It certainly seems as though we are experiencing something of a boom when it comes to books being adapted for the screen. Whether it’s Hollywood or Netflix, it seems as though scarcely a month goes by these days without a new “based on the novel” event. And that’s really great, because everything starts with good source material, right? Also, I feel that the way we experience these adaptations is changing too. Way back when, I’d usually watch a big screen book adaptation with curiosity but ultimately prepared for it to pale in comparison to the book. Now, since studios are aiming for more creativity and breadth, there is particular pleasure to be had in comparing multiple adaptations, and in simply acknowledging the many different ways in which a written work can be interpreted. It’s easier to not scoff at the film/tv version now, I reckon. Don’t get me wrong, if I was forced to, I would usually align myself with the “book is better” camp, but since nobody is forcing any such thing, let’s just watch and read as much as we can.
Here are some current adaptations that are worth checking out.
The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena – Elsa Joubert
Elsa Joubert’s novel based on a true story (Poppie’s true identity did eventually surface a fair way down the line) was published in Afrikaans way back in 1979 and has since become one of the most lauded and essential South African books. It unsentimentally tells the tale of a remarkable woman and her journey of survival amid the upheaval and punitive legislation of apartheid, her courageous struggle to keep her family together and provide for her children while being forced from place to place across the country. Convincingly encapsulating the whole spectrum of challenges, despairs and resistances of that troubled era, this is one of those rare books that leaves its reader in awe of both its titular character and the writer who told her story. It’s the fruit of a remarkable collaboration set against a backdrop that did as much as it could to keep people apart, to keep experiences separate.
The film adaptation, directed by Christiaan Olwagen and starring Clementine Mosimane was released at the end of last month and received immediate acclaim for its delicacy and power, and its ability to pick both the light and the dark from so heart-breaking a story. The film is currently showing in some cinemas across the country.
The Call of the Wild – Jack London
It’s one of those books that occupies some vague place within Western consciousness – a testament to the great outdoors and the canine spirit. Even if you haven’t read it, you probably know that the main character is a dog and that it takes place in the harsh mountain wilderness.
Based on Jack London’s experiences as a gold prospector in the unforgiving Canadian wilderness, The Call of the Wild tells the story of Buck, a dog who is stolen from his home in California and sold as a sled dog in Alaska – where his survival is typified by fighting and dominating other dogs as he becomes progressively more feral and embraces his canine instincts. It’s a powerful, at times harrowing, adventure story that explores the various connections that make us a part of our world and delivers important messages about the constructions of society. It’s a classic.
Starring Harrison Ford and Karen Gillan, and directed by Chris Sanders, the film perforce introduces a larger human element than the book did and has been praised for its entertaining action and its earnest heartfelt tone. Essentially, it’s a worthy family film about life’s delicate and rewarding bonds. It was released in various countries last weekend and should hit SA cinemas soon.
The Turn of the Screw (Movie Titled The Turning) – Henry James
This is a classic horror novella from 1898 which is noted for its masterly handling of tension and confusion, and which can easily be considered a major influence on horror writing and cinema in general. Readers familiar with Henry James will know that there is invariably something about his writing that sets him apart from most other authors.
In a nutshell, the story pits a governess against the supernatural entities that she believes are haunting her charges and their home. She believes that the children for whom she cares are being visited and manipulated by the ghosts of her predecessors. It’s a classic ghost story whose hand can be seen in such films as The Others and such books as The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield… along with many others. Certainly, if you are a horror buff, you’ll want to be familiar with it. And even if you aren’t, it’s worth noting that The Turn of the Screw sparked a debate that continues to determine how we experience all horror fiction: is all of this happening, or is the governess grappling with her own mind? You’d really have to decide for yourself as the debate is ongoing.
Starring Mackenzie Davis and Finn Wolfhard (of Stranger Things etc), and directed by Floria Sigismondi, The Turning emphasises the story’s supernatural elements and brings it closer to modern times in order to create a stylish straight-horror movie. Some critics have suggested that it’s likely to prompt audiences toward the original novella – which is a good thing, of course. Nobody was expecting a faithful adaptation, so it will be interesting to see what is done with the source material here. It was released in late January in select countries, and should be coming to SA cinemas soon.
The Outsider – Stephen King
Isn’t it great how many horror shows there are at the moment? King’s work, obviously is no stranger to screen adaptation, and, for the most part, recent efforts (like It, Doctor Sleep and Gerald’s Game) have all been very decent – and that’s saying something considering just how many of them there are.
Incorporating a brutal murder, a shell-shocked family-values town and a series of enthralling impossibilities, The Outsider is a combination horror/detective thriller that grabs hold and never lets go.
Detective Ralph Anderson is called to a small Ohio town to investigate the brutal murder of a young boy. The town is rocked by the horror of the crime, but a suspect quickly emerges: a suspect reliably pointed out by eyewitnesses. The testimony of the townspeople is further confirmed when DNA and fingerprints reveal that the murder was indeed committed by Terry Maitland, the town’s beloved little league coach and well-known family man. A spectacular arrest is called for. But there is a problem. Maitland has an air-tight alibi. An alibi that proves unassailable once confirmed by other research. The investigation stalls and frustrations mount as the crime begins to seem impossible. There can be no other culprit… but a man surely cannot possibly be in two places at once…
The Mini-Series (HBO):
Celebrated for the quality of its performances (especially from Cynthia Elviro and Ben Mendelsohn), The Outsider is a slow-burn that effectively combines crime with horror to create a widely watchable show that drags you deep into its twisted plot and keeps the grizzly shocks coming.
The Good Lord Bird – James McBride
A work that holds a unique place among novels concerning slavery and abolition, The Good Lord Bird is an interweaving of history and imagination that remains emotional and moving even as it introduces irreverent satire and humour.
Young slave Henry Shackleford (later nicknamed Little Onion) is forced to flee his hometown with legendary abolition crusader John Brown when things become dangerous. The only thing is, Brown believes that Little Onion is in fact a young girl, and the former slave is going to have to maintain that identity, however confused, if he is to survive as Brown’s anti-slavery campaign grows in fervour and the Civil War looms. Packed with unforgettable characters, carried by a premise that is both amusing and significant, and elevated by McBride’s considerable eye for personality and detail, The Good Lord Bird is an adventure full of symbolism and explorations of identities both current and historical.
The Mini-Series (Showtime Network):
Adapted by Ethan Hawke (also starring) and horror maven Jason Blum, the mini-series will explore all the complexities presented in the novel to create a historical series with a difference. The eight part series was due to premier midway through February in the US but has been delayed. Keep an eye out for its appearance on televisions elsewhere.
To All the Boys 2: PS. I Still Love You – Jenny Han
Every bit as charming, goodness-filled and emotional as the first in the series, PS. I Still Love You follows Lara Jean’s continuing attempts to make sense of her chaotic and over-exposed love life as a boy from her past returns, bringing with him a fresh resurgence of feeling and prompting her to wonder whether she can love two boys at once. It has all the jealousy, scandal and drama of the first book along with the nostalgic looks at love that the series is rightly famous for.
The Film (Netflix):
With more endearing performances, bright colours, dreamboats and kissing, this sequel is a sure-fire curl-up-indulgently-in-bed teen romance that revels in all the confusion, infatuation and sensory swooning that we want from such endeavours. Watch it on Netflix as soon as you can.
You – Caroline Kepnes
“A terrifying exploration of how vulnerable we all are to stalking and manipulation, debut author Caroline Kepnes delivers a razor-sharp novel for our hyper-connected digital age. You is a compulsively readable page-turner that’s being compared to Gone Girl, American Psycho, and Stephen King’s Misery.
When a beautiful aspiring writer strides into the East Village bookstore where Joe Goldberg works, he does what anyone would do: he Googles the name on her credit card.
There is only one Guinevere Beck in New York City. She has a public Facebook account and Tweets incessantly, telling Joe everything he needs to know… As Joe invisibly and obsessively takes control of Beck’s life, he orchestrates a series of events to ensure Beck finds herself in his waiting arms. Moving from stalker to boyfriend, Joe transforms himself into Beck’s perfect man, all while quietly removing the obstacles that stand in their way—even if it means murder.”
The Series (Netflix):
This series created rather a buzz before I even realised it was a book. It’s in its second season already, with a third on the way. It positively drips with obsession and ruthlessness, giving a thrillingly trashy edge to its already riveting drama while exploring the vice-like grip that manufactured romance and glamorised expectations exert over anybody looking for love… and also just about everyone who knows what social media is. Cautionary, cringefully unhinged and thoroughly entertaining. Watch it on Netflix (but also pick up the book as soon as you can).
Happy Reading and Watching (And Reading Again)!