Summer Movie Reads

A Long Way Down should be first on your reading list!
The Summer Movie Reading List is becoming an annual tradition here on Cinemablographer. (Once again, I’ll offer five titles I’ve read and five that we can read together.) The journey from page-to-screen is far more enjoyable if you go along for the whole thing and can appreciate how filmmakers have transformed great works of literature into even greater films. For example, I had many a discussion last year over Anna Karenina, which seemed to yield a completely different experience between fans of the novel and those who hadn’t read it. (It’s freely available on e-readers, so I suggest you tackle it this summer and revisit the film. Anna’s also a much quicker read than the thickness of the book suggests, so don’t be intimidated!) On the other hand, even adaptation nuts like me know that it simply isn’t possible to read every book before seeing the film. Half the movies released are based on some sort of material, so that would take so much speed-reading that the endeavour would be pointless. It’s far better to enjoy the book than to simply check it off a list.

Some of this year’s most talked about films, for better or for worse, have been page-to-screen adventures. The Great Gatsby might have seen the biggest kerfuffle from the English department, since Baz Luhrmann’s bombastic adaptation often had moviegoers and reviewers knocking the classroom staple off its pedestal, saying that the Fitzgerald classic wasn’t very good to begin with. (I disagree, but I think Gatsby is one of the most interesting adaptations I’ve seen since it’s wholly faithful to the book, but also completely out to lunch.) Other goodies, such as last year’s TIFF holdover What Maisie Knew is a good example of a film that outdoes a classic novel, while Beautiful Creatures, silly as it is, proves that teen-lit can actually produce some fun flicks.

This year doesn’t seem to be as major a year for adaptation as last year was. 2012 had a wave of films that realized ‘unfilmable novels’ with varying degrees success. Midnight’s Children, Life of Pi, Anna Karenina, and On the Road showed that everything books can do, film can do better. (Well, maybe not On the Road.) There are plenty of good reads, however, to get you in the mood for a good fall harvest of movies. Grab a beach towel and one of these books and get a leg up on all your post-screening conversations to come!

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

First on anyone’s reading list should be Nick Hornby’s delightful A Long Way Down. Not to get all Ferris Bueller-y, but this really is a book that can change your life. Provided one buys the highly convoluted premise of four strangers converging in their disparate plans to commit suicide on New Year’s Eve and then forming the unlikeliest of support groups, A Long Way Down is a humorous, uplifting tale. It’s not so much about death as it is about wanting to live. (Anyone who saw this year’s Hot Docs film 15 Reasons to Live will probably love it.) Told from the perspective of each of the four potential lemmings—Maureen, Martin, J.J. and Jess—A Long Way Down sees each of the friends evaluate their own reasons to live against the struggles faced by their peers. A Long Way Down might be one to watch on during the end of the year races, provided it finds distribution, since the roles have been well cast with Toni Collette, Pierce Brosnan, Aaron Paul, and Imogen Poots playing the quartet of survivors. Maureen is an especially strong part, so keep an eye out for Toni Collette. Hope to see A Long Way Down at the festival this year!

Labor Day by Joyce Maynard

Speaking of killer female roles, Kate Winslet could knock it out of the part with her turn as depressed suburban housewife Adele in Jason Reitman’s adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s Labor Day. Winslet’s played similar roles before—Adele is a close relative of Sarah Pierce from Little Children—and Winslet is no stranger to letting the audience feel her character’s hunger for an alternative. Labor Day, though, is a darkly funny film, so Winslet could add a dimension to the character that we haven’t really seen in her before. She doesn’t do comedy often enough, but when she usually nails it when she does. (See: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.)

Like A Long Way Down, the premise of Labor Day requires some work from the audience to cast aside their preconceptions about plausibility when Adele and her son, Henry, become hosts to an escaped convict who uses their home as a hideaway during his run from the law. The events of the Labor Day weekend, told from Henry's perspective, create one of the most hilarious, moving, and surprising page-turners I've read in a while. Labor Day’s strange, dark take on the dearth of suburbia just cries Todd Field, but Reitman might be a good match to balance the humour and tone of the tale to bring it close to home. Judge for yourself! Labor Day is a quick read—you could easily read it in a day—and it’s a delight if one reads it with Winslet in mind for Adele.

Kate Winslet in Labor Day

Serena by Ron Rash

Serena is by no means a bad book, but it strikes me as one the upcoming adaptations that could be improved greatly in a visual medium. (In fairness, I’m not done reading the book, although I’m not racing to finish it, either.) The story of lumber barons George and Serena Pemberton, played in the film by Silver Linings Playbook co-stars Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, could provide a visually striking and resonant take on American empire and capitalism. Serena is a slow, almost observational reading of American progress during The Great Depression. It’s an anti-western in the vein of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, while its tone and political subtext calls to mind There Will Be Blood. (This could make it a victim of mis-marketing à la Killing Them Softly.) It’s certainly a project to watch, though, after the chemistry Lawrence and Cooper shared in Silver Linings Playbook. Serena could give both stars an even greater chance to show off their range.

Serena Pemberton is a strong character and she poses a great opportunity for Lawrence, but Rash’s book defines Serena almost entirely through men. Serena is smart, cool, and headstrong when speaks and acts on her own; however, a surprising amount of the narration and the dialogue between the male characters puts Serena on some divine pedestal. It’s awkward to read the elevation of a character in bromantic dialogue such as, “‘There’s a manifestation of true beauty,’ Wilkie said admiringly. ‘ Such an image gave the Greeks and the Romans their deities. Gaze upon her, Reverend. She’ll never be crucified by the rabble.’” Ick.
Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in Serena
Helmed by Susanne Bier, Oscar winner for In a Better World, Serena could benefit greatly from being told through a woman’s voice. I’m really interested to see how Bier transforms the film, especially Serena, since her past work has been dark and powerful, while her more recent films have been sentimental. There’s potential for both cynicism and beauty in Serena, but its central figure is highly problematic. Lawrence has proven that she has the goods to sell Serena’s allure and hardness without a film having to script sexist dialogue. (See: Silver Linings for the former and Winter’s Bone or The Burning Plain for the latter.) Will Serena be received as a step forward or a step back for women in film? Lawrence and Bier recently announced that they are planning to work together again, for the upcoming adaptation of Claire Bidwell Smith’s memoir The Rules of Inheritance, so let’s assume it’s the former.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is probably the most unusual selection ever to be anointed membership to Oprah’s Book Club. Lady O can never again be accused of pandering after she pumped Faulkner to the masses. As I Lay Dying is about as far from mainstream reading as one can get. I discovered the novel in a university class on literary modernism—we did a Faulkner double-header of The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying—and it proved to be one of the most difficult novels I’ve ever read. As tough as The Sound and the Fury is, it’s told from only four perspectives in four different parts. Each point of view in S & F is told in its entirety before the novel moves on to the text character, so one can decipher the book once one cracks the idiosyncrasies of each voice. As I Lay Dying, however, is narrated by 15 characters across 59 chapters. Some of these chapters are lengthy passages, such as the post-mortem reflection by matriarch Addie Bundren, while other chapters, such as one look into the mind of her Addie’s youngest son, are only five words, “My mother is a fish.” It’s the only book for which I created a flow chart to make sense of it all. How on earth, then, will James Franco adapt this novel?

Word from the film’s premiere at Cannes certainly noted appreciation for Franco’s ambitious attempt to offer a faithful, yet cinematic reading of the novel. Franco reportedly uses devices such as split-screen and point-of-view to capture the disjointedness of the narration, although multiple perspectives could confuse audiences just as easily as they try to follow the travelling circus of the Bundren family. Like last year’s Anna Karenina, might As I Lay Dying be one of the films that are easier to read if one has read the book?

The Believers by Zoë Heller

Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal: What was She Thinking saw one of the best adaptations in recent years. Seeing Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett go head to head in her explosive drama was absolute thrilling. It’s no surprise that Heller’s subsequent novel, The Believers, was snatched up by Notes on a Scandal producer Scott Rudin the same week that the book was released in 2009. The Believers, while not quite on par with Notes on a Scandal, is one hell of a book and it is sure to make a good film. It’s a provocative look at faith and the family that should offer one of the timeliest looks at contemporary attitudes towards religion and domesticity. Well, it will be timely if the dang thing ever gets made!

The Believers has been in adaptation limbo for years. Patrick Marber, the screenwriter of Notes, was reportedly hired to adapt the novel, but the project has seen nary a blip in the trades for quite some time. In fact, The Believers was included on a list of page-to-screen projects collecting dust on Rudin’s bookshelf back in 2010. I’ll surely have to reread The Believers before if the film makes it to theatres. (Yay.) Perhaps if we all read the book, and rack up a few more sales for Miss Heller, then The Believers will finally make its way to a theatre near us?

Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

Readers in search of something other than fiction this summer might want to hit the history books. One film that looks like an inevitable biggie for the festival circuit is the adaptations of Twelve Years a Slave. Slave could go down as one of the most noteworthy films of 2013. A recent article in The New York Times highlights how 2013 has an impressive number of projects by black directors and notes that the year could be a “cultural rebirth” for voices in cinema that haven’t always found the audience they deserved. Steve McQueen’s take on Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir Twelve Years a Slave could be the leader of this group. I haven’t read Slave yet, but I will soon since I just discovered that it’s freely available thanks to public domain.

Twelve Years a Slave is McQueen’s first adaptation and his first film working as director only. (The screenplay was written by John Ridley, who boasts the varied credits of Red Tails, Undercover Brother, and U-Turn.) McQueen’s breakthrough was the visceral historical film Hunger, so Slave offers a fine work with which the visually ingenuity of the director can solidify his status as a major talent. (McQueen’s fine work on 2011’s Shame also lets hopeful viewers assume that he won’t sugarcoat historical accuracy for an easy sell.) Expect Twelve Years a Slave to be a major player in the winter awards races, especially for Chiwetel Eljiofor’s turn as Solomon Northup. With a high-calibre cast that includes Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Quvenzhané Wallis, Alfre Woodard, and Paul Giamatti, it had better be!

Twelve Years a Slave

August: Osage County by Tracy Letts

Streep, Streep, Streep, Streep, Streep, Streep, Streep, etc. Meryl looks like she kills the lead role in the adaptation of Tracy Letts’s play August: Osage County. Starring as Violet Weston, the sassy matriarch of a large Oklahoman family, Streep gets the juicy role of playing a woman battling cancer, popping pills, searching for a missing husband, and dropping zinger after zinger as she criticizes her estranged daughter (played by Julia Roberts).

Letts’s previous stage-to-screen credit saw the playwright adapt his own Killer Joe for director William Friedkin, and he’ll write the screenplay once again, except this time for director John Wells. Wells is only on his second feature after 2011’s The Company Men, so it’s a bit surprising that he got a cast of this calibre on his sophomore effort. The Company Men was a fine ensemble film nevertheless, so devotees of The Church of Meryl have little reason to worry. Streep’s in good company, with Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Margot Martindale, and Sam Shepard among the supporting cast. The play August: Osage County  won the double whammy of the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Play (as did Streep’s last adapted drama Doubt), so there’s plenty of reason that such a prestigious work is garnering high expectations with such a strong cast adding to the pedigree. Add the heavy bonus of Argo producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov and Oscar mover and shaker Harvey Weinstein, and August: Osage County might as well book at hotel room in Los Angeles for February! Fourth Oscar next year?

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

I hadn’t read The Hunger Games before the first installment in the franchise hit theatres, so I went in with low expectations and was pleasantly surprised. Impressed that this dystopian take from teen lit was far more than Battle Royale light, I read The Hunger Games during the summer and was again surprised that it was such a good, enjoyable read. (I’m a bit surprised that it’s found its way to the syllabi of high school English classes though.) I actually prefer the film The Hunger Games to the book. Perhaps it was the presence of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss or the intuitive addition of the game-makers and commentators, but the film by Gary Ross has a chilling sense of urgency the novel lacks. Ross isn’t returning to Catching Fire, though, so the next installment of The Hunger Games will be done by Francis Lawrence, who completely botched Water for Elephants. (In fairness, Elephants wasn’t that great a novel to begin with.) I’ll give Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer) the benefit of the doubt, since the teaser for Catching Fire looks pretty darn good. And with the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jena Malone, Amanda Plummer, and Jeffrey Wright joining the cast for Games’ second round, I’ll certainly be lining up on opening night!

Hold Fast by Kevin Major

Canadian cinema has seen a boon in coming of age films this year. Old Stock, Picture Day, and Molly Maxwell all introduced new voices on the film scene while telling appropriate stories about characters coming into their own. Now, another story of growing up is set to make a splash with Can Con this fall: Justin Simms’ take on Kevin Major’s Hold Fast. The book is frequently compared to Catcher in the Rye and Anne of Green Gables. Hold Fast sees two young boys go on a journey of self-discovery in the Newfoundland wilderness, as they escape the city and find freedom in nature. Comparisons to the recent release The Kings of Summer seem to be inevitable, but Major’s novel has been a staple for young readers and it looks to be one of the most noteworthy upcoming adaptations of Can Lit. Early word from a market screening at Berlin was promising, so Hold Fast might gain an advantage over the Sundance favourite.

Few Canadian films make use of the Newfoundland landscape, too, so Hold Fast offers a fine alternative to the Toronto/Quebec-centric films that receive the most attention in this country. Aside from the 2001 boon of The Shipping News (an American film to boot) and Rare Birds (a hoot!), Newfoundlanders only get to see their seaside views in TV’s Republic of Doyle. Much of Canada might get to see the eastern province thanks to the presence of Molly Parker (Trigger) in the role of Aunt Ellen in the film. Parker’s name brought some initial buzz to the project last fall and she’s bound to bring more since she’s reteaming with Hold Fast screenwriter Rosemary House to make her directorial debut with the adaptation of the Newfoundland-set The Ballad of Maura McKenzie. Parker also starred in Rare Birds and 2002’s Marion Bridge, so the East Coast has done well by her.
Molly Parker in Hold Fast

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

The Queen of Can Lit envisioned through the eyes of the Queen of #cdnfilm? This sounds like a perfect match. Sarah Polley opens Stories We Tell with an appropriate quote from Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace that sets up the elusiveness and playfulness of storytelling that unfurls throughout the film. Polley, as she said in a recent interview, didn’t have the rights to the Atwood novel when she included the quote in Stories, but she’s been wanting to do the project for years. Alias Grace, Atwood’s best novel, poses an epic undertaking for Polley. The book features many a thread that’s woven its way into a Polley film before—the messiness of love, the problem of memory, and the novelty of storytelling— so, Alias Grace is just a different dressing, really, for topics the filmmaker handles well. What will be exciting, though, will be to see how Polley realizes the pivotal séance sequence that serves as the novel’s climax. Grace is a story on a larger scale than Polley has ever worked on before, but the epic scope and the period setting of the tale aren’t the least bit out of her league

The historical fiction of Alias Grace sees convicted murderess Grace Marks tell her notorious tale of homicide to Dr. Simon Jordan (a fictional doc). The book weaves between the present thread of Grace’s time with Dr. Jordan and the past thread of Grace’s account of the events leading up to the murders of her then-employer and fellow housekeeper. Grace, thanks to its dual play on past and present, actually seems like a relative to Kathryn Bigelow’s The Weight of Water, which featured Polley in a supporting role as a woman who survived a murderous attack being investigated in the present by the sailing cavalcade of Sean Penn, Catherine McCormack, and Liz Hurley.

The memory of Polley’s role in The Weight of Water at first makes her seem like an obvious choice to play Grace. Polley has yet to direct herself in a film, so there’s an opportunity for an even greater challenge with Alias Grace, but in the aforementioned interview, she hints that she’ll mostly be staying behind the camera for the next little while. Casting hasn’t been announced for the film yet, since it’s still being written. However, a few people have tossed about the idea of Benedict Cumberbatch playing Dr. Jordan. I would have never thought of him, but he seems like a perfect fit now that it’s been mentioned. It’s fun to play guess-the-actor when you’ve read a novel that is still being adapted. I think it would be a hilarious bit of stunt casting to see Polley’s Take This Waltz star Sarah Silverman as the ill-fated bawdy housemaid Nancy, while someone like Bruce Greenwood might work well for her employer, Thomas Kinnear. If we’re reaching for Can Con points, Canadian actors like Charlotte Sullivan or Kristin Adams could work for Grace. Or maybe Sarah Gadon? Who else? Maybe Jennifer Lawrence, if Alias Grace could benefit from having an attractive Hollywood star? Whom would you cast in Alias Grace?

What's on your reading list this summer?