While it might seem daunting to most actors to play an established and beloved character, managing audience expectations while trying to turn in your best performance, certain thespians just seem to take to it, for whatever reason. They’re the adaptation all-stars, a team of (mostly British) actors who have conquered everything from Sherlock Holmes to the characters of J.K. Rowling, occasionally dabbling in comic-book films in between. These beloved actors capture the essence of the storied characters they play, becoming a de facto modern version of an adored literary icon.
1. Ian McKellen (Richard III, Gandalf, Magneto, Sherlock Holmes)
The king of all adaptations may be Sir Ian McKellen who, just in the last two decades, has taken on some of the greatest roles in both highbrow and lowbrow literature, and delightfully succeeded at all of them. McKellen’s big onscreen breakthrough was as Richard III, one of English literature’s greatest villains, in Richard Loncraine’s superb 1995 adaptation. McKellen’s charm amid his sinister performance, set alongside 1930s fascist iconography that declared Richard virtually a Nazi, demonstrated his aptitude for making famous characters his own.
That charismatic evilness also proved perfect for his breakout blockbuster role as the villainous but seductive Magneto in the X-Men films. It showed McKellen’s ability to play both high and lowbrow famous characters, which proved useful for his next star turn as Gandalf The Grey in Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy. McKellen was arguably the best part of a very good set of films, as his capricious good humor shifted into powerful heroism over the course of three movies. And for a cherry on top, McKellen recently received superb reviews for his turn as an aged Sherlock in Mr. Holmes. There’s nobody better than Sir Ian for making a beloved character their own. [Rowan Kaiser]
2. Benedict Cumberbatch (Shere Khan, Smaug, Sherlock Holmes)
Since Disney is keeping all of the non-Scarlett Johansson vocal performances from its new Jungle Book movie under wraps, we haven’t actually heard what Benedict Cumberbatch’s Shere Khan will end up sounding like. But although the Imitation Game actor has some hefty paws to fill—George Sanders and Tony Jay being hard to beat in the “deep-voiced, haughty Brits” department—his work on Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit might offer up a few clues as to the route he’ll go. Smaug the dragon might be even more ferocious and deadly than Rudyard Kipling’s famously fire-averse man eater, but the two characters are philosophically aligned: apex predators, whose power and invulnerability lend them a condescendingly regal air. It’s the sort of tone that the inherently aristocratic Cumberbatch could nail in his sleep, and it’s to his credit as a performer that he didn’t, instead throwing his whole body into the role of Smaug.
His devotion to Sherlock Holmes has proved no less intense, although the end result is a bit more muted than a giant tiger or a fire-breathing lizard. While his fellow actors in Sherlockdom might dial into the character’s fun-filled superpowers—as with Robert Downey Jr.’s version—or his naked emotions—as with Jonny Lee Miller on Elementary—Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is a far more guarded creature. Prickly, condescending, and fitfully charming, Cumberbatch plays the great detective as a man in constant, desperate danger of boredom, while simultaneously keeping his few necessary points of human contact at as much of a remove as he can. It’s a smug, charismatic, often irritating performance, one that ensures that Sherlock’s greatest mystery is the man standing at its center. [William Hughes]
3. Christopher Lee (Saruman, Dracula, and many others)
The late, great Christopher Lee was known for starring in multiple franchises throughout his prolific career (how many actors were in both the Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings series?), many of them adaptations. But when it comes to characters based on other media, his filmography goes far beyond playing turncoat wizards and the most famous vampire of all time. He’s one of the few people to perform in several different Sherlock Holmes films as a different role, including a client of Holmes, his brother Mycroft, and Holmes himself. He’s done Shakespeare, portrayed the villain in the original The Wicker Man (adapted from David Pinner’s novel Ritual), and even voiced the miserable King Haggard in Rankin/Bass’ take on Peter S. Beagle’s landmark fantasy work, The Last Unicorn.
But as extensive as Lee’s resume is, what’s even more impressive is the nuance he brought to each part. In the wrong hands, Saruman could have been the stereotypical evil wizard—all gloomy facial expressions and ominous prophecies. But Lee recognized that the character perhaps wasn’t evil at all, just misguided, thus allowing him to convey vulnerability with his performance. Whenever Saruman faces down his ally-turned-rival, Gandalf (fellow adaptation all-star Ian McKellen), there’s a look of fright and franticness buried beneath the hawkish glowering. This is a man so scared of the recent changes in Middle-earth, so desperate to hold on to any last shred of power, that he’s simply gone with the flow, even if that means destroying the natural world and turning on his friends. Such complexity can be attributed to Lee re-reading Tolkien’s books once a year. He also consumed The Last Unicorn multiple times, and probably did the same with Dracula and the Sherlock Holmes series. Lee’s understanding of his characters came not only from being a formidable actor, but a prodigious reader as well. [Dan Caffrey]
4. Natalie Dormer (Margaery Tyrell, Irene Adler/Moriarty, Cressida)
Game Of Thrones has expanded many of the characters past who they were in the source material, and few have benefitted as much as Margaery Tyrell. A large part of the credit goes to Natalie Dormer, who has elevated the character to a new level of resourcefulness and conviction as she moves toward her goal of being not just a queen, but the queen of the realm. Being wife to no fewer than three kings requires a strong head, and Dormer makes it clear that Margaery isn’t only good at this game, she relishes it. It’s hard to think of anyone else in the cast who’d be so poised and gently mocking against such dangerous Westeros power players as Cersei Lannister and Littlefinger. True, she wound up in the dungeon toward the end of season five, but her history indicates she won’t be there for long.
Since then, Dormer’s gift for playing women far more clever than anyone around them has expanded considerably. She had the opportunity to play not one but two legendary figures of the Sherlock Holmes canon in Elementary, when the season one finale revealed Sherlock’s lost love Irene Adler and archenemy Moriarty were one and the same. And in both of the Mockingjay films, Cressida fought the battles of public opinion, frequently with a more ruthless edge than Katniss fought on the battlefield. Whatever character Dormer takes on next, it’s a given that they’re not to be taken lightly. [Les Chappell]
5. Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark, Jean Grey)
In Spring 2016, when X-Men: Apocalypse is released, Sophie Turner will be likely be joining a remarkable club of actors who’ve taken on difficult, famous, and generally beloved roles—and defined their career with their successes. Turner made her name with Game Of Thrones, a show whose survival required casting its morally complex point-of-view youngsters perfectly. While Maisie Williams (Arya) and Jack Gleeson (Joffrey) received deserved acclaim, Sophie Turner may have had the most difficult job of them all as Sansa Stark, whose initial cowardice and misjudgment help damn her family in general and herself to years of helplessness. Yet Turner’s portrayal has always made Sansa feel comprehensible, three-dimensional, and—eventually—powerful, as she begins to transcend the helpless awfulness of her situation and take agency over her life.
When she joins the X-Men franchise, Turner will have the difficult task of filling the shoes of another character worthy of “dream casting” listicles: Jean Grey, the Phoenix herself. Jean presents a very different difficulty from Sansa: she’s too powerful, and needs to hide that power and reign it in. If Turner has the versatility to match the tragic power she shows on Game Of Thrones, she’ll nail it—and become an adaptation all-star, one of many actors to build a career on portraying world-famous characters. [Rowan Kaiser]
6. Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark, Sherlock Holmes)
The superhero’s dominance over pop culture may seem inevitable now, but at a certain level, it was the sheer good fortune of Marvel landing the right actor, Robert Downey Jr. for the right role, Iron Man Tony Stark, at exactly the right time. The parallels between actor and character were perfect: dark hair, goatee, ridiculous charm, the ability to swing between vulnerability and hubris at a moment’s notice. But most importantly, both Downey and Stark share a history of substance abuse, with the former going to prison and needing a blockbuster role to re-establish himself as one of the best actors of his generation. Tony Stark was that role, and Downey was so fantastic as Iron Man that he didn’t just earn himself a sequel, he earned an entire cinematic universe for Marvel’s Avengers—one that he still dominates, with Downey the highest-paid actor and Stark consistently the main character.
Perhaps Downey got a taste for blockbuster adaptations, as his next big role was Sherlock Holmes, in less well-received films. He’s great in the films—his yammering detached genius a wonderful fit for a specific vision of Sherlock—but the films themselves are little more than showcases for Downey’s excellence. For now, however, he seems committed to carrying Marvel film after Marvel film almost single-handedly—but it’s hard not to be curious about what happens to both him and Marvel when he moves on. [Rowan Kaiser]
7. Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen, Mystique)
Most stars use the success of one franchise to leverage their way into another, but Jennifer Lawrence took a different path on her way to becoming an adaptation all-star. After her Oscar-nominated turn in Winter’s Bone both Lionsgate and 20th Century Fox took note of her potential and cast her in their respective upcoming blockbusters, X-Men: First Class and The Hunger Games. Back in 2011 there was no guarantee either film would take off (the X-Men franchise had been dead for a while and YA adaptations tend to be hit or miss), but against the odds they both found an audience, leaving Lawrence in the unusual position of playing two beloved female action heroes at the exact same time. While she’s perfectly serviceable as a younger, less cutthroat version of shape-shifter Mystique, she’ll likely always be associated with the far more dynamic role of hunter-turned-warrior-turned-revolutionary symbol Katniss Everdeen. With the release of the final Hunger Games film last month and the (presumed) end of her mutant tenure in next year’s X-Men: Apocalypse, Lawrence can now move on to tackling bigger and better things; although it’s hard to get much bigger than headlining two giant franchises right out of the gate. [Caroline Siede]
8. Michael Fassbender (Rochester, Magneto, MacBeth)
From his breakthrough role as Irish activist Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s Hunger, Michael Fassbender’s singularly predatory handsomeness has marked him out as the go-to actor for morally questionable antiheroes. (It’s something in the mouth, equally at home in a toothy sneer or gaping in bottomless sorrow.) In the 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre, his hooded eyes made him ideally suited for Rochester, whose conflicted motives pursuing Mia Wasikowska’s innocent heroine informed everything he did. When they finally find the novel’s version of a happy ending (his secret wife dead, his ancestral home burned down, and Rochester blinded), their union comes at the price promised by his pained expression all along.
That doomed desire is the defining characteristic of his younger version of X-Men antihero Magneto in X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days Of Future Past, where the former Erik Lehnsherr’s very real pain at being both a Holocaust survivor and a persecuted member of mutant-kind informed his increasingly monomaniacal crusade to ensure mutants’ safety, by any means necessary. Through all the time-hopping and superpowered smashing of the series, Fassbender’s magnetic imperiousness lends Lehnsherr’s zealotry an undeniable attraction.
So it was practically inevitable that Fassbender would find his way into the role of Macbeth in 2015’s cinematic adaptation, the murderous Thane’s “vaulting ambition” again making perfect use of the actor’s innate gift for playing characters whose desires—while monstrous—are insidiously alluring. [Dennis Perkins]
9. Anthony Hopkins (Hannibal Lecter, Professor Abraham Van Helsing, Titus Andronicus, Odin)
Even before first sinking his choppers into what would become his most iconic role as cannibalistic, erudite serial killer Hannibal Lecter in the 1991 Oscar-dominating adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel The Silence Of The Lambs, Anthony Hopkins had had a long, distinguished career. The classically trained thespian essayed everything from period dramas, to Shakespeare adaptations (including a regrettably shoe-polished turn as Othello for the BBC), to the occasional insane ventriloquist. But there’s a reason why his Lecter became so indelible—Hopkins, like Hannibal, is an inveterate ham. The performance unlocked the next stage in Hopkins’ career, as he quickly became Hollywood’s go-to Sir for twinkly eyed, larger-than-life figures whose obvious intellectual superiority didn’t make allowances for the well-being of those around them. Francis Ford Coppola put some of that Lecter energy to work as Van Helsing in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with Hopkins bringing a monomaniacal glee to his vampire hunter that suggested the good professor’s heroism sprang more from obsession than altruism. Julie Taymor drew on similar qualities when she cast Hopkins in her appropriately lurid, over-the-top version of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. As Roman general Titus, whose unbending pride brings down gory ruination on what’s left of his family (he even kills his own son for disobeying him), Hopkins is the victim and the author of the film’s Grand Guignol climax (complete with Lecter-esque undertones). Then, perhaps seeking the apotheosis of his imperious scene-stealing career, Hopkins took on the king of the (Norse) gods himself, Odin, in Thor. [Dennis Perkins]
10. Gary Oldman (Dracula, Rosencrantz, Sirius Black, Commissioner Gordon)
After starting his career with celebrated performances as real-world figures (Sid Vicious, Joe Orton), Oldman touchingly played one of Tom Stoppard’s Shakespearean also-rans in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Oldman’s ingenuous, ingenious Rosencrantz (alongside Tim Roth’s irascible Guildenstern) is the very soul of Stoppard’s darkly comic vision of us all as doomed supporting players in some self-aggrandizing showboat’s story. Oldman ramped up his signature intensity (opposite fellow adaptation all-star Anthony Hopkins) as Dracula in Francis Ford Coppola’s expressionistic vampire epic. No matter the guise his prince of darkness took (old man, bat guy, or just Oldman in cool hipster shades), the actor’s presence was inescapable. In the Harry Potter tradition of great British actors embodying J.K. Rowling’s suspiciously named guest characters, Oldman gave a soulful performance as Sirius Black (again, managing to imbue his character with an affecting humanity, even when he’s a dog-man). Shifting gears, Oldman turned in a performance of touching, enduring decency when Christopher Nolan tapped him to play stalwart Detective (later Commissioner) Jim Gordon. Even stuck playing Batman’s conflicted confidante, Oldman gave it his all, making the good copper a man as conflicted and, in his own way, compelling as the guy in the cowl and cape. [Dennis Perkins]
11. Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins, Arthur Dent, Dr. Watson)
Since his breakout role in The Office, Martin Freeman has spent a fair part of his career working his way through Britain’s best-loved characters from 20th century literature. The same everyman charm that made Freeman’s put-upon office drone immediately sympathetic has served him well playing three iconic characters who are all, at heart, ordinary men thrust into extraordinary situations. He started small, with Garth Jennings’ underrated The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, in which Freeman kept bewildered hero Arthur Dent believably down-to-earth—as baffled and irritated as most of us would be thrust into a parade of intergalactic weirdness. He then stepped up into one of the quintessential literary everymen, Dr. Watson, a character whose role on screen has traditionally been to be baffled and astounded at the brilliance of Sherlock Holmes (fellow adaptation all-star Benedict Cumberbatch). But in Freeman’s hands, Watson is tough, loyal, smart (when standing next to anyone apart from Holmes), and you have no difficulty understanding why the consulting detective would value him as a friend and ally.
Finally, in 2012, Freeman reached the pinnacle of British adaptations—Bilbo Baggins, in Peter Jackson’s overstuffed Hobbit trilogy. While the director managed to turn J.R.R. Tolkien’s straightforward adventure story into a bloated spectacle (or three), the trilogy’s saving grace is Freeman’s quiet, human performance as the title character, who’s always the best thing on screen, when he isn’t being shunted aside for long stretches of CGI bombast. We’ll likely run out of English literary everymen to translate to film before we tire of Freeman bringing his understated charm to the role. [Mike Vago]
12. Maggie Smith (Desdemona, Miss Jean Brodie, Minerva McGonagall, Wendy Darling, Mrs. Medlock)
In the 1960s, Maggie Smith built the beginnings of an impressive trophy case by bringing storied literary and theatrical characters to the big screen. She earned her first Academy Award nomination for playing the Desdemona to Laurence Olivier’s Othello, then collected an Oscar and a BAFTA as the imperious title character of The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie. The prim, stern, fascism-championing school teacher of Muriel Spark’s novel stands in stark contrast to the fictional educator whom modern filmgoers associate with Smith: Minerva McGonagall, head of Gryffindor house and professor of transfiguration at Hogwarts School Of Witchcraft And Wizardry. McGonagall shares Jean’s severity, but keeps a much kinder heart beneath that authoritative façade (plus the ability to transmogrify into a cat), and from the moment a film adaptation of Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone was announced, she seemed a lock for the role. (Reportedly, she was author J.K. Rowling’s personal choice for McGonagall.) And why wouldn’t she be? Smith has spent the second act of her cinematic career lending her formidable screen presence to the likes of Wendy Darling (in Hook, all grown-up and thoroughly disappointed in Peter Pan) and Mrs. Medlock (the painfully blunt housekeeper in The Secret Garden), putting storybook characters on the same level as the greats of British literature and drama. And besides: Who better to put that little shit Draco Malfoy in his place than Dame Maggie? [Erik Adams]