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Book into Film Pairings, Pt. 1

Do we dare hope that the film industry will rediscover the value of basing films on good books? Until December, 2008 had to be the weakest year in memory for adaptations. Between emphasis on special effects over scripts, focus on teenagers over adult filmgoers, and growing use of sequels, remakes, foreign film retreads, television show adaptations–basically any source material but books–the number of films adapted from books has been in long-term decline. The good news is that in the final month of 2008, and looking ahead to 2009, films adapted from books appear to be on the rebound.

Adaptations are opportunities for book groups. You can add variety to your schedule by taking a field trip to the multiplex. It’s easy to generate excitement for the next book among your readers when a film is forthcoming. And discussing the quality of the adaptation will add dimension to your discussion. Even a bad adaptation can help readers understand what they appreciated about the book more completely.

The end of 2008 offers three adapted films that are receiving Oscar buzz and a fourth that should be plenty of fun. Two more films were delayed at the last minute, but should be rescheduled early in 2009. 

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button comes from an F. Scott Fitzgerald story of the same title (which was also released as an audiobook and adapted into a graphic novel in 2008 by Nunzio Defilippis, Christina Weir, and Kevin Cornell). It tells the story of a man who is born at an advanced age and then ages backward. The film, scheduled for Christmas Day, features Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett and seems likely to be among this year’s best picture nominations. The story is unusual for readers who think of Fitzgerald solely as the source of The Great Gatsby and other Jazz Age stories, but is available in several of Fitzgerald’s story collections. If you prefer a novel, consider pairing Benjamin Button with Andrew Sean Greer’s more recent The Confessions of Max Tivoli, an excellent book that uses the same premise.

Also coming on Christmas Day is Marley and Me, based on John Grogan’s nonfiction. It’s a humorous story about the effects of a dog on a family (although previews at least, for the film, seem to gloss over a much more melancholy plot development). Starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston, it looks to be a likable adaptation of a likable bestseller.

Revolutionary RoadSlightly weightier fare comes from two adaptations that will be released by the end of the year but that will play only in large cities until early next year. Both films are receiving strong early buzz and look to contend for Oscars. Revolutionary Road is based on Richard Yates’s 1961 (still very readable) novel, about a young couple frustrated by their suburban life. Yates captures the quiet desperation that can infuse the lives of people who are supposed to be living the American dream. The film features Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio.

The Reader

The Reader by German writer (and judge) Bernhard Schlink, already featured as a selection by Oprah’s book group, is the story of a young German man who is seduced by an older woman. Years later, after WWII, when he has become a law student, the young man is surprised to discover his lover is a former concentration camp guard who is now on trial for her war crimes. The novel captures the intergenerational conflict and war guilt of the post-War Germans superbly. Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet (this may finally be Kate’s year to take home an Oscar) star in the film.

Two other novels that should be highly familiar to book groups have also been adapted into films. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road stars Viggo Mortenson while Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife features Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana. Both were scheduled for late 2008 release, then delayed to 2009 at the last minute. Let’s hope that production delays caused the postponements, not that the films of these two reader favorites are of poor quality.

If you work with a group for younger readers, or if your group wants to have fun with some youthful books, the film adaptations of Twilight, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, The City of Ember, Prince Caspian, and The Tale of Despereaux all saw 2008 release. While none of the films received stellar reviews, all are very watchable.

While we had to wait for the last minute in 2008 for good adapted films for adults (excepting perhaps, the film of Robert Parker’s Appaloosa  and some fun summer films adapted from graphic novels), the year 2009 looks much more promising. Next week, I’ll write about some of the forthcoming book/film pairs that your reading group should consider.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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