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Best of 2019: 8 of the most memorable book-to-film releases

By CHRIS BARTON • Dec 26, 2019 at 6:45 PM

With Oscar season in full swing, a new batch of classic and memorable books makes the leap from page to screen.

Although there are no rules for adaptation, the process at its best recalls the way a musician covers a song. The core of what made the original story special remains, but the results should unearth something new through the interpreter’s voice.

Here are eight noteworthy, literary-inspired films either on their way or recent arrivals. Think of it as a combination of holiday reading list and viewing guide.

“Just Mercy”

The book: Written by Bryan Stevenson, this memoir looks at the civil rights attorney’s work in opposition to inequities in the American criminal justice system. Stevenson is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., a New York University law professor and a McArthur Foundation “Genius” grant recipient who has mounted legal challenges to free wrongly convicted prisoners. He published “Just Mercy: A Story of Redemption and Justice“ in 2014. “I just want people to see what I’ve seen for 35 years,” Stevenson said.

The movie: Much like the book, the bulk of the adaptation directed by Destin Daniel Cretton.

“The Irishman”

The book: Originally released in 2016 under the title “I Heard You Paint Houses.”

The movie: Italian-American mob bosses and gangland killings collide with the mythology of 20th century America. Who else but Martin Scorsese could direct this movie?

“Richard Jewell”

The book: “Richard Jewell” draws from “The Suspect.”

The movie: Director Clint Eastwood re-examines this unfortunate, mostly forgotten moment in U.S. history. Eastwood’s retelling, however, could be seen as a less measured account than the book. Olivia Wilde portrays a reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, whose editor has denounced the accuracy of the film and its depiction of the late reporter Kathy Scruggs. Alexander and Salwen served as consultants on “Richard Jewell.”

“Cats”

The book: Long before Macavity, Bombalurina and Old Deuteronomy became Twitter-famous in the trailer revealing this film’s surreal jump from Broadway to the big screen, these characters lived in the “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.”

The movie: While Eliot’s verses still provide the lyrics for this movie’s indelible songs, the story also adheres to the narrative from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage adaptation. The film version has been interpreted by director Tom Hooper (“Les Miserables) and a galaxy of anthropomorphized feline stars such as Taylor Swift.

“Little Women”

The book: Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century novel.

The movie: In much the same way “Cats” can be seen as a dual adaptation of a book and its famous stage counterpart, so too will the Greta Gerwig-directed “Little Women” be compared with its previous onscreen iterations. Indie filmmaker Gerwig follows up her Oscar-nominated “Lady Bird” with a fresh look at the March sisters with a cast that includes Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson and Meryl Streep. Breaking with the book’s chronological structure, the movie begins with each sister in her 20s. Gerwig’s “Little Women” uses a mix of Alcott’s original dialogue as well as moments taken from her life to find new wrinkles in a classic tale. Despite the many years since its writing, the story “speaks directly to the specific concerns of this time and place,” writes Times critic Kenneth Turan.

“Transit”

The book: A 1944 novel by Anna Seghers, “Transit” is set in France during the German invasion at the start of World War II.

The movie: Released during spring, the film version from German director Christian Petzold could return to theaters if academy voters recognize it in the Oscars’ foreign language category. Petzold’s adaptation shifts the novel’s setting to an indeterminate yet contemporary time frame with haunting results. The film centers on the wayward Georg (Franz Rogowski) as he awaits government approval for passage from France to the Americas. It touches on the harrowing civilian costs of wartime conflict as it carries echoes of the current refugee crisis. Times film critic Justin Chang wrote.

“Doctor Sleep”

The book: Published in 2013, this Stephen King novel provided a sequel to one of his best-known novels, “The Shining,” which followed the psychically gifted child Danny Torrance as his family endured an ill-fated winter as caretakers of the Overlook Hotel. King famously disavowed the 1980 adaptation of “The Shining” by Stanley Kubrick, who broke from King’s work on multiple key fronts. Centering on a traumatized Danny as an adult, “Doctor Sleep.”

The movie: While King’s “Doctor Sleep” was free to disregard all Kubrick changed about “The Shining,” filmmaker Mike Flanagan (Netflix’s “Haunting of Hill House”) did not have that luxury. With Ewan MacGregor playing the role of Danny, who continues to reckon with his supernatural abilities, “Doctor Sleep” aims to split the difference between King’s vision and that of Kubrick, whose signature, surrealist touches on “The Shining” have left an indelible mark on pop culture. While King has already given his blessing to Flanagan’s effort, critics have been more mixed. Chang noted.

“Motherless Brooklyn”

The book: This 1999 noir novel by Jonathan Lethem.

The movie: Maybe the most labored-over adaptation of those listed here, writer-director Edward Norton’s.

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©2019 Los Angeles Times

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