The hype around the release of Gone Girl is a useful reminder that around half the top-grossing films of the last two decades have been literary adaptations. Bringing a well-loved book to the big screen is relatively risk-free, and this is reflected in the programme of the London Film Festival, the 58th edition of which runs from 8 to 19 October. Here’s a selection of films in the festival covering a variety of genres, subjects and periods, from WWI drama, murder mystery, urban crime and soul-searching biopic to comedy, melodrama and animation.
The opening night gala screening is The Imitation Game, based on the biography Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges. Morten Tyldum’s multilayered film, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Charles Dance, Mark Strong and Rory Kinnear, focuses on three key episodes in the mathematician and codebreaker’s life: flashbacks to his schooldays as a troubled outsider with just one true friend; the high-octane race with unlikely alliances at Bletchley Park to break the Enigma code; and Turing’s interrogation after his arrest in 1952 for ‘gross indecency’ with another man which led to his conviction, chemical castration, and probable suicide. A fascinating portrait of a brilliant but tormented mind, with edifying insights into the power of secrets and rotten laws.
Jason Rietman’s Men, Women and Children, based on the Chad Kultgen novel, is a slick, poignant comedy about emotional isolation across the generations. An exceptional ensemble cast is headed by Adam Sandler, Ansel Elgort, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jennifer Garner and Judy Greer, with a sexily sardonic voiceover by Emma Thompson. Using the technology the film sets out to question to reveal the dark impulses behind our surface interactions, the screen is abuzz with overlapping spoken and visual dialogue in the form of emails, texts, tweets and Facebook posts. “It’s about a group of parents and teenagers navigating the new world that we are all trying to figure out,” says Reitman ” – social media, instantaneous access to what each other is thinking, doing, seeing. It’s really about connection.”
The festival’s Centrepiece Gala is Testament of Youth directed by James Kent, a moving and timely adaptation of Vera Brittain’s beloved WWI memoir. Alicia Vikander is electrifying as free-spirited Vera, whose brutally shattered hopes determined her lifelong conviction as a peace activist. Dominic West and Emily Watson play Vera’s parents, and rising stars Kit Harington, Taron Egerton and Colin Morgan ably commemorate the Great War’s ordinary heroes.
Undoubtedly the most keenly anticipated film among the Bookanista team is Wild. Jean-Marc Vallé directs Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir about an ill-prepared but ultimately life-affirming 1,100-mile hike across the Pacific Crest Trail, as she attempts to cope with a recent break-up, a history of drug addiction and the loss of her mother. Nick Hornby wrote the script and Witherspoon, who optioned the book prior to publication, co-produces – and delivers a memorably gritty and passionate lead performance.
Read our interview with Cheryl Strayed.
Michaël R. Roskam’s The Drop is adapted by Dennis Lehane from his own short story ‘Animal Rescue’, and he has since adapted the screenplay as a novel. Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace and James Gandolfini (in his final screen role) star in a deeply satisfying slice of Brooklyn noir as the unassuming Bob (Hardy) tries to keep out of trouble whilst tending a bar for his domineering Cousin Marv (Gandolfini) – but is soon caught up in a failed robbery.
Mathieu Amalric’s The Blue Room adapts Georges Simenon’s 1964 crime masterpiece. In this erotic thriller/murder mystery Amalric himself plays Julien, a farm-machinery rep who begins an affair with a pharmacist’s wife. Their illicit weekly trysts are halted when Julien is accused of a double crime, and the drama unfolds with unsettling time-cuts as Julien’s desperate descent takes hold.
Ivano de Matteo’s The Dinner is the second film adaptation of the Herman Koch novel of the same name, in which two brothers and their wives try and keep up appearances at regular dinner dates while their teenage kids get involved in a horrifying crime that the parents are increasingly desperate to cover up. Where the original Dutch film stuck close to the novel, with the brothers an underachieving teacher and a prominent politician, de Matteo casts the pair as a trendy Italian lawyer and paediatrician facing the same moral dilemma (and with a daughter in place of one of the sons). A third adaptation is also on the way, with Cate Blanchett having snapped up the English-language film rights, and so the feast continues.
Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern’s Near Death Experience is neither an adaptation nor about books or writing, but stars notorious author Michel Houellebecq as a downcast call-centre employee in his fifties who disappears on his bicycle into the mountains of central France to contemplate suicide. Sensitive insights into Paul’s despair intermingle with absurdist observation, skewed existentialism and inspired slapstick as his life hits the skids.
Another French film with a minimal cast is David Oelhoffen’s Far From Men, a reinterpretation of the Camus story ‘L’Hôte’ (published as ‘The Guest’ in Exile and the Kingdom). In 1950s Algeria, Viggo Mortensen’s village teacher is given the task of accompanying a local man (Reda Kateb) charged with murder through harsh terrain to his trial in a nearby town. The pair become unexpected allies as they encounter equally blinkered Algerian guerillas and French troops, and the subtly menacing score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis reinforces the taciturn toughness of the men and the bleak beauty of the landscape.
Adapted from the novel by Ron Rash, Susanne Bier’s Serena is a Depression-era melodrama following a North Carolina logging magnate and his ruthlessly ambitious wife as their purportedly perfect marriage unravels following the double-whammy revelation that Serena is unable to bear children and George has an illicit child. Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Rhys Ifans star.
Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary has been filmed over a dozen times for cinema and TV. Sophie Barthes’ affectionate and affecting remake stars Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland, Stoker, Jane Eyre) as the lovelorn and tormented lead. Rhys Ifans turns in a delectably sinister performance as toxic merchant Lheureux, Henry Lloyd-Hughes deadpans Charles’ dull charms, and cinematographer (and Barthes’ life partner) Andrij Parekh gloriously depicts 19th-century rural France as seen through Emma’s doleful eyes. A handful of plot departures to keep the film under two hours may pique Flaubert purists, but the whole is held together by a haunting score.
Based on a story by Doris Lessing, Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s My Friend Victoria is a complex and poignant portrait of two young black women in contemporary Paris. It follows Fanny and Victoria from childhood to adulthood as they drift in separate directions and their lives are altered by Victoria’s encounter with a wealthy, liberal, but casually racist white family. Newcomers Guslagie Malanda and Nadia Moussa star, along with veterans Catherine Mouchet and Pascal Greggory.
With My Old Lady, director Israel Horowitz adapts his own 2012 Broadway play in which a hard-up writer (Kevin Kline) inherits a swanky Paris apartment where a diehard dowager (Maggie Smith) is a sitting tenant, cared for by her flintily protective daughter (Kristin Scott-Thomas). Their battle of wits reveals a delicious romantic secret that redefines the three-way relationship.
Another notable film on a literary theme is Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip, in which Jason Schwartzman and Elisabeth Moss star as a truculent young novelist and his rueful and angry photographer girlfriend. This sharp satire on the New York publishing scene treads a fine line between individuality and isolation, and Jonathan Pryce looms large as a monstrous mentor (a kind of nightmare Philip Roth) determined to mould Schwartzman’s next-generation novelist in his own image as literary pretensions and stunted emotions begin to unravel.
Producer Robert Connolly brings together seventeen directors – including actor Mia Wasikowksa in her debut behind the camera – to each film a segment of The Turning, a patch-up of Tim Winton stories linked by character and theme that explore life-changing moments in a diverse modern Australia. Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne and Hugo Weaving star.
The BFI also unveils remastered classics in the festival including Robert Altman’s Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, his 1982 adaptation of the Ed Graczyk play about a reunion of the James Dean fan club in a diner in the Texan desert; and John Schlesinger’s sumptuous Far From the Madding Crowd (1967), in which Julie Christie and Terence Stamp play Thomas Hardy’s star-crossed lovers and the Dorset countryside is captured in its cruel beauty by cinematographer Nic Roeg.
Finally, for family viewing, there’s a screening of John Halas and Joy Batchelor’s classic adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1954), Britain’s first animated feature film; and a premiere for the brand new adaptation of Tove Jansson’s Moomins on the Riviera directed by Xavier Picard in an old-style hand-drawn animated tale, released to coincide with the author’s centenary.
If you can’t get to a festival screening, keep your eyes peeled on cinema listings in your area as the films go on general release between late October and early 2015.
The 58th BFI London Film Festival crams 248 feature films and 148 shorts into 12 days of advance screenings in cinemas across London, with the main gala events at the Odeon Leicester Square and neighbouring Odeon West End. If screenings are sold out, returned tickets are released at the box office 30 minutes before each screening. Some of the smaller international indie films in the festival are yet to secure distribution deals, so this could be your only chance to catch them on the big screen.
Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista.