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Best of 2019: 8 of the most memorable book-to-film releases

Books-to-film illo
See your favorite book on the big screen.
(Peter and Maria Hoey / For The Times)

With Oscar season in full swing, a new batch of classic and memorable books has made the leap from page to screen.

Although there are no rules for adaptation, the process at its best recalls the way a musician covers a song. The core of what made the original story special remains, but the results should unearth something new through the interpreter’s voice.

Here are eight noteworthy, literary-inspired films either on their way or recent arrivals. Think of it as a combination of holiday reading list and viewing guide.

Michael B. Jordan, left, and Jamie Foxx in “Just Mercy”
Michael B. Jordan, left, and Jamie Foxx in “Just Mercy,” based on civil rights attorney Bryan Stephenson’s 2014 book.
(Jake Giles Netter / Warner Bros. Pictures)

‘Just Mercy’

The book: Written by Bryan Stevenson, this memoir looks at the civil rights attorney’s work in opposition to inequities in the American criminal justice system. Stevenson is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., a New York University law professor and a McArthur Foundation “genius” grant recipient who has mounted legal challenges to free wrongly convicted prisoners. He published “Just Mercy: A Story of Redemption and Justice” in 2014. “I just want people to see what I’ve seen for 35 years,” Stevenson says, “namely, the humanity of these people on full display.”

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The movie: Much like the book, the bulk of the adaptation directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12”) centers on Alabama inmate Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), an African American pulpwood worker sent to Alabama’s death row in 1988 for the murder of a white woman. It’s one of Stevenson’s highest-profile cases. With Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) advocating against a litany of abuses by law enforcement, the story is part of a cultural legacy that reaches from slavery to the present day. Stevenson’s book avoids tidy Hollywood conclusions, and in coming to the screen “Just Mercy” remains “a damning indictment and powerful call for action,” writes Times entertainment columnist Glenn Whipp.

“The Irishman”
Al Pacino, right, in “The Irishman,” based on Charles Brandt’s true-crime saga “I Heard You Paint Houses.”
(Netflix)

‘The Irishman’

The book: Originally released in 2016 under the title “I Heard You Paint Houses,” Charles Brandt’s true-crime saga tells the story of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, a WWII veteran and hit man with ties to organized crime who claims to have killed labor leader Jimmy Hoffa. Rereleased with a title to match its onscreen counterpart, the book includes a new epilogue that aims to corroborate Sheeran’s claims about Hoffa and the death of JFK.

The movie: Italian-American mob bosses and gangland killings collide with the mythology of 20th century America. Who else but Martin Scorsese could direct this movie? There’s a sense the filmmaker is playing the hits here, with nods to “Goodfellas” and a cast that includes Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro. But Scorsese is aiming for more contemplative territory with a script by Steve Zaillian. Now on Netflix with a 3½-hour running time, “The Irishman” offers plenty to contemplate, including the film’s use of digital technology to reverse-age its veteran cast. It’s already an Oscar favorite.

Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell”
Jon Hamm, from left, as Tom Shaw, Ian Gomez as Dan Bennet and Paul Walter Hauser in the title role in Clint Eastwood’s new film.
(Claire Folger / Warner Bros. )

‘Richard Jewell’

The book: “Richard Jewell” draws from “The Suspect,” by Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen, a November nonfiction release. The book explores how a security guard went from being lauded as a hero after the bombing at Atlanta’s Centennial Park during the 1996 Summer Olympics to being wrongly pursued as the prime suspect. Alexander, a federal prosecutor involved in the original case, and Salwen, a former Wall Street Journal columnist and editor, offer a thorough recounting of failures by federal law enforcement and the media that upended the life of an innocent man.

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The movie: Director Clint Eastwood reexamines this unfortunate, mostly forgotten moment in U.S. history. Eastwood’s retelling, however, could be seen as a less measured account than the book. Olivia Wilde portrays a reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, whose editor has denounced the accuracy of the film and its depiction of the late reporter Kathy Scruggs. Alexander and Salwen served as consultants on “Richard Jewell.”

Ian McKellen in “Cats” the movie.
Ian McKellen as Gus the Theatre Cat in “Cats,” the new film version of T.S. Eliot’s 1939 “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.”
(Universal Pictures)

‘Cats’

The book: Long before Macavity, Bombalurina and Old Deuteronomy became Twitter-famous in the trailer revealing this film’s surreal jump from Broadway to the big screen, these characters lived in “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” T.S. Eliot wrote the collection of poems to his godchildren. Published in 1939, the book has been praised for its whimsical look at cat psychology as well as an occasional satire of 1930s London.

The movie: Eliot’s verses still provide the lyrics for this movie’s indelible songs, while the story adheres to the narrative from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage adaptation. The film version has been interpreted by director Tom Hooper (“Les Miserables) and a galaxy of anthropomorphized feline stars such as Taylor Swift, Idris Elba and James Corden — as well as actress Judi Dench, the London musical’s original choice for the dual roles of Jennyanydots and Grizabella.

Florence Pugh, left, Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson in “Little Women.”
Florence Pugh, left, Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson in “Little Women,” which begins with the March sisters in their 20s.
(Wilson Webb / Columbia Pictures)

‘Little Women’

The book: Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century novel, loosely based on her own life, introduced four sisters — Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March — to generations of young readers.

The movie: In much the same way “Cats” can be seen as a dual adaptation of a book and its famous stage counterpart, so too will the Greta Gerwig-directed “Little Women” be compared with its previous onscreen iterations. Indie filmmaker Gerwig follows up her Oscar-nominated “Lady Bird” with a fresh look at the March sisters with a cast that includes Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson and Meryl Streep. Breaking with the book’s chronological structure, the movie begins with each sister in her 20s. Gerwig’s “Little Women” uses a mix of Alcott’s original dialogue as well as moments taken from her life to find new wrinkles in a classic tale. Despite the many years since its writing, the story “speaks directly to the specific concerns of this time and place,” writes Times critic Kenneth Turan.

Christian Petzold’s “Transit”
A scene from “Transit,” based on the 1944 novel by Anna Seghers.
(Music Box Films)

‘Transit’

The book: A 1944 novel by Anna Seghers, “Transit” is set in France during the German invasion at the start of World War II.

The movie: Released this spring, the film version from German director Christian Petzold could return to theaters if academy voters recognize it in the Oscars’ foreign-language category. Petzold’s adaptation shifts the novel’s setting to an indeterminate yet contemporary time frame, with haunting results. The film centers on the wayward Georg (Franz Rogowski) as he awaits government approval for passage from France to the Americas. It touches on the harrowing civilian costs of wartime conflict as it carries echoes of the current refugee crisis. Times film critic Justin Chang wrote that Georg makes “a strangely ideal guide for this grim netherworld — a repository of the lost and forgotten souls of Europe from the last century, the present one and possibly the next.”

Ewan McGregor in “Doctor Sleep”
Ewan McGregor plays Dan Torrance in “Doctor Sleep,” based on Stephen King’s sequel to “The Shining.”
(Jessica Miglio / Warner Bros. Pictures)

‘Doctor Sleep’

The book: Published in 2013, this Stephen King novel provided a sequel to one of his best-known novels, “The Shining,” which followed the psychically gifted child Danny Torrance as his family endured an ill-fated winter as caretakers of the Overlook Hotel. King famously disavowed the 1980 adaptation of “The Shining” by Stanley Kubrick, who broke from King’s work on multiple key fronts. Centering on a traumatized Danny as an adult, “Doctor Sleep” reclaims one of King’s most memorable characters.

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The movie: While King’s “Doctor Sleep” was free to disregard all Kubrick changed about “The Shining,” filmmaker Mike Flanagan (Netflix’s “Haunting of Hill House”) did not have that luxury. With Ewan MacGregor playing the role of Danny, who continues to reckon with his supernatural abilities, “Doctor Sleep” aims to split the difference between King’s vision and that of Kubrick, whose signature, surrealist touches on “The Shining” have left an indelible mark on pop culture. While King has already given his blessing to Flanagan’s effort, critics have been more mixed. Chang noted that the film “taps into the minutiae of Kubrick’s vision without fully teasing out its mystery.”

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Edward Norton in “Motherless Brooklyn.”
Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Edward Norton in “Motherless Brooklyn.”
(Glen Wilson / Warner Bros.)

‘Motherless Brooklyn’

The book: This 1999 noir novel by Jonathan Lethem centers on unusual young detective Lionel Essrog, who has Tourette’s. The book gleefully twisted the genre’s penchant for intricate mysteries with detours into Zen Buddhism, corporate misbehavior and elderly mobsters.

The movie: Maybe the most labored-over adaptation of those listed here, writer-director Edward Norton’s imagining of Lethem’s contemporary twist on classic noir was two decades in the making. Norton portrays detective Essrog, and instead of being set in the ’90s, the film relocates the novel to a more conventionally noir 1957. That sets aside the original story’s self-aware tone and injects a new central conspiracy that addresses New York City’s history of gentrification with a villain (Alec Baldwin) inspired by city planner Robert Moses. As with most adaptations, impressions of the film are inevitably colored by the strength of the viewer’s bonds to the book, which has already been developed and cast inside the imagination.

Chris Barton is a former Times reporter who writes about TV, music, books and pop culture. He is based in Portland, Ore.


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