Montreal·BOOKS

6 books to read before you watch their screen adaptations

From the page to the screen, here are 6 books that have been adapted for film or television.

Heather and Arizona O'Neill's book selections this month have all been adapted for the movie or TV screen

Amy Adams stars as reporter Camille Preaker in HBO's series Sharp Objects. The miniseries is based on the debut novel by author Gillian Flynn. (HBO Canada)

From the page to the screen, here are 6 books that have been adapted for either film or television.

If Beale Street Could Talk, by James Baldwin

(Submitted by Arizona O'Neill)

I haven't gone to see the movie adaptation of this book yet, but am curious to see how it is treated, since it rests so little on its plot. It's a narrative that seems to eschew traditional plot and structure.

This book deals with the question of hope in black communities. It is the story of an 18-year-old black woman who finds out she is pregnant after her husband has been incarcerated. How do you have your baby when your path is being blocked and your rights being taken away?

Baldwin transmits flights of feeling, using words as stepping stones to get you across an emotion. One of Baldwin's great strengths is to be able to write in a manner that never attempts to simplify its subject matter or tries to sum up the world in quick moral messages.

His other strength, my God, is his ability to capture the nuances of black American life. In this novel, we are in New York in the 60s, and the sounds and clothes and laughter and dignity and grocery stores and subway stations all thrum on the page.

Baldwin always presents us with the most ordinary circumstances, and their very ordinariness makes you want to put the book down and weep — because ordinary life is a great noble thing. A masterpiece.

Bird Box, by Josh Malerman

(Submitted by Arizona O'Neill)

I am a big fan of reading the book before watching the movie. When I heard there was going to be a movie with Sandra Bullock steering a row boat blindfolded hiding from monsters, I was hooked!

In this world, if you see one of the creatures you become violent and commit suicide almost immediately. No one in the book has any idea what they are shielding their eyes from.

It is honestly one of the scariest books I've ever read. After reading it at night, I convinced myself there was someone in the other room of my house and even called out 'Hello?'

As with any horror film, there are many ways to interpret the monsters. I see them as inhabiting the terror of giving up the known self, inherent in motherhood (hence the blindfold), and the irrational hyper-aware state we exist in when raising small children: everything is potentially fatal and anyone is a latent psychopath.

You Were Never Really Here, by Jonathan Ames

(Submitted by Arizona O'Neill)

I would never have read this book if it were not for the movie. Lynn Ramsay is an extraordinary filmmaker. She took this slim 100-page novel that follows a hired killer through a brutal job and turned it into a cinematic gem.

The novel is about a hit man who is sent to rescue a young girl from a sex trafficking circle. He does so in a most vicious way.

Ramsay turns simple scenes into extraordinary photographic compositions that transcend the text and make them into something much greater, metaphorical and poignant.

The novel itself is, in my opinion, a problematic piece of writing. The unsettling thing about the novel is that Ames seems to have forgotten to give any of the female characters any agency or voice whatsoever. The young girl who is rescued literally does not say a word. Thus the girl is objectified by her captors, but also by the author, who sees her only as a plot device.

Ramsey flips this deeply masculine narrative and actually gives the female victim in the story lines of dialogue! And this young beautiful girl's actions become deeply influential to the plot, thus making of the story a more emphatic and profound one. I have no interest in stories where all the main characters are men. I don't care how lovely Helen of Troy is — give her a sword and a sense of humour, thank you very much.

The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood

(Submitted by Arizona O'Neill)

Sometimes when a classic work of literature is revisited, details must be changed in order to suit the times and reflect where we have come in terms of feminism and race.

The new television version of Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, which is about a dystopian society where women are controlled by men, makes what I consider to be a radical departure in the inner voice of the protagonist, Offred.

In the original text, there is a passivity to Offred's voice. There is a certain hiddenness to many of Atwood's female characters. They often refuse to tell their opinions, are unreliable narrators, and play the role of being a passive female, refusing to shine light on what they are thinking.

It is as though Atwood's characters never trust the reader.

Atwood is a writer who was radically ahead of her time and thus delivers us subversion in subtle and masked ways.

The TV version of The Handmaid's Tale is written and directed for a new female audience, one that has been made bolder and louder and brasher because of the work of earlier feminists like Atwood, and it is confident that the audience is on its side.

Today's audience demands a more modern, more radical Offred, and she is delivered. It reinvigorates the classic work for modern times and is thus a magnificent and fearless adaptation.

Watership Down, by Richard Adams

(Submitted by Arizona O'Neill)

Watership Down was recently turned into a Netflix four-part miniseries. I wanted to reread this childhood classic to see if it held up reading it as an adult. And I'm here to say it really did.

In Watership Down, you follow a group of rabbits looking for a new home, and fighting all odds to survive their journey.

What I find so impressive is how Adams incorporates rabbit legends, language, and beliefs into the story. The book is broken up into four parts, and this is how the television show is set up as well.

The TV show is packed with action and sticks very close to its source material, but does not catch the subtleties of what it is actually like to live as a rabbit.

I also have to say that upon rereading the book, I was very disappointed to realize how sexist the underlying story is — something I would not have noticed as a kid. When the rabbits finally come to their paradise, they realize they have no women to procreate with and must go on another adventure to find women bunnies.

In the book, the male bunnies are brave, smart, and cunning, but it seems as though the female's one purpose is to reproduce. (And don't give me, 'That's accurate to how a rabbit society works.')

The show, however, tries to rectify this by making one of the rabbits a female — but it falls flat. Overall however, it's a very interesting piece of literature that makes us re-evaluate our relationship with animals.

Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn

(Submitted by Arizona O'Neill)

I fell so hard for Sharp Objects. It's strange to say you love something that is so dark and brutal. But then the point of the book is women refusing to be loved and refusing to engage with others in a feminine way.

The hero of Sharp Objects is Camille, a woman who has been cutting words into her body her whole life. Her skin is covered with words like trash and unworthy. An extremely beautiful woman, she has made her body into a grotesque object she has to keep hidden from men.

Gillian Flynn is a genius at taking the idea of what it means for women to espouse the traits that society lauds in a woman — kindness, empathy, selflessness — and take it to a horrific extreme.

Gillian Flynn wrote both the novel and the screenplay of Sharp Objects. That is why they are so similar. Recreating the plot of the novel would be a simple thing, but recreating the eerie, sickening, hyper-sexual tone of the book would have been near impossible for any other writer.

Flynn has developed a tone for capturing the mind of duplicitous brilliant women that is so wholly her own. She is the only one brave enough to tackle the mental landscape she travels in.

About the Author

Heather and Arizona O'Neill

CBC Homerun Book Columnists

Heather O'Neill is an award winning novelist, short story writer, and essayist who lives in Montreal. She is Arizona's Mom. Arizona O'Neill is a filmmaker and avid reader who lives in Montreal. She is Heather's daughter. Follow them on their Instagram @oneillreads

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