- Great sci-fi movies not based on books showcase the original storytelling abilities of filmmakers, like George Lucas with Star Wars.
- These movies, such as Avatar and Donnie Darko, draw inspiration from various sources but are not direct adaptations of any singular book.
- Directors like Christopher Nolan with Inception and the Wachowskis with The Matrix, create unique and innovative sci-fi films that stand on their own, revolutionizing visual effects and storytelling.
Great sci-fi movies not based on books showcase the abilities of filmmakers and screenwriters alike. Audiences may be surprised at which of their favorite sci-fi films weren’t lifted from the pages of any existing books. Though the clever concepts and believable world-building of certain films make them seem like book adaptations, film writers and directors have historically crafted original stories at par with the greatest sci-fi books of all time.
While sci-fi films based on books deal with the pressures of properly honoring the source material, movies with completely original screenplays face a different challenge. Science fiction movies have been around for over a century, and nearly every viable sci-fi concept has been explored and remixed to no end, making any original screenplay a rare storytelling gem. This isn’t to say that great sci-fi movies not based on books don’t borrow from literature in some way – this is inevitable for any modern artwork. Even though they’re inspired by the long history of literary and cinematic sci-fi storytelling, these movies have achieved greatness without directly lifting from any book’s pages.
10 Star Wars (1977)
based on classic sci-fi
Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope
- Release Date
- May 25, 1977
- George Lucas
- Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness, David Prowse, James Earl Jones, Frank Oz, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, Peter Cushing
- 121 Minutes
George Lucas drew inspiration from various sources – including mythology, classic literature, and old serials – to flesh out the Star Wars movies. However, Star Wars is not directly based on any literary work. The saga’s foundation emerged from Lucas’s original screenplay, evolving as he developed the narrative. While there are Star Wars books, they came after the films. Lucas prioritized visual storytelling, crafting a space opera that transcended traditional literary adaptations. The iconic characters, like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, sprang from his imagination – not pre-existing written works. Star Wars is a cinematic journey born from Lucas’ vision, and is not a direct translation of any singular book.
9 Avatar (2009)
inspired by environmentalism and indigenous people’s struggles
- Release Date
- December 18, 2009
- James Cameron
- Sam Worthington, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana
- 162 minutes
While Avatar‘s story bears resemblance to films like Fern Gully and Pocahontas, James Cameron conceived the plot and wrote the screenplay himself. The film’s narrative and the world of Pandora were products of Cameron’s imagination, blending elements of environmentalism, indigenous cultures, and science fiction. Unlike adaptations from pre-existing literature, Cameron crafted Avatar’s universe to fit the visual medium of film. While there are tie-in novels and comics, they serve to expand the lore rather than being the source material. The creation of the Na’vi, the conflict with the humans, and the exploration of Pandora all originated from Cameron’s blockbuster-driven approach to storytelling.
8 Donnie Darko (2001)
groundbreaking take on traditional film and sci-fi tropes
- Release Date
- October 26, 2001
- Richard Kelly
- Jake Gyllenhaal, Drew Barrymore, Noah Wyle, Patrick swayze, Jena Malone, Maggie Gyllenhaal
- 113 minutes
Writer and director Richard Kelly conceived the mind-bending screenplay for Donnie Darko independently of any existing literature. The film’s complex narrative, blending science fiction, psychological thriller, and teen drama, originated from Kelly’s imagination. The story of Donnie’s encounters with a mysterious figure named Frank, time travel, and existential themes were crafted specifically for the screen. While there’s a novelization of the movie, it was released after the film’s debut and serves as an extension rather than source material. Donnie Darko‘s enigmatic plot and characters are a testament to Kelly’s original storytelling, not an adaptation of pre-existing literary work.
7 Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)
original sci-fi horror based on American drug cults
- Release Date: 2010 -10-06
- Director: Panos Cosmatos
- Cast: Michael Rogers, Eva Bourne, Scott Hylands
- Runtime: 110 minutes
Rather than borrowing from any book, director Panos Cosmatos wrote the screenplay for the psychedelic horror sci-fi film Beyond the Black Rainbow, one of the best sci-fi movies not set in the future. Based on real psychedelic drug cults from the 20th century, the movie explores themes of control, consciousness, and dystopia. Set in a mysterious research facility, Beyond the Black Rainbow delves into the psyche of its characters through a surreal lens. The film’s atmospheric and abstract elements were carefully crafted for the cinematic experience, without being tied to a pre-existing book or written work. It stands as a testament to Cosmatos’s creative storytelling in the realm of film.
6 Inception (2010)
unique and original sci-fi take on psychological thriller
- Release Date
- July 16, 2010
- Christopher Nolan
- Tom Hardy, Elliot Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Cillian Murphy, Ken Watanabe, Marion Cotillard, Leonardo DiCaprio
- 148 minutes
Director Christopher Nolan also wrote the screenplay for Inception, which is not an adaptation of any existing literary work. The intricate narrative, centered around the concept of dream infiltration and manipulation, emerged from Nolan’s distinct storytelling style. Alongside the plot’s “snowballing effect,” the film’s exploration of dreams within dreams and the complexity of the human mind is a product of the writer-director’s creative vision. While there are books and theories on dreams and the subconscious, Nolan crafted the mind-bending cinematic experience independently. With its iconic, action-driven take on exploring the different layers of dreaming, Inception is an original and innovative addition to contemporary science fiction cinema.
5 The Matrix (1999)
inspired by cyberpunk and classic sci-fi
- Release Date: 1999-03-31
- Director: Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski
- Cast: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss
- Runtime: 136 minutes
Was The Matrix inspired by Grant Morrison’s Invisibles? Morrison has famously argued this to be the case, as there are many similarities between The Matrix and The Invisibles. However, the Wachowskis have maintained that their film’s groundbreaking concept of a simulated reality built by artificial intelligence is their original work. Moreover, the rumors about copies of The Invisibles being used as a reference during The Matrix‘s filming have been unfounded. At the same time, the Wachowskis drew inspiration from various sources, blending cyberpunk aesthetics, martial arts, and philosophical sci-fi – not unlike The Invisibles. Technically, The Matrix isn’t an adaptation, but an original film that revolutionized visual effects and storytelling.
4 The Fifth Element (1997)
inspired by French comics and classic sci-fi serials
The Fifth Element
- Release Date
- May 9, 1997
- Luc Besson
- Gary Oldman, Bruce Willis, Ian Holm, Milla Jovovich, Chris Tucker
- 126 minutes
Even though The Fifth Element may seem like it was pulled directly from a classic sci-fi book or comic, director and writer Luc Besson crafted the movie’s screenplay on his own. The vibrant world, unique characters like Leeloo and Korben Dallas, and the overarching quest to save the universe are original elements of Besson’s imagination. While Besson drew inspiration from various sources, including French sci-fi/fantasy comics, The Fifth Element stands as a cinematic original, not a direct adaptation. Although The Fifth Element‘s look and feel borrow heavily from sci-fi serials, its visual spectacle and narrative richness showcase Besson’s ability to weave an original and visually stunning story for the screen.
3 Dark City (1998)
shares thematic elements with great sci-fi books
- Release Date: 1998-02-27
- Director: Alex Proyas
- Cast: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly
- Runtime: 100 minutes
One of the most underrated sci-fi movies from the ’90s, Dark City is an original film that’s not based on any book. Alex Proyas, the director, conceived the story and co-wrote the screenplay with Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer. The film’s neo-noir, sci-fi atmosphere and exploration of memory manipulation are unique to the trio’s vision. Characters like John Murdoch – along with the shadowy conspiracy surrounding a mysterious city – were crafted specifically for the screen. While the film shares thematic elements with classic literature, Dark City is not a direct adaptation. Its surreal setting, distinctive visual style, and mind-bending plot demonstrate Proyas’s creativity in delivering an original film.
2 Alien (1979)
original and formative sci-fi horror
- Release Date
- June 22, 1979
- Ridley Scott
- Sigourney Weaver, Ian Holm, John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Kotto
- 117 minutes
Alien is an original and iconic sci-fi horror movie not based on any novel or book. Director Ridley Scott developed the concept, which was fleshed out by screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett for the big screen. The film’s tense atmosphere, claustrophobic setting, and the terrifying creature known as the Xenomorph are all products of Scott’s vision. Notably, however, the Xenomorph was inspired by the work of legendary visual artist H.R. Giger, which in turn inspired Scott. Alien introduced the world to the iconic character Ellen Ripley and set high standards for sci-fi horror, showcasing Scott’s ability to create a chilling and suspenseful cinematic experience that remains influential today.
1 District 9 (2009)
original contemporary film that honors science fiction’s social realist roots
- Release Date
- August 14, 2009
- Neill Blomkamp
- Vanessa Haywood, David James, Jason Cope, Mandla Gaduka, Sharlto Copley
- 112 minutes
District 9 has an original screenplay that isn’t directly based on any existing literary work. Neill Blomkamp, the director, co-wrote the script with Terri Tatchell, crafting a unique story of apartheid, alien refugees, and social commentary in a sci-fi setting. The character of Wikus van de Merwe and the challenges he faces in a segregated society are original elements introduced for the film – based on South African history. While District 9 delves into thought-provoking themes, it is not an adaptation of any pre-existing book or literary source. Instead, Blomkamp and Tatchell’s storytelling prowess shines through in this distinctive and impactful sci-fi movie.