13 Scottish Books That Need to be Adapted for Screen

Woman floating in water
Category: Reading

Something stands out when you start contemplating the transition of Scottish and Scottish-based writers’ work from page to screen – and that’s how much there is that hasn’t made it yet.

Take a grab bag of our most acclaimed novelists: Glasgow’s James Kelman, Dundee-born A. L. Kennedy, Inverness native Ali Smith, Stirlingshire’s James Robertson and Northern Irish Edinburgh resident Maggie O’Farrell. Count the Costa, Orange, Whitbread, Baileys, Saltire and Booker longlistings, shortlistings and gongs they’ve chalked up between them. Now look for the film and television adaptations. And then… keep looking. What a wealth of rich characters and beloved stories; what a strange paucity of moving-image adaptations!

Could it be that the vast repository of stories represented within Scottish literature is an underused resource for a film and TV industry?

One could argue, of course, that it’s for the best. Very rarely does an adaptation please all the fans of a book, and plenty of cineastes will tell you from the heart that that cinema culture is weakened by excessive dependence on literature as a source. And heaven knows that getting any film or television drama off the ground is a challenge that can confound even the most determined and imaginative makers: an option on a novel is no guarantee that the adaptation will ever surface. Still, just as one can sometimes be driven to wonder if excellent Scottish novels get overlooked by large London publishing houses on the basis that they’re too regional, could it be that the vast repository of stories represented within Scottish literature is an underused resource for a film and TV industry that claims to be ever on the lookout for new ideas?

Tantalising possibilities do shimmer on the horizon. James Kelman’s much-acclaimed new novel, Dirt Road, is being filmed by Scottish director Kenny Glenaan, as Dirt Road to Lafayette. Jenni Fagan has turned her debut The Panopticon into a script, set to be realised on film by Jim Loach (son of Ken). And Glasgow’s Synchronicity Films is developing Graeme Macrae Burnet’s surprise Man Booker shortlistee His Bloody Project as a TV series. And in news from slightly farther afield, A.L. Kennedy’s Original Bliss has this year been brought to the screen in a German language version by director Sven Taddicken. So while we wait for our chance to see these new interpretations, what other works should we be clamouring to see onscreen?

Here are 13 Scottish books that might work just as well on the small and silver screen as the 40 books that made Scottish Book Trust's book-to-screen shortlist.


Poor Things by Alasdair Gray

Gray’s neatest and niftiest novel – a mix of Gothic fantasy, heartfelt romance and postmodern wit - was lined up and ready to go as a movie in 2004, with Robert Carlyle, Helena Bonham Carter and Jim Broadbent set to star. Things didn’t work out, but the potential’s still there for a uniquely Scottish period piece.

And the Land Lay Still by James Robertson

Imagine if some clever gang of folk could get the resources and the talent together to make this majestic portrait of post-industrial Scotland into a screen saga. It could be Scotland’s Our Friends in the North: a loving but uncompromising portrait of what happened here in the second half of the twentieth century, told through individual portraits that would be meat and drink to our finest performers.

The Blue Book by A. L. Kennedy

Kennedy’s hectic, hotheaded novel of real and pretend intimacy might play a lot of tricks on its reader, but with its fake mediumship, frank sexuality and sharp wit, it would make a supremely atmospheric and surprising film.

Hotel World by Ali Smith
Hotel World by Ali Smith book cover

Who doesn’t love interlinked stories set in a hotel? Smith’s first novel, published in 2001, is ready-structured for adaptation, with its neat set of overlapping and symbiotically connected stories. Moreover, it’s got multiple vivid and deeply felt female characters, and we can always do with more of those onscreen.

Laidlaw by William McIlvanney

Supposedly, initial plans to bring McIlvanney’s 1977 prototype tartan noir novel to television were thrown off when the similarly-themed Taggart emerged instead. Since then, a 1990 film adaptation of The Big Man aside, McIlvanney’s oeuvre remains little represented onscreen. Time for a leading light to get his due.

The Observations by Jane Harris

Who doesn’t love ghastly goings-on in Victorian country houses? Especially when they come with salty-tongued characters, complex layers of deception and intelligent overtones about class and gender politics? Harris’s historical romp would make top water-cooler TV or a gripping film.

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

To be fair, a screen version does exist – Memoirs of a Sinner, a Polish film by Wojciech Jery Has. But an English-language version of this most influential and brilliant 1824 classic remains elusive. There’s an extant script, by no less than Ian Rankin. Bring it on!

Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

One could choose any of O’Farrell’s absorbing, elegant and accessible works as a potential movie – she’s one of those writers whose stories you mentally cast as you read them - but the simmering 1976 summer heat against which this family drama unfolds provides particularly intense sensory conditions for a director to emulate.

Buddha Da by Anne Donovan

Faith, family, modern life and ancient moral guidance all come together in Donovan’s warm and well-observed 2003 novel. An empathetic director could make a winning, relevant movie or TV drama out of this material.

Gods and Beasts by Denise Mina

She’s made it to TV with the Field of Blood series, but there’s much more to mine from Mina. This fresh, fiery 2012 thriller would get pulses racing with its mix of murder and motherhood, shady police and self-serving politicians.

The Jump by Doug Johnstone
The Jump by Doug Johnstone

Johnstone’s pacey, accessible genre fiction has a solid audience, but still no onscreen manifestation. This emotionally-charged but still twisty and unpredictable domestic noir would strike a nerve not just with thriller fans, but with anyone who’s parented or grieved.

An Oidhche Mus do Sheòl Sinn (The Night Before We Sailed) by Aonghais Pàdraig Caimbeul

Films drawn from Gaelic source material remain few and far between. It’s time the vibrant modern literary revival of the language found screen representation beyond specialist TV. Aonghais Pàdraig Caimbeul’s rich family saga would be an ambitious place to start, but with its international scope, emotional complexity and powerful characterisation, it’s nothing if not cinematic. Filming it would alert new audiences to the potential of contemporary Gaelic storytelling, as well as paying due tribute to a language culture that deserves to be seen and heard in every medium.

Its Colours They are Fine by Alan Spence

The still-pertinent issue of sectarianism found urgent and poignant expression in this classic set of interlinked short stories. A TV adaptation would reignite discussion about class, poverty and religion in Scotland, as well as bringing timeless characters and stories to the screen.


Have you voted for your favourite Scottish Book-to-Screen adaptation

Voting is open until 5pm on Tuesday 22 November!

Hannah McGill

Hannah McGill is a writer, arts critic and broadcaster based in Edinburgh. She is a former Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. 

Subscribe to our monthly e-updates for book lovers