From Page to Screen: Summer 'Movie Reads'

Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed in Wild.
I’m over a month late on delivering this list. I’ve just been too busy reading! 2014 has some great adaptations on the horizon if the novels I’ve been guzzling over the past few months are any indication. Page-to-screen junkies have mostly had to make do with teen-lit stuff over the past year, since the market for decent adult-fiction based films has been scarce of late; however, the latter half of 2014 looks promising, especially if we factor in non-fiction and, yes, dystopian YA stuff.

A number of the potential titles for the Summer ‘Movie Reads’ post already appeared in the “Most Anticipated Films of 2014” list, so readers looking for recommendations/quick thoughts on Inherent Vice and such may head that way. There are several titles from that same post, though, that made my reading list over the past few months, so they’re here under a somewhat different angle. I could even add stragglers from last year’s feature, namely Serena (what on Earth is going on with that film?) and The Believers (when will we get this?!). There should be even more options on this list, but my summer reading was derailed by the brutally overlong and inexcusably slow Pulitzer Prize winner The Goldfinch. Blech! Let’s hope they never adapt that for the screen!

If you’re looking to hit the beach, commandeer a coffee shop patio, or prepare for festival/Oscar season with a cat on your lap, here are ten titles worth reading:

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Wild had me with its opening scene. As I pictured Reese Witherspoon frazzled and fatigued, holding Cheryl’s one lone boot and then hurtling it into the wilderness of the Pacific Coast Trail, Wild instantly hooked me. Strayed’s account of her journey across over one-thousand miles of trail is a frank and intimate tale of cleansing and healing. The passages along the trail offer some of the expected metaphors for personal growth using the progress of the journey, but Strayed reveals a surprising amount of her motivation for undertaking this expedition using some candid flashbacks that detail some dark chapters of substance abuse, loneliness, and despair. The loss of Strayed’s mother underlies the journey as Cheryl looks back on her mother’s rugged upbringing of her kids and uses her mother’s as inspiration to forge ahead.

The energetic flashbacks seem perfectly catered to the kaleidoscopic style of director Jean-Marc Vallée (Café de flore, Dallas Buyers Club), as does a character-driven tale of a rugged outlaw going rogue. This inspiring and empowering book might be the most promising film on the horizon. Early word on Wild is strong, especially regarding Witherspoon’s performance. Strayed herself praises Witherspoon for giving “the performance of her life,” which is pretty impressive coming from the subject of the performance itself. Strayed gives her perspective on the adaptation process in an interview with Q’s Jian Ghomeshi, and her take is a refreshing extension of the beautifully personable prose of Wild. As Strayed talks of sharing the story with others and of seeing how Wild touches others and brings about emotional transformation, it sounds as if Vallée, Witherspoon, and company really bring Wild to life.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

I finished reading Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken just days before the passing of its subject, Louis Zamperini. Unbroken is truly an inspiring story of hope and indefatigable spirit. It’s a pleasure for any reader to learn of the story that Zamperini shared with many soldiers during his tumultuous life as an Olympic runner, war hero, and born-again speaker. Hillenbrand deftly frames Louis’s route to forgiveness by chronicling his harrowing experience as a prisoner of war that begins with a 47-day odyssey on a life raft following a plane crash and becomes more gruelling when he’s taken into a Japanese internment camp and relentlessly tormented by a sadistic guard. (Japanese actor Miyavi should be on more radars in the Best Supporting Actor race if he plays Watanabe aka “The Bird” with the same ferocity of Hillenbrand’s prose.)

The film presents a physically and emotionally epic challenge for Jack O’Connell in the role of Zamperini, as well as for the filmmakers and for the audience as they follow Zamperini’s journey. Adapting a story with as large a scope as Unbroken looks to be no easy task, for Louis’s Olympic legacy invariably comes into play in the latter act, and the accounts of his survival at sea and at the camp are so thrilling and so moving that one almost wishes Unbroken could be a mini-series and include every word of Hillenbrand’s book. However Jolie and an impressive quartet of screenwriters—Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, re-writing drafts by William Nicholson and Richard LaGravenese—adapt Zamperini’s story, though, Unbroken almost seems tailor-made to touch audiences if its anywhere as powerful on screen as it is in print. (Opens December 25th.)

Cockroach by Rawi Hage

Here’s a curious one. Rawi Hage’s acclaimed novel Cockroach, a recent finalist in CBC’s Canada Reads contest, serves as the inspiration for Michelle Latimer’s next short, The Underground. Cockroach portrays the experience of an outsider struggling to fit in to western culture as a self-confessed thief toils through the dank Canadian winter and realizes that life over here is not as great as he hoped it would be. Hage takes the thief into a darkly metaphorical underworld as the thief imagines himself as a cockroach that scuttles through cracks and dark places to emerge from the shadows.

If it's a daunting task to condense Unbroken into a feature, then it's doubly intriguing to see how The Underground adapts Cockroach into a fifteen minute short. (But the film has ample wiggle room since since it's 'inspired' by the book.) Details about the adaptation are scant, as tends to be the case with shorts, but The Underground reportedly mixes live action and animation to further the fantastical realism of Hage’s text. The film screened at the Canada Pavilion in the Cannes Market, so expect the film to get its public debut on the festival circuit this fall. (Fingers crossed.)

This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

If you told me I’d be looking forward to the latest film from the director of The Internship, I’d have told you that you are completely nuts. After seeing the trailer for the upcoming dramedy This is Where I Leave You, though, I moseyed on over to the local bookstore and grabbed a copy of the book by Jonathan Tropper. I loved it!

This is Where I Leave You is the story of the dysfunctional Foxman family  seen through the eyes of middle son Judd as he returns home to fulfill his late father’s request that the family gather and sit Shiva together for seven days. It’s warm, funny, and often surprisingly moving as Judd reflects upon the mess of his life—divorced, unemployed, etc.—as he revisits old cornerstones of his youth. Tackling issues of masculinity seems to have gone out of fashion lately, but the book (and, hopefully, the film) is especially smart with how it confronts Judd’s old-fangled outlook on women, sex, and his own self-worth. As the Foxmans reunite in mourning and dig up old ghosts of the past in wacky ways, This is Where I Leave You reads like cross between August: Osage County and Silver Linings Playbook. It could be just as strong an ensemble piece with a cast that includes Jason Bateman, Jane Fonda, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Corey Stoll, and Tina Fey in an especially funny role. This is Where I Leave You opens September 19th from Warner Bros. so expect the star-studded film to be a big player on the first weekend of TIFF.

Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

Suite Française is a great book, but one almost wishes to see a film not of the book, but a film about it. Irène Némirovsky wrote the two books that form Suite Française during the outbreak of the Second World War when the Nazis invaded France. Némirovsky tragically died in 1942 following her deportation to Auschwitz, and Suite Française was not published until 2004. This found work carries an ineffably poignant note of loss as Némirovsky weaves stories of Parisians fleeing the citing in a nervous exodus. False alarms bring false hope that the war is over, and the relief of the characters is especially tragic when one realizes that the author herself never saw the end of it.

Adapting such a rich text could therefore be quite daring. Suite Française lends itself to a film in the vein of The Hours or, more aptly in terms of adaptation, The French Lieutenant’s Woman where the process of creating a work of art becomes a meta-thread of the narrative. Imagine a parallel storyline in which the fate of the author becomes linked to those of her characters!

A quick glance at the film, however, suggests a more straightforward period piece, which is fine given the director (The Duchess’s Saul Dibb) and ensemble. Suite Française, the movie, sounds to favour the latter half of the book, though, given the heavy star power of Michelle Williams and Kristin Scott Thomas as the Angellier family, versus a range of lesser-known actors as the Péricands and Michauds who populate the first half, “Storm in June.” Suite Française sounds promising either way. Read the book soon, since this page-to-screen affair is also a high-profile international co-production for Canada and seems like an inevitable contender for a plum premiere slot at TIFF.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Also on the TIFF horizon is David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling page-turner Gone Girl. Gone Girl is perfect summer reading. It’s a doozy of a book with two deliciously rich characters in Nick and Amy Dunne. Add a devious and masterfully executed twist, and Gone Girl is a wickedly absorbing read. What I really like about Gone Girl, though, is how much one’s allegiance to either Nick or Amy says about oneself. There’s something at the heart of the suburban malaise in the Dunnes’ lives that demands readers to debate how far they would go to escape a life of insufferable routine and unhappiness. (The recounts of CostCo pickles are motive enough for murder.)

Gone Girl also seems destined to percolate ample discussions since Flynn herself has scripted a new ending for the film. Gone Girl flies off the rails in its final act in one of those love it or hate it (but mostly hate) deeds that strains credibility. It’s always exciting when improvement seems inevitable. Under the sturdy hand of director David Fincher, who did a bang-up job on upgrading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the adaptation of Gone Girl looks like a full-throttle realization of this thrilling book, especialy with the casting of Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike as Nick and Amy. The compelling and incredibly cocky (enjoyably so) new trailer suggests that Fincher and 20th Century Fox know they have a big hit on their hands.


Trash by Andy Mulligan

Speaking of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, here's a question to introduce the next book: remember when Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close edged out Dragon Tattoo for a Best Picture nomination? I haven’t yet read Andy Mulligan’s Trash, but here’s why it should be on the radar for upcoming page-to-screen reads: every film by director Stephen Daldry has been a major player at the Oscars—even Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. One hopes that Trash is more on the level of The Hours, The Reader, or Billy Elliot than of Extremely Loud (which also happens to be a pretty bad book), but it’s the kind of inspirational material that Daldry handles well. The acclaimed book, which whisks readers to garbage dump in an unnamed Third World country, sounds a bit like Slumdog meets Saramago, but Trash has enough fans and pedigree to warrant a read. The cast of Rooney Mara, Martin Sheen, and notable Brazilian actors Wagner Moura and Selton Mello doesn’t hurt prospects for the film, either, although one can expect a chorus of [insert title here] puns if tis bombs.

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

I still begrudge Christopher Nolan for failing to cast Marion Cotillard as Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises. A French Catwoman would have been sexy. A French Lady Macbeth, though, is even better. (Shakespeare trumps Nolan any day.) Add to La Marion the endlessly intimidating Michael Fassbender as Macbeth and it sounds as if we finally have a full-blooded rendering of Macbeth. It’s a relief to see a major undertaking of Macbeth, for adaptations of this Shakespeare classic are surprisingly rare. There are only three notable big screen adaptations of Macbeth amidst an unending field of Hamlets and Romeo and Juliets—Roman Polanski’s 1971 Playboy production, Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 Throne of Blood, and Orson Welles’s spectacular 1948 mess—so this return to Shakespeare’s tragedy is most anticipated.

Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender in Macbeth

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Hail to the Streep! Meryl plays The Chief Elder in the dystopian Community of The Giver and she looks to have a sizably beefed up role from the book. Fans of Lois Lowry’s 1994 novel, which won the Newberry Medal winner for children’s literature, need not cry foul, though, for the beautiful sparseness of the book lends itself especially well to an adaptation since there is ample room to cover all the content of the book and embellish it with a new reading. The Chief Elder has only an extended speech in the book, but early footage for The Giver suggests that she becomes a foil for the young Receiver, Jonas (Maleficent’s Brenton Thwaites), as he learns to see beyond the Community’s black-and-white world vision thanks to the lessons passed on to him from The Giver (Jeff Bridges).

The Giver, at a quick 170 pages, is something that one can read in an afternoon at the beach. It’s a refreshingly powerful read, not to mention an essential one since the book is a precursor to a wave of science fiction aimed at young readers. It’s a necessary reminder that dystopian writing need not be synonymous with bad writing, for none of the books that have followed in The Giver’s footsteps has surpassed it. The book, sparse in its description and prose, is essentially filmable as written since it manly consists of conversations between Jonas and The Giver, so the original material indicated in the trailer is undeniably intriguing. The adaptation looks more thrilling than Lowry’s strong book, but every bit as profound. The film even has Lowry’s stamp of approval, as noted by an updated poster blurb, and her endorsement is strangely—and appropriately—vague. (The Giver opens in theatres August 15 from eOne Films.)

The Homesman by Glendon Swarthout

The from-page-to-Streep recommendations continue with Glendon Swartout’s exceptional novel The Homesman. Streep plays a minor character whom Tommy Lee Jones’s rascally claims jumper Briggs encounters after a long and arduous journey transporting three insane women (four in the book) from Nebraska to Iowa along with spunky pioneer spinster Mary Bee Cuddy. Don’t expect Streep to win any prizes for The Homesman since Altha Carter’s brief appearance essentially plays as a scene in which the homesman takes in the gravity of not only his task, but the plight of the women he’s transported east.

The Homesman is a surreal talking-point for both genre and gender. The direction of the book is particularly striking in that Swarthout charts the pioneer trail from east to west as opposed to the westward narrative of manifest destiny. There’s nothing in the barren American Dream of westward expansion except the kind of misery that’s liable to drive someone nuts. Swarthout makes the hardship of the pioneer life and ideology especially provocative with some strange tonal shifts and a twist that blindsides the reader with a punch.

Swarthout’s novel is equally notable for the roles it fashions for women outside of the usual frame of the western narrative. Mary Bee Cuddy is an odd duck, a rugged outsider with more grit than the piggish Briggs has, and the backstories that drive the four women to madness detail the hardship of surviving in isolation without resources or support. Cannes reviews praise Swank’s performance as the plucky Mary Bee, who could be a dark horse contender for Best Supporting Actress if upstart distributor Saban Films and Roadside Attractions handle the campaign smartly, while Jones himself has ample praise as both actor and director. IMDb dates cite a North American premiere at TIFF this fall, although the listed date doesn’t even fall during the festival, but one can assume The Homesman aims to travel.

What’s on your list of summer ‘movie reads’?