

  28. Shizuka

    I have too may literary faves to count.
    But best book-to-screen character is probably Sookie Stackhouse.
    She’s deeper and somehow a little smarter in True Blood.
    In general, that show did an amazing job with the storylines
    and I love that they made Tara, a minor character, a troubled young black woman with
    a crazy, alcoholic mom.

  29. Steve Allan

    Favorites over the past 20 years:

    Owen Meany (just over 20 years, but so great he has to be included)
    Stevens from Remains of the Day (another over 20, but so memorable, what’s a couple of months?)
    Jack Taylor
    Katchoo Choovanski from the graphic novels Strangers in Paradise
    Shuggie Atkins from The Death of Sweet Mister
    Socrates Fortlow

  30. Sara

    All hail Miranda Priestly,the one in the movie.

    I’m never going to buy a novel based on a Meryl Streep performance ever again.

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