The listicles are already well underway. You’ve probably seen a few of them by now: lists of Hollywood’s upcoming roster of movies adapted from books.
It happens every year, of course. Most major Hollywood studios have long since abandoned any but flimsiest gestures at actual originality; instead, they forage far and wide for some old IP, “intellectual property,” that only needs adapting and, studio executives hope, will arrive in movie theaters with a loyal audience already built in to their business models.
It’s hit or miss, mainly due to two factors. First, most readers are notoriously wary of any and all cinematic adaptations of their beloved books. There’s a quiet sense of sacrilege that never seems to dissipate. Many readers consider movie adaptations of their favorite books with the same combination of horror and dismay an old friend of mine felt many years ago when faced with the prospect of watching David Lean’s “Doctor Zhivago” in a crowded movie theater: “But I deeply, deeply love the book – how can I watch it surrounded by strangers ?”
And the second factor is the varying quality of the adaptations themselves, not as versions of their source material but as movies in their own right. For every perfectly-done work like Master and Commander , Peter Weir’s film version of the nautical world of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin novels, there’ll be a dozen ludicrous Three Musketeers butcherings (Paul Anderson’s 2011 version featured killer ninjas and fighting dirigibles. Sigh.) or so-bad-it’s-funny travesties like Roland Joffe’s 1995 “The Scarlet Letter” (Hester Prynne lives happily ever after. Sigh.) Although stripping a book’s fog and folderol down to a clean three-act cinematic narrative ought to be child’s play for any half-way confident director, they regularly manage to botch the job.
A whole batch of directors get another chance in the remaining months of 2019. One of the first on the roster is Andy Muschietti’s continuation of his movie adaptation of Stephen King’s It . King fans have more experience dealing with uneven film versions of their favorite books than almost any other kind of reader, and they seemed generally pleased by Muschietti’s first part, so the season may have a promising start.
Far less promising, most likely, is Joe Wright’s upcoming adaptation of AJ FInn’s The Woman in the Window . It has a first-rate cast, headlined by Amy Adams and Julianne Moore, but it’s built on a very thin reed of a novel, a thing full of lazy contrivances and flat characters. Certainly there have been terrific movies made of similarly thin gruel – the 1951 adaptation of Quo Vadis comes to mind – but even so, this will be a challenge.
The weakness of the original material won’t be a problem with the adaptation of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch , although big, ambitious book sometimes flounder in the transition. Joe Wright himself was responsible just recently for a borderline-disastrous adaptation of Anna Karenina , for instance, and then there’s Brian De Palma’s mangling of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities . This “Goldfinch” is directed by John Crowley, whose adaptation of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn was a completely lifeless affair, and it stars Nicole Kidman and teen android Ansel Elgort, but the book is such a big and textured thing that it might defeat even the best-intentioned effort.
One of the season’s offerings is anything but big and textured: T.S. Eliot’s tiny little Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats was the basis for a musical staple that’s run on Broadway for the last 350 years. The very idea of making a live action movie of such fluff is so inherently ridiculous it was a running joke in “Six Degrees of Separation,” but lo, such a thing is now actually happening: Tom Hooper is directing “Cats” starring Taylor Swift, and the resulting movie will either be a masterpiece or this century’s “Showgirls.”
And probably the most beloved classic to get an adaptation this winter is Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women , this time directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Meryl Streep, Emma Watson, and reedy dreamboat Timothee Chalamet. It looks like a slick and inviting production, and it’s certainly a book that’s been adapted many times (Katharine Hepburn starred as Jo nearly a century ago), but will it succeed in the tricky double-act of both pleasing old fans of the book and making new ones? We’ll all find out on Christmas Day.
And in the meantime, when contemplating big-screen adaptations, it’s always useful to remember that no matter what my old friend said about “Doctor Zhivago,” our favorite books aren’t really touched by even the worst reduction on film. It might take a bit of will power, but we can just ignore some yelping misfire of a movie – and curl up for the twentieth time with the book that inspired it.
Steve Donoghue is a book reviewer and editor living in Boston (with his inquisitive little Schnauzer Frieda). His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Kirkus Reviews, and he writes regularly for the Christian Science Monitor, the National, and the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette. He is a proud Weathersfield Proctor Library patron.