The Novels Behind 8 Great Movies Are in the Public Domain in 2021

American copyright law changes a lot, but the way things work right now (and have done so since 2019, every book that was published in 1925 has just gone into the public domain.

So yes, just like everyone else, I am excited because 1925 had some great titles; several I’m excited to read. Here are some that you might recognized because they have been made into films…and you know the book is always better.

In the United States, 1925 was the height of the “Roaring 20’s”. People think of it as a happy, carefree time, but there were quite a few serious issues that you will see addressed in these stories.

Keep an eye out for free and very low cost versions of these books as they start to appear, and give it some time.

If you want to know more about the concept of “public domain”, check out this article from The Lois Level, “What does public domain mean?”

Lobby card for the 1926 version of The Great Gatsby . Paramount Pictures, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Lobby card for the 1926 version of The Great Gatsby. Paramount Pictures, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

  1. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

    Yes, it’s a great novel. I’ve taught it a dozen times, and if I were teaching high school again, I’d still teach it.

    I love the closing lines, but I don’t get too excited about the rest of it anymore.

    It’s being in the public domain means that people can write all kinds of spin offs and parodies of The Great Gatsby, so keep your eyes peeled if you are a fan.

The Great Gatsby has been made into major Hollywood films 4 times: 2013, 1974, 1949, and 1926.

The 1926 film is considered lost; all that is left is the trailer. Fitzgerald hated the film, but it’s cool to see how it was put together when it was contemporary:

I definitely prefer Mia Farrow as Daisy.

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2. Porgy by DuBose Heyward

The short novel Porgy was first made into a play by the author and his wife, and later, with the author and George Gershwin, was made into an opera. There is a film of the opera made in 1959, but George Gershwin’s estate has removed it from circulation because they are not happy with the changes, which made it less authentic.

Dee Reese is purportedly working on a revival, so keep your eyes open. At least you can read the book for free…and listen to CD’s of the music!

Porgy was notable for taking a sympathetic approach to the lives of Black Americans even if it was written by a white person.

3. An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

An American Tragedy is a “ripped from the headlines” story of a woman murdered by her lover so he can be with someone else.

Dreiser was a pioneer of the “naturalism” movement in literature. If you see the term “naturalism”, you can count on the story being depressing and centering on characters who have no control over their lives. There is also an emphasis on social commentary, which is of course why a real-life murder story makes the perfect material.

An American Tragedy has been made into films in the U.S. twice. The first time, it was made in 1931, which is significant for two reasons:

  1. It is a “talkie”, not a silent film.

  2. It is “pre code”, which means that the filmmakers could get away with a lot more smut and violence. The “code” also required that people couldn’t be shown profiting from wrongdoing, which is one reason the ends of you favorite books are often changed in the classic film versioin.

    I couldn’t find a trailer, but the DVD is on Amazon.

It was remade in 1951 with Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, and Shelley Winters in a loose adaptation called A Place in the Sun.

4. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

By Maugham, W. Somerset

Buy on Amazon

You are really spoiled for choice with the three filmed versions made in 1934, 1957 (as The Seventh Sin), and 2006.

The Painted Veil (2007)

Starring Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber, Diana Rigg, Toby Jones

Buy on Amazon


5. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

You probably know of the 1953 film that starred Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, but a silent film was made in 1928. The film itself is lost, which you are going to be as sad about as I am after you watch this clip with music and stills.

Of course, the 1950’s version is very 1950’s. Also toned down from the book, FYI.

6. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Back to a more serious note, Mrs. Dalloway enters the public domain in the U.S. It has already been digitized and posted at Project Gutenberg Australia.

Note: To download to your Kindle from PG Australia, scroll until you find the book you want and click on Kindle. Open the download, and a dialogue box will open that will let you download the file to your Kindle wirelessly.

Mrs. Dalloway has been made directly into a film once. In The Hours, the novel plays an important role.

7. Metropolis by Thea von Harbou

Metropolis was written by Harbou with the intention of turning it into a film with her husband, Fritz Lang.

Oh yeah, and it’s set in 2025, so you can see how close we are to their vision.

The film, made in 1927, was one of the first full-length science fiction films.

8. The Wind by Dorothy Scarborough

The Wind is a classic set in Texas that told the “truth” about homesteading…that it can literally drive a person crazy.

The book was originally published anonymously because of the perceived possibility of negative backlash…or possibly a publicity stunt.

I couldn’t find a release of the full movie, but to be honest I snuck it onto this list because it seemed like a good read.

I did find this clip below, and the sound and imagery from this is unnerving enough. The whole film must have been great!

More Great 2021 Public Domain Books

As if all of this weren’t enough, here are a few more books newly in the public domain you won’t want to miss:

The New Negro edited by Alain Locke

This is THE textbook for the Harlem Renaissance. The range of authors and works included is astounding. I most especially appreciate the wide range of genres, including drama and essay.

All of the greats are here: Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, and more.

It’s currently available for free here at Google Books.

Since this book is now in the public domain, it’s legal for you to make your own copies of individual entries for teaching or other use. African American literature can be expensive and difficult to find, I’m guessing because of more limited production, so this is a great resource.

Also, these books by Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, and Sinclair Lewis have entered the public domain this year: