If you love science fiction movies then there’s a very good chance you also love science fiction books. I certainly do. And of course, one easy way to match your on-screen entertainment to your on-page entertainment is to look to adaptations. Sure, the book is often better, but sometimes a story works brilliantly across both mediums. Ridley Scott’s The Martian is an equal match for Andy Weir’s novel. And I’ll be honest, I hadn’t read Frank Herbert’s dunes before seeing Denis Villeneuve’s recent adaptation, but the movie version finally gave me the kick I needed to dive into the original.
But sometimes I want a similar story or trope without the inevitable baggage of comparison that comes with adaptations. If, like me, you enjoy coordinating your reading and movie picks, then here are five book recommendations based on their parallels with popular sci-fi films. They may have less overlap than a direct adaptation, but the themes, settings, and storylines that connect these pairings resonate in interesting ways (and are fantastic in their own right)!
Back to the Future + Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen
The 1985 sci-fi classic Back to the Future is one of the best movies of all time. Just in case you haven’t seen it yet (seriously, rectify that now), it’s about teenager Marty McFly traveling 30 years back in time in a DeLorean invented by his friend and mentor, eccentric scientist Doc Brown. It is the perfect blend of time-travel adventure and comedy high jinks with a dash of romance. Plus, it features a cool car and an adorable dog called Einstein.
Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen features many of the elements that make Back to the Future so fantastic but with its own unique spin. The book follows Kin Stewart, a time-traveling secret agent from the future who can’t quite remember his past. A botched mission stranded Kin in 1990s San Francisco, and for the 18 years since he has built a normal life with his wife and daughter. But then a rescue team arrives to return him to 2142—where he has only been gone for a matter of weeks, and where a family he can’t remember is waiting for him. Not only is Kin torn between two time periods and two families, but his daughter’s existence is at risk.
At their core, both of these time-travel stories are centered on family. The widespread ramifications and dangers of changing the past are certainly present, but Robert Zemeckis’ film and Chen’s novel are grounded by their emphasis on just a few key characters. While the Avengers use time travel in end game In order to save half of the world, Marty and Kin are focused on saving the people most important to them. Both stories use sci-fi concepts as a device to explore the complexities of family and identity. (And Chen’s novel even has a dog to match Einstein in the furry form of Bamford, a rescue greyhound.)
Love and Monsters + A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World by CA Fletcher
Love and Monsters is a version of the classic “kid goes on an adventure with their dog” tale, but is set in a world where all cold-blooded animals have mutated into large and dangerous monsters. Protagonist Joel has been living underground with a group of other survivors for seven years. Despite lacking the necessary monster-killing skills needed for the undertaking, Joel decides to venture across the country in the name of love with a very good dog called Boy.
CA Fletcher’s A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World is also set in a post-apocalyptic world and includes canine side characters. It’s set many years after an event called the Gelding left most people infertile, resulting in a dramatically decreased world population. Teenager Griz lives on an island with his family and loyal dogs, Jess and Jip. There are few other people left to interact with, but one day a stranger arrives and steals Jess. With Jip by his side, Griz travels through the near-vacant ruins of the mainland on a rescue mission.
Both tales take place in compelling post-apocalyptic settings that provide fun adventure and tense thrills. Each narrative focuses on a sheltered character finding themselves through their exploration of an unfamiliar landscape. Love and Monsters creates a lighter tone with its imaginative mutated creatures, while Fletcher’s almost empty world evokes a haunting melancholic feeling. And perhaps best of all, both stories capture the importance of human-canine relationships—even after the end of the world as we know it, we humans still love our dogs.
Alien + Screams From the Void by Anne Tibbetts
Alien is the definitive sci-fi horror movie. It follows the small crew of the Nostromo, a commercial towing spaceship, as they encounter an aggressive and deadly extraterrestrial life form which picks them off one by one. Director Ridley Scott expertly fuses the science fiction and horror genres, creating a film which is both otherworldly in its setting and genuinely frightening with its scares.
Screams from the Void is clearly indebted to Alien and its Xenomorphs. It is also focuses on a small crew aboard a spaceship, this time called the demeter. They are tasked with collecting botanical life from alien planets (I’m sure you can see where this is going). A dangerous creature sneaks aboard and begins systematically killing the crew. Mechanics Ensign Reina must deal with not only the alien-inflicted carnage, but also her ella’s abusive ex-boyfriend who is trapped aboard with her.
Tibbets clearly mirrors the spaceship setting and violent extraterrestrial threat of Alien in her novel, but her attacker is a unique creation. The stories also have parallels which go beyond these obvious points of connection. For instance, both narratives feature people making stupid choices which lead to deadly consequences, but both also have less obvious horrors lurking beneath the slaughter, specifically the horrors that humans can inflict upon one another. In Alien, this comes with the realization that the Weyland-Yutani Corporation views the lives of the crew as disposable. In Screams From the Voidwe’re forced to reckon with Reina’s experiences in an abusive relationship revealed via flashbacks.
Color Out of Space + The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space is an adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s short story of the same name. A meteorite lands in the front yard of the Gardner family’s farm, and we follow along in the aftermath as things take a turn for the weird. An unimaginable alien life form begins to drive the family to insanity and twist their bodies into grotesque amalgamations. The movie unfolds in the style of a pulpy 1950s B-movie but with truly horrifying Lovecraftian visuals, and at the center of the chaos is Nicolas Cage’s characteristically flamboyant overacting.
While you could just read the original short story, if you are looking for more of a contemporary twist on Lovecraft then pick up Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom. This novella is a retelling of Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” from the point of view of a Black man in 1920s Harlem. It follows hustler Tommy Tester as he is hired by Robert Suydam, a reclusive millionaire, for a scheme involving ancient cosmic entities and eldritch abominations.
Both retellings use cosmic horror to disturbing effect, but Color Out of Space leans into the madcap pulpiness of the genre, whereas LaValle’s novella strikes a more serious, thoughtful tone. He confronts the bigotry and prejudice that characterizes Lovecraft’s body of work by using the experiences of a Black protagonist to explore issues of racism in America, weaving this social commentary into a thrilling tale of mysterious forbidden knowledge and terrifying space monsters. Color Out of Space and The Ballad of Black Tom both provide an ample dose of Lovecraftian weirdness, but in very different, though equally satisfying, styles.
The Abyss + Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant
Between directing Aliens and Terminators 2James Cameron took a plunge to the bottom of the ocean in The Abyss. The movie focuses on a diving team that must join forces with the workers of an underwater drilling platform to search for the wreck of a nuclear submarine which has sunk near the Cayman Trough in the Caribbean Sea. Underwater dangers abound and the team finds themselves face to face (literally) with an alien aquatic species.
Although not about aliens, Mira Grant’s Into the Drowning Deep features underwater creatures in the form of killer mermaids. A film crew sails to the Mariana Trench to shoot a mockumentary about mermaids but something goes wrong and everyone disappears. Leaked footage shows everyone being slaughtered by mermaids, but most people believe it to be a hoax. However, Tory, a sonar specialist and sister of one of the missing crew members, is determined to uncover the truth. She joins a highly specialized crew of scientists who are investigating the maritime tragedy…but they may be in over their heads.
While the creatures that lurk in the depths of the ocean in Cameron’s movie and Grant’s book are very different, with the aliens being benevolent and the mermaids being decidedly malevolent, both stories inspire a fear of the sea. Along with their shared watery settings, The Abyss and Into the Drowning Deep also pair well together because of their exploration of complicated relationships. Both narratives feature an array of characters who clash within the isolated and high-pressure environment—both stories even have an estranged married couple who are forced to deal with their difficult history as unforeseen events unfold in the briny deep.
Can you think of any other books that pair well with these movies or vice versa? Let me know of other potential book/movie combos in the comments, because I’d love to read and watch them…
Lorna Wallace has a PhD in English Literature and is a lover of all things science fiction and horror. She lives in Scotland with her rescue greyhound, Misty.