Note: I intend to update this article as I discover new shows that fit the description. If you have recommendations for shows that should be on here, then please let me know and I’ll check them out.
Anime often draws inspiration from existing media, but usually those are sources closely related to the anime scene. Light novels and manga being popular examples of such. However, there are series out there that adapt stories from all around the world, tales that are popularly considered to be classics of literature.
As a somewhat arbitrary categorization, I am dividing these anime by “close” adaptations and “loose” adaptations. The former are anime that are either literal translations of the original story or at least a close interpretation of them. Loose adaptations, meanwhile, take inspiration and whole elements from classic literature, but are doing their own thing with them.
Andersen Douwa Ningyo Hime: An anime adaptation of H.C. Andersen’s The Little Mermaid that predates its Disney counterpart by a decade and a half. Noteworthy is that this movie retains Andersen’s original story, making it more of a bittersweet romantic tragedy instead of the fantasy romance that Disney created. A solid recommendation for those who like old fairytales.
In The Beginning: Bible Stories: Making an anime about the bible is no easy feat, making it all the more surprising just how well Tezuka Productions succeeded. In The Beginning is a beautiful, entertaining, and comprehensive take on the Old Testament. It does take some liberties by expanding on the characters and setting, but it stays well within the spirit of the original work and mostly does so to make the story more relatable. With that said, In The Beginning does aim for a very young audience, leading to some comedic asides that older and more serious viewers may find obnoxious.
The Diary of Anne Frank: Not so much a movie about the diary itself as it is about the process of making it. This 1995 feature by Studio Madhouse covers the final years of Anne Frank’s life as described in her diary. Her perspective on the war as a persecuted person hiding in an occupied country is a vital piece in understanding the tragedy of the second world war. This movie does a great job at bringing her story to animation, though I’d still recommend reading the original before or afterwards to get a more complete picture.
Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo: An artsy sci-fi anime that acts as a wild reimagining of the 19th century drama novel “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas. This anime is particularly interesting, as it still largely follows the plot of the book in spite of its many changes. It proves that you can add mechs, space-travel, and architecturally-impossible mega-structures to a story, yet still capture the same essence and emotions the original author intended. It’s a phenomenal work.
Entaku no Kishi Monogatari – Moero Arthur: A hilarious attempt by Toei to recount the sagas of King Arthur, which ends up becoming nearly unintelligible when translated to a shounen anime. It attempts to be somewhat serious, but its stilted animation and a total lack of logical cohesion turn it into a comedy. You end up with action scenes where arrows knock over entire trees or soldiers are handed their armor folded up like a T-shirt. Hilarious if you go into it with the right mindset, but utterly useless as a retelling of the stories of King Arthur
The Secret of Cerulean Sand: The inspiration for today’s list, The Secret of Cerulean Sand isn’t quite an adaptation of any one novel. It’s an original adventure story heavily inspired by Into the Niger Bend and The City in the Sahara by Jules Verne. It tells its own original story, but borrows elements and one major character from these books.
The Secret World of Arrietty: A fairly well-known Ghibli movie that was actually inspired by the 1952 fantasy story “The Borrowers” by Mary Norton. The film follows the same basic concept of minuscule people trying to survive in a world created for our kind, and the troubles that arise when Borrowers encounter normal people, whom they refer to as “beans”. The Secret World of Arrietty gives this 20th century novel the Ghibli make-over and tells its own original story, which also entails moving the characters to the Japanese countryside as opposed to old-timey England.