Meryl Streep’s 10 Best Book-Based Movie Roles

Meryl Streep/Photo © Denis Makarenko/Shutterstock

Meryl Streep is a peerless talent. Her on-screen presence is nearly indescribable. She is at once stunningly powerful yet intimately vulnerable, and her uncanny ear for accents as well as the way she immerses herself completely into a role are universally acknowledged and revered. From her first major role in 1978’s “The Deer Hunter,” she announced her talent and versatility with a kind of grace that’s stood at the center of every project since. It’s served her remarkably well. Her Golden Globe nod for her role in “Florence Foster Jenkins” puts her at a record-setting twenty-nine Golden Globe nominations. To put that into perspective, those twenty-nine nominations make up just over one third of her total screen credits. Her also-record-setting Oscar run – at nineteen nominations – is equally as impressive, if not more so. Incidentally, her Oscar nominations mark a quarter of her total screen credits and her three Oscar wins puts her just behind one of her idols, Katharine Hepburn, who took home an unmatched four acting trophies.

Like many other great actors, Streep’s career has a strong literary underpinning. Adaptations make up a significant portion of her cinematic output. To celebrate her Cecil B. DeMille Award for Outstanding Contributions to the World of Entertainment at last night’s Golden Globe Awards, we’ve pulled together her ten best adaptation roles. And given that adaptations make up more than half of her Golden Globes nominations (and quite a bit more of her Oscar nods), each of these roles was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Oscar.

  • “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979)

  • The cover of the book Kramer vs. Kramer

    Kramer vs. Kramer

    Based on the Avery Corman book of the same name, Meryl Streep won her first Academy Award and Golden Globe for this role. In a role that should have been a difficult one with which to garner sympathy (a mother abandons her child), and with her relatively scant prior screen time, Streep nonetheless turned in a heartbreaking and nuanced performance that raised truly intriguing questions about the changing roles of women in society. It remains one of her best performances – possibly in her top three – to date.

  • “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (1981)

  • The cover of the book The French Lieutenant's Woman

    The French Lieutenant's Woman

    This role would mark Streep’s second Golden Globe win and her third Oscar nomination. Based on the thought-to-be-unfilmable novel by John Fowles, “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” was a perfect showcase for Meryl Streep’s versatility. The meta-structure tracing two stories – one of a Victorian affair and the other of the modern filming of the story – allowed Streep to show off her remarkable and varied skillset in the dual performance.

  • “Sophie’s Choice” (1982)

  • The cover of the book SOPHIE'S CHOICE


    Arguably Meryl Streep’s greatest single performance, her role as the titular Sophie in this adaptation of William Styron’s novel was career-defining. It featured all the hallmarks of her best performances – the commanding screen presence, the nuanced vulnerability, the complete immersion into a character, the perfect accent. Her performance was a ferocious testament to her talent. The role earned her both the Oscar and the Golden Globe. The ultimate scene – the choice – is an emotionally shattering experience and Meryl Streep is heartbreaking.

  • “Out of Africa” (1985)

  • The cover of the book Out of Africa

    Out of Africa

    and Shadows on the Grass

    Loosely based on the memoir Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (pen name of Karen Blixen), “Out of Africa” was a controversial Best Picture and hasn’t aged particularly well – although the cinematography is gorgeous. Still, it is one of Streep’s essential performances. Beneath the elegance, poise, and stoicism that defines the role of Karen Blixen, Streep managed to tease out a deep emotional and passionate core that underscores the entire film.

  • “Ironweed” (1987)

  • The cover of the book Ironweed


    This adaptation of William Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel paired Streep with another awards season heavyweight, Jack Nicholson. The film tells the story of an alcoholic homeless couple during the Great Depression and Streep brilliantly embodies the bone-deep weariness and pain that is completely mesmerizing.

  • “Postcards from the Edge” (1990)

  • The cover of the book Postcards from the Edge

    Postcards from the Edge

    Based on the book of the same name by the late Carrie Fisher – who also penned the script – “Postcards from the Edge” is the semi-autobiographical tale of an actress recovering from drug addiction and an overdose. The role allowed Streep to showcase her comedic talents in a performance that is at once raucous, vulnerable, paranoid, and self-assured (basically all the contradictions that made up Carrie Fisher). Watching Meryl Streep square off with Shirley MacLaine, who plays her mother, is just the icing on this cake.

  • “The Bridges of Madison County” (1995)

  • The cover of the book The Bridges of Madison County

    The Bridges of Madison County

    Clint Eastwood’s 1995 film, based on the novel by Robert James Waller, is one of the rare instances of an adaptation improving on the novel. It recounts an ill-fated 1965 affair between a plaintive housewife and a National Geographic photographer (Eastwood). While Eastwood and Streep have surprisingly affecting chemistry, it’s Streep’s ability to move seamlessly from loneliness to giddy infatuation and finally a resolute if mournful sense of duty that truly lifts the film. And, of course, she pulls a spot-on Italian accent.

  • “Adaptation.” (2002)

  • The cover of the book The Orchid Thief

    The Orchid Thief

    A True Story of Beauty and Obsession

    In a role that brought home yet another Golden Globe win, Meryl Streep manages to stand out against the wonderful weirdness of “Adaptation.” She plays author Susan Orlean with an unassuming and effortless charm. It’s clear that she’s having fun in the role and with it marked the start of her resurgence (not that she ever really went away) in the early 2000s to the present. The film is based on The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean.

  • “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006)

  • The cover of the book The Devil Wears Prada

    The Devil Wears Prada

    A Novel

    In yet another Golden Globe win, Streep absolutely dominated the screen and showed her remarkable ability to make a movie arguably better than it had any right to be. In “The Devil Wears Prada,” based on the novel by Lauren Weisberger, Miranda Priestly (a thinly veiled Anna Wintour) should have been a monster, but Streep’s incredibly precise and carefully controlled performance layered a hint of sympathy beneath the icy veneer.

  • “Julie and Julia” (2009)

  • The cover of the book My Life in France

    My Life in France

    Full disclosure: This one might be my personal favorite Meryl Streep role, as she completely channeled Julia Child from the way she carried herself to her unending curiosity and gleeful love of food. Her performance was perfect. Frankly, I couldn’t help but wonder why they didn’t just fully adapt My Life in France (Child’s wonderful memoir and partial inspiration for the film) rather than melding it with the memoir from Julie Powell that provided the film’s name. Streep’s chemistry with Stanley Tucci is nearly enough reason to have considered it. Don’t get me wrong, I love Amy Adams – but Meryl Streep absolutely stole the show in this one.