Ship of Fools outsold every other American novel published in 1962. It was a Book of the Month Club selection and immediately, the film rights were sold for $500,000 ($3,898,240 adjusted for inflation).
Critical reception was mixed. While Mark Schorer of The New York Times and Glenway Wescott in The Atlantic Monthly were effusive in their praise, Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic and Granville Hicks in the Saturday Review were disappointed. Porter herself was never satisfied with the novel, calling it "unwieldy" and "enormous".
The critic Elizabeth Hardwick had this to say about Ship of Fools: "All is too static and the implied parable is never quite achieved. There is something a little musty, like old yellowing notes. The flawless execution of the single scenes impresses and yet the novel remains too snug and shipshape for the waters of history."
The 1965 film was adapted from the novel by Abby Mann and directed by Stanley Kramer. It won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White (Robert Clatworthy, Joseph Kish) and Best Cinematography, Black-and-White. Porter's first reaction to the film adaptation was that Mann had omitted too much from the book, distorting its message. It was also noteworthy for being the last film to feature the actress Vivien Leigh.