29 literary films to fill your holidays


This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

Celebrate the holidays with a literary movie or two, or 29. Our list of terrific literary films includes adaptations from novels, short stories, a comic series, biopics, one documentary and fictional renderings of the writing life. And when we got started, it turned out there were just too many, so we imposed rules: no miniseries or film trilogies -- so no ‘Lord of the Rings’ (sorry). Most important, we picked only one movie per year. Here is our list, going back to 1982.

What would you add? Tell us in the comments.

2010: ‘Winter’s Bone.’ It’s gotten one Golden Globe nomination, two SAG nominations and seven nominations for the Independent Spirit Awards, and while more awards nominations may be on the way, the DVD is already rentable. Based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, ‘Winter’s Bone’ is a portrait of one destitute young woman’s determined survival in the contemporary Ozarks, where family ties are as dangerous as they are vital.


2009: ‘The Last Station.’ Christopher Plummer is late-age Leo Tolstoy, dealing with the competing concerns of those looking to cement his literary legacy and his volatile, beloved wife, played by Helen Mirren. James MacAvoy plays a young aide, providing a window into those of younger generations inspired by Tolstoy’s ideas. Based on the biography of the same name by Jay Parini.

2008: ‘Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist.’ Based on the young adult book by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn, the film takes place over one night in New York City as two strangers come together in an odyssey of music and adventures. Starring Kat Dennings and indie charmer Michael Cera.

2007: ‘Trumbo.’ A documentary on screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, one of the so-called Hollywood 10 who were blacklisted during the 1950s red scare. Trumbo moved to Mexico but didn’t stop writing -- he wrote 30 scripts under pseudonyms and other people’s names, including ‘Roman Holiday,’ which won a screenwriting Oscar for Ian Michael Hunter. In 1960, after Kirk Douglas announced Trumbo wrote ‘Spartacus,’ Dalton Trumbo was again able to take credit for his writing.

2006: ‘V for Vendetta.’ Based on the graphic novel series written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd, the film was adapted by the Wachowski brothers. Set in post-apoclayptic England, it stars Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving as the faceless freedom fighter. With Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry, John Hurt and lots of masks.

2005: ‘Capote.’ Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar for his role as Truman Capote, in Kansas researching his book ‘In Cold Blood.’ Catherine Keener is excellent as Harper Lee, Capote’s longtime friend and author of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ whose presence eases Capote’s entry into the town and the story he would tell. Although it doesn’t quite get at how groundbreaking Capote’s literary endeavor was, the film elucidates his fascination with his subjects, particularly killer Perry Smith.

2004: ‘The Motorcycle Diaries.’ The film is based on a true story, using two books as its sources: Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s diaries and ‘Back on the Road,’ the memoir written by his friend and traveling companion Alberto Granado; it was nominated for an Oscar for adapted screenplay. The film takes place in the summer of 1952, when Guevara was close to finishing his medical degree, as the two friends travel across South America via motorcycle and motorized bike. Of course, when the trip was over, Guevara would be setting off in another direction -- that of leftist revolutionary.


2003: ‘Mystic River.’ The gritty crime novel by Boston-based writer Dennis Lehane was brought to the screen by director Clint Eastwood, who resisted studio concerns about the story’s dark ending. It received six Oscar nominations and two wins -- Sean Penn for actor and Tim Robbins for supporting actor. It’s an American tragedy, with a stellar cast that includes Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden and Laura Linney.

2002: ‘The Quiet American.’ Michael Caine stars in this visually lush, emotionally wracked version of Graham Greene’s 1955 spy novel, once banned in Vietnam and now celebrated there. Caine received an Oscar nomination for actor for his performance; Brendan Fraser is his naive American rival.

2001: ‘Ghost World.’ After making the acclaimed doumentary ‘Crumb,’ director Terry Swigoff brought Daniel Clowes’ comic series ‘Ghost World’ to the screen. The film stars Thora Birch as almost-high-school-grad Enid, features Scarlett Johansson as her best friend and Steve Buscemi as a man they mock who later becomes a love interest. Enid’s disaffection -- a deep boredom punctuated by manic enthusiasm, sincerity riddled with satire -- is reinforced by the cinematography, which makes everything beautiful, except those things that aren’t.

2000: ‘American Psycho.’ Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel finds giddy joy in bringing the misongynistic, meticulous and increasingly homicidal stock trader to life. Christian Bale is freakishly excellent in the lead; Willem Defoe, Chloe Sevigny, Samantha Mathis and Reese Witherspoon make appearances.

1999: ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley.’ Patricia Highsmith’s suspense novel of friendship, identity and covetousness stars Matt Damon. Beautiful European locations? Check. Sexual tension? Check. Intelligent banter? Check. Manipulation, dishonesty and deviousness? Check, check, check. Directed by Anthony Minghella, co-starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchet and Jude Law.

1998: ‘Shakespeare in Love.’ Deeply charming if historically fuzzy, this movie was nominated for a whopping 13 Oscars, winning seven, including actress for Gwyneth Paltrow, supporting actress for Judi Dench and original screenplay (the estimable Tom Stoppard was co-writer). Joseph Fiennes plays the young Will Shakespeare, a struggling playwright whose life overflows into his art. With Geoffrey Rush, Tom Wilkinson and Colin Firth.


1997: ‘Wilde.’ Stephen Fry, funny, gently intelligent and equally tall as the Irish author, may have been born to play Oscar Wilde; he’s perfect in this biopic. Showing Wilde’s exuberance, growing cultural presence and fluid sexuality, the film curves from his successful writing life to the price Wilde paid for his openness.

1996: ‘Trainspotting.’ Scottish druggies have fun until violence, anger and a hallucination involving a toilet make it all too much. Will Renton get out or stay in? The film’s innovative visuals and gleefully punk attitude made it a breakthrough for director Danny Boyle and for star Ewan McGregor. Adapted from the novel by Irvine Welsh.

1995: ‘Sense and Sensibility.’ You can’t celebrate literature on film without Jane Austen, and the Emma Thompson-Kate Winslet version of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ may, for my money, be the best. The ladies are superb, the costumes and setting marvelous but not overly prominent, and Hugh Grant is full of Hugh Grant charm. True, Colin Firth in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (also 1995) may be an even better Austen love interest, but that’s a miniseries, so we’ll save it for another list.

1994: ‘Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle.’ Jennifer Jason Leigh takes the lead as Dorothy Parker, America’s most bitter humorist. The cast includes Lili Taylor as the writer Edna Ferber, Campbell Scott as writer Robert Benchley, Matthew Broderick as playwright Charles MacArthur, Sam Robards as Harold Ross, founder of the New Yorker, plus Wallace Shawn, real-life son of longtime New Yorker editor William Shawn. It also features appearances by Martha Plimpton, Gwyneth Paltrow, Peter Gallagher, Jennifer Beals, Nick Cassavetes and the Algonquin Hotel.

1993: ‘Short Cuts.’ Director Robert Altman brings an Altman-esque ensemble cast to an interwoven L.A. narrative adapted from short stories by Raymond Carver. To me, the most indelible of these story lines is that derived directly from ‘A Small Good Thing,’ with Andie McDowell and Lyle Lovett. Also starring Matthew Modine, Robert Downey Jr., Buck Henry, Lily Tomlin, Tim Robbins, Frances McDormand, Julianne Moore, Fred Ward and Chris Penn.

1992: ‘Glengarry Glen Ross.’ Could there be a more perfect execution of David Mamet’s whipcrack dialogue? Adapted from the play of the same name, the film tells the story of what Willie Loman’s working life might have been like, following a group of besuited, mostly miserable salesmen fighting over tenuous leads. The film’s cast -- Alec Baldwin, Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, Al Pacino -- buffs Mamet’s words to a brutal shine.


1991: ‘Barton Fink.’ John Turturro plays a wanna-be screenwriter in this original Coen brothers feature set in 1941. He’s utterly convinced of his (questionable) genius, which eventually drives John Goodman, the lug next door, to distraction. Hollywood is spoofed with aplomb. Watch for: Goodman thundering, ‘I’ll show you the life of the mind!’ as he runs down a flame-filled hallway.

1990: ‘The Sheltering Sky.’ The ironically titled book by Paul Bowles is adapted by director Bernardo Bertolucci, starring Debra Winger and John Malkovich as the unhappy couple traveling through North Africa with Campbell Scott as their traveling companion and third wheel. Keep an eye out for Paul Bowles, who appears in a cafe scene.

1989: ‘Dead Poets Society.’ Midcentury boarding school boys are inspired by John Keats’ poetry and unorthodox teacher Robin Williams. Yes, that’s Robert Sean Leonard; yes, that’s a young and awkward Ethan Hawke. If you can set aside your cynisim to enjoy its sincere lessons on literature and life, seize the day and watch it.

1988: ‘Dangerous Liaisons.’ Based on a 1985 play that was based on the 1782 French novel ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses,’ this Stephen Frears-directed story of court intrigue allows Glenn Close to be shockingly cruel, John Malkovich to be seductive, Uma Thurman to be naive, Michelle Pfeiffer to be beautiful in victimhood and Keanu Reeves to do some of the best acting of his career -- all while wearing gorgeous costumes. It won three Oscars, including that for adapted screenplay, and was nominated for four more.

1987: ‘Barfly.’ Mickey Rourke stars as Harry Chinaski, the biographical alter ego of Charles Bukowski. The film includes Faye Dunaway playing against type as a down-and-out love interest and Frank Stallone as a musclebound rival. The screenplay, written by Bukowski, includes a Hollywood-enhanced version of the changes literary success can bring.

1986: ‘Gothic.’ Ken Russell brings to life writers Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne), Percy Bysshe Shelley (Julian Sands) and Mary Shelley (Natasha Richardson). They indulge, hallucinate, and great art is born. It’s not the most literal rendering of the Romantic poets on screen, but it has a kind of Ken Russell-saturated emotional truth.


1985: ‘A Room With a View.’ Based on the 1908 novel by E.M. Forster, this is arguably the best of the Merchant-Ivory literary adaptations. Young Englishwoman Lucy (Helena Bonham Carter) and her chaperone (Maggie Smith) make their way to Florence, where Lucy falls for the comparably less repressed George Emerson (Julian Sands).

1984: ‘Under the Volcano.’ Based on the perhaps unfilmable, 400-plus-page Malcolm Lowry novel, tackled by director John Huston, more than 40 years into his career. Albert Finney plays a British consul in Mexico on the Day of the Dead in 1938. Jacqueline Bissett is his estranged wife. There is much drunkenness of the self-destructive, not cavorting, sort. Finney received an actor Oscar nomination for his performance.

1983: ‘The Outsiders.’ S.E. Hinton’s classic novel of 1950s greaser boys forming an ad-hoc family landed in the right hands with Francis Ford Coppola directing. It stars Matt Dillon, C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, Diane Lane and Tom Cruise. Look for musicians Leif Garrett and Tom Waits. Stay gold, Pony Boy.

1982: ‘Blade Runner.’ Quite possibly the best movie ever made that was so utterly unfaithful to the source material, ‘Blade Runner’ lifted key plot elements from Philip K. Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ and then went on to do quite a bit more, becoming a science fiction classic. Harrison Ford stars as the weary bounty hunter Decker, with Daryl Hannah, Edward James Olmos, Sean Young and Rutger Hauer as an android with dreams. A futuristic, always-rainy Los Angeles costars -- maybe we are living in the future.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photos (top): Sean Penn, left, and Kevin Bacon in ‘Mystic River.’ Credit: Merie W. Wallace / Warner Bros.

Photos (middle): Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy in ‘The Last Station.’ Credit: Stephan Rabold / Sony Pictures Classics; Associated Press


Photos (bottom): Emma Thompson, left, and Kate Winslet in ‘Sense and Sensibility.’ Credit: Clive Coote / Associated Press

[For the record at 5:20 p.m., Dec. 21: An earlier version of this post attributed the photo of Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet to Robert Zuckerman and New Line Productions. It was shot by Clive Coote for the Associated Press.]