As the current two top-ranking films at the US and UK box office testify, adaptations are a reliable route for getting a film out to a receptive audience. The Lego Batman Movie is an adaptation not only of the original DC Comics stories but also a playful take on just about every iteration of the superhero that has gone before, with gags geared to every generation of viewers. It’s also a natural spin-off from The Lego Movie, and of course has its origins in what was once a simple set of plastic play bricks. Fifty Shades Darker, meanwhile, is getting bums on seats at a spanking rate to match that of E.L. James’ not so original bonkbuster sequel, and despite some terrible reviews it seems there will be lusty demand when the next instalment Fifty Shades Freed, filmed back-to-back, is upon us next spring.
Moonlight is the strongest contender to keep La La Land from sweeping all before it and scooping the top prize.”
But March and February also see plenty of higher-minded transitions from page and stage to screen that are causing a stir this awards season. Just released (17 February) is Barry Jenkins’ marvellous Moonlight, adapted from Tarell McCraney’s little-seen play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Told over three time periods, Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes share the lead role of Chiron as a vulnerable child, reticent teen and muscle-bound adult loner struggling to come to terms with his sexual longings while mum Paula (Naomie Harris) drifts into crack addiction on an unpredictable wave of affection, need and regret. Nominated for eight Oscars, it’s the strongest contender to keep La La Land from sweeping all before it and scooping the top prize*. Harris is devastating as the crumbling centre of Chiron’s universe.
Where Moonlight shoots for heightened reality, Denzel Washington’s Fences (10 February) retains the staginess of it roots in the 2010 Broadway revival of August Wilson’s 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, but is no less powerful. Washington and Viola Davis reprise their roles as Troy and Rose Maxson, a charismatic but downbeat former baseball player and his determined wife struggling to make ends meet on his meagre income as a garbage collector in 1950s Pittsburgh. Wilson is up for a posthumous Oscar, and Davis the firm favourite to win Best Supporting Actress, while Washington is nominated for Best Actor and Best Film.
Our top picks for March, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle and Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, are also linked thematically. Elle (10 March), based on Philippe Djian’s French bestseller Oh…, stars a staggeringly brilliant Isabelle Huppert as Michèle Leblanc, a video game executive who adopts a singular method of dealing with a brutal sexual attack. It’s a dark and disturbing psychological thriller that navigates complex themes of power, desire and revenge via a delicate blend of suspense and mischief. American David Birke’s screenplay was translated back into French, so the story goes, after no American actress would risk playing such a twisted character. Huppert inhabits the role with irresistible ambiguity, and there are satisfying subplots and back stories that add an unsettling seam of intrigue and discomfiting laughs. She might just scoop the Best Actress Oscar to go with the recently acquired Golden Globe, despite some mighty competition.
Isabelle Huppert, staggeringly brilliant, inhabits the role with irresistible ambiguity.”
The Salesman (17 March) made headlines because Trump’s oafish border controls are preventing writer-director Farhadi from attending the Oscars, where it competes for Best Foreign Language Film. (In good news for Londoners, there’s a free premiere in Trafalgar Square on Oscar night by way of protest.) Fans of Farhadi’s recent films A Separation and The Past will be equally engrossed in this subtle exploration of guilt, jealousy, helplessness and bitter revenge. Emad and Rana Etesami (Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti) are a middle-class couple in a crumbling corner of Tehran. A popular teacher and an unassuming housewife who play the leads in a local production of Death of a Salesman in the evenings, their world is shattered when an opportunistic intruder attacks her in her new home. Riffing on themes of reality and illusion in the Miller play, Farhadi carefully explores the relentless repercussions of a random act of violence as a once-stable relationship is shattered by pride and shame. The result is beautiful and heart-rending.
Also worth a look while still in cinemas are Jeff Nichols’ Loving (3 February), with Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga artfully portraying the unlawful interracial marriage of Richard and Mildred Loving in 1950s Virginia; It’s Only the End of the World (24 February) by Canadian enfant terrible Xavier Nolan, based on a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce about a writer with terminal illness breaking the news to his family and starring Gaspard Ulliel, Marion Cotillard, Léa Seydoux and Vincent Cassel; Marco Belocchio’s Sweet Dreams (24 February), based on a novel by Massimo Gramellini, in which Bérénice Bejo’s kindly doctor tries to heal a man scarred by the early death of his mother; Gurinder Chada’s Viceroy’s House (3 March), starring Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson as Lord and Lady Mountbatten at the time of Indian Partition in an upstairs-downstairs tale of British rule; and for one night only (9 March), the NT Live broadcast to cinemas nationwide (and subsequently in Encore around the world) of Ruth Wilson as Hedda Gabler in Ivo Van Hove’s stunning production at the Lyttleton, adapted by Patrick Marber.
Finally, mass audiences of all ages and tastes will enjoy Rupert Sanders’ action-packed Ghost in the Shell (31 March), a 3D Hollywood adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s popular manga series which features Scarlett Johansson thwarting hackers and other villains in a tight-fitting bodysuit as cyborg counter-cyber-terrorist commander The Major. Juliette Binoche also stars as Dr Yolande Oulet, the scientist who oversaw The Major’s creation – and knows the secrets of her human past.
* This article was written ahead of the 2017 Academy Awards, where Moonlight won for Best Film, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali); Viola Davis won Best Suppporting Actress for Fences; and The Salesman was awarded Best Foreign Language Film.
Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista.