There are stories that would translate well to movies or television and would become grippingly entertaining films if only they could be done right.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The greatest book by one of American finest authors, Huck Finn has been done at least 12 times on TV or film. Each transfer has the same problems - the story is too complex to be compressed into a movie length and it is told as a children's story. Huckleberry Finn may be a 13 year-old boy but the story is about the stupidity of racism and hatred couched in an adventure yarn. It is as much a children's story as Sixth Sense, meaning not at all.
The first version was filmed in 1920. Probably the best effort was done by PBS in 1985 and it is unavailable in the United States on DVD. At over 200 minutes it has the length to touch the many facets of the story and, from accounts, did not obscure the uglier aspects of the story. Apparently that attention to doing the story correctly (i.e. use of the word "nigger") is what has gotten the film censored in the US. As Peter Salwen notes, Mark Twain was not a racist. The word "nigger" is rightfully considered an obscenity akin to "fuck" or "cunt." But in the context of the story it is as appropriate as the word "fuck" is in the movie Pulp Fiction. The N-word, in context, accurately paints the obscenity that was white society in the southern slave states.
Someone should try again, a mini-series for adults (PG-13). It requires a screen writer, director, and actors with the skills to capture the nuance of Twain's work. It can be done.
Simon Templar aka The Saint is one of the most fascinating characters in pulp fiction (the genre, not the movie). In the stories by Leslie Charteris he is a thief with a moral code, he will only steal from the scum of humanity. The Saint is not above murder if his target is sufficiently deserving. Often inaccurately described as suave, Simon Templar is more accurately cool. Unflappable under duress; audacious in action.
There have been many attempts to bring Simon Templar to film, all have failed. George Sanders did a series of movies in the 1940's and Roger Moore played the part in a 1960's TV series. Most were handicapped by the Standards and Practices censors that dictated a criminal could not be a hero. Simon Templar was a criminal, as just another detective he was a weak copy of Dashiell Hammett's Nick Charles.
The latest attempt at The Saint was in 1997 with Val Kilmer. Kilmer's Templar was a thief, the only thing they got that right. But his character was a confused wuss hiding behind disguises not the bold rogue who proudly leaves a calling card so everyone knows who had bested them. There is some hope. Barry Levinson is producing a television series on the Saint. There is no way to know if he will be the daring Robin Hood of Crime as created in the 1920's or a watered down gumshoe.
Dr. Fu Manchu
Before James Bond faced Dr. No there was Fu Manchu. Before Communist China Fu Manchu was threatening the west. Fu Manchu was the great supervillain of pulp fiction.
Fu Manchu has been a staple of bad b-movies since the silent era. Racist Yellow Peril characters, over the top acting, and under the bottom scripting has been the curse of these movies. The best of the lot has been the Christopher Lee series in the 1960's. Nick Cage "starred" as Fu Manchu for about one second in the Werewolf Women of the SS trailer in Grindhouse.
Fu Manchu could be the James Bond of villains. Take away the gratuitous racism and you still have a larger than life criminal mastermind. There is money in this, boys.