It could be awhile before cinemas reopen, so why not read the books behind the anticipated 2020 film adaptations? My go-to reading list each year is the roster of page-to-screen projects in the pipeline. Sometimes these books deliver the goods, like Wild, which I devoured pre-TIFF and called the film the best of the decade. Other times, one trudges through a brutal slog like The Goldfinch to be left with a film that can only be described as being not nearly as insufferable as the book was. It’s always a crapshoot, but keeping abreast of film adaptations is a great way to study the business of art. These movies are made with built-in audiences and they are wondrous tools for studying an auteur’s hand. Seeing how one artist transforms the work of another is a thrill that can’t be beat.
Here are ten 2020 film adaptations to read during social distancing before the movie theatres re-open.
French Exit by Patrick DeWitt
It’s hard to imagine Patrick DeWitt topping The Sisters Brothers, but here we are. DeWitt’s latest book is a laugh-out-loud funny satire about a wealthy widow and her deadbeat son who flee New York for Paris after they go broke. This comedy of manners channels Schitt’s Creek as the uber-rich confront a world in which people actually pay for things. The book just screams Whit Stillman with its deadpan sense of humour, but could be safe with director Azazel Jacobs at the helm. (He directed the DeWitt-scripted Terri.) Having impressed many with his performance-driven The Lovers, Jacobs should do well with Michelle Pfeiffer in the showy role of Frances Price and Lucas Hedges as her son Malcolm. The best casting? Tracey Letts rounds out the ensemble playing a cat, which Frances believes is her dead husband reincarnate. French Exit is my most anticipated film this year.
French Exit hits theatres later this year from Elevation Pictures. Expect it as a potentially splashy Canadian title at TIFF, or perhaps Cannes if it’s ready in time/if the fest happens.
The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn
While French Exit could bag Michelle Pfeiffer her first Oscar, Amy Adams could be one of 2020’s box office champs. The Woman in the Window is Gone Girl meets The Girl on the Train with twists of Read Window and Gaslight. It’s a convoluted and ridiculously entertaining page-turner. Adams stars as the agoraphobic Anna Fox in this take on A.J. Finn’s highly readable thriller about a shut-in who witnesses a murder that nobody believes happened. Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore, and Jennifer Jason Leigh headline with Darkest Hour’s Joe Wright at the helm. Even better than the book, however, is the story behind it. Anyone reading Window must devour this flat-out crazy exposé on Finn’s bizarre catfishing expedition that shaped the book. There’s a movie to be made about the former publishing house cog turned literary sensation. The sordid context actually makes the book far more interesting!
The Woman in the Window was set for a May 15 release from 20th Century, but has been postponed.
Nomadland by Jessica Bruder
I was reading Nomadland when shit hit the fan with COVID-19. The present context all but ensures that film will hit a nerve this year. Nomadland adapts Bruder’s fascinating study about America’s growing demographic of nomadic workers. They call themselves “workampers” as they travel the USA in mobile homes and vans following seasonal labour. Bruder tracks the growth of nomadism with moments of economic turmoil, like Great Recession caused by the housing meltdown. The coronavirus effect speaks to such a situation that leaves people destitute and questioning the broken economic system that widens the rich/poor gap in the service of a powerful few. The adaptation stars Frances McDormand as a woman who hits the road after losing everything. McDormand joins director Chloé Zhao, who doubles down on her hybrid fiction approach after The Rider. She casts several workampers who informed Bruder’s book alongside McDormand in this all-American road movie.
Nomadland opens this year from Searchlight Pictures.
Dune by Frank Herbert
Denis Villeneuve fanboys, rejoice! This one’s for you. The reason why film adaptations of Dune struggle remains a mystery. It never ends well. Just ask David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky. However, Herbert’s epic sci-fi novel remains a Holy Grail of sorts for genre directors. The sprawling story about a family dynasty, feudal system, and spicy drug veers towards the ridiculous. However, technology’s come a long way since Lynch cooked his turkey and delivered a cult classic. Villeneuve previously showed how fresh ideas and newfangled computers could improve the world of Blade Runner, so Dune fans shouldn’t contain their excitement. This film adaptation could deliver the big screen bonanza that’s long overdue. Add to the hype a stacked cast that includes Timothée Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Hall, and Josh Brolin, and Dune looks destined to be either one of the year’s biggest hits or flops.
Dune is currently tapped for a December 18 release from Warner Bros.
The Prom by Saundra Mitchell
Although Ryan Murphy’s upcoming take on The Prom adapts the Broadway musical, one can study the source by reading Saundra Mitchell’s YA take on the show. The Prom adapts the hit musical by Chad Beguelin, Matthew Sklar, and Toronto’s Bob Martin, who won a Tony for The Drowsy Chaperone. The musical tells the toe-tapping tale of some Broadway starlets who head to small-town USA on a morale-boosting mission. The stars make headlines by taking up the cause of a teen who can’t bring her girlfriend to the prom. The Prom itself made headlines for its queer positive campaign and Murphy’s film should do the same. This Netflix musical features an all-singing, all-dancing Meryl Streep alongside Nicole Kidman, Kerry Washington, James Corden, and newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman.
The Prom is set for an end-of-year release from Netflix – but production has been postponed due to COVID-19.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid
So, I had a hold on this book when the Toronto Public Library shut its branches until April 5. Boourns. I’m sure it will be worth the wait, though, since the film is the latest adaptation from Charlie Kaufman. He rewrote the book on film adaptations with Adaptation, which topped our recent list of film-on-film recommendations, so this film is an event for books-to-film nuts. Iain Reid’s acclaimed debut novel is a literary thriller about a couple that becomes separated while travelling in the boonies. (First rule of horror: don’t split up!) However, the split is metaphorical, too, as the couple reconsiders the viability of their relationship. Kaufman previously penned the ultimate break-up movie with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and has an uncanny gift for taking audiences to dark places of the subconscious, so the material puts him in his element. Toni Collette, Jessie Buckley, David Thewlis, and Jesse Plemmons star.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things hits Netflix later this year.
The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King
Documentary film adaptations aren’t a new thing. More often than not, they use non-fiction literature as a springboard for human-interest stories. (See the recent adaptation of The Reason I Jump as an example.) Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in America surprisingly marks the first of his literary works to get a feature film adaptation. Michelle Latimer (Alias and VICE’s Rise) brings King’s book to the screen and explores the ongoing tension between Indigenous communities and settler Canada, which has only swelled since the book’s publication in 2014. Latimer also helms another must-read page-to-screen endeavour with the upcoming CBC adaption of Eden Robinson’s Trickster trilogy. Hopefully we get Green Grass, Running Water next!
The Inconvenient Indian is expected to debut on the festival circuit this fall from the NFB.
Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham
There’s lots of time to catch up with William Lindsay Gresham’s classic thriller. Production for Guillermo del Toro’s Toronto-shot Nightmare Alley froze amid COVID-19’s paralysation of Hollywood. The book offers ripe gothic fodder for del Toro since it brings to the screen the story of a con man (Bradley Cooper) who teams up with a psychologist (Cate Blanchett) as part of his grift involving the “freaks” of the circus sideshow in which he performs. The film reunites del Toro with The Shape of Water producer J. Miles Dale and he shares a screenwriting credit with critic, artist, and programmer Kim Morgan, who previously worked with Guy Maddin on The Forbidden Room and the Séances project. Expect a deeper twist of the strange and unusual, although GDT never plays it straight. The film also reunites del Toro with many Canuck creatives who helped Shape triumph on Oscar night.
Searchlight Pictures will distribute Nightmare Alley with a release date TBA.
Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez
As much as I enjoy the novelty of seeing del Toro make Toronto up as American cities, it’s refreshing to see Toronto as Toronto. (Something we see far less of as the city squeezes out local productions in the service of American stuff.) The home team should have high expectations, then, for the upcoming take on Catherine Hernandez’s lauded Scarborough. This extraordinary book is a must-read for everyone in the city. It’s a beautifully written observation of diverse experiences in Toronto’s eastern hub. The book offers a moving but unsentimental account of families whose lives intersect in a public school literacy program. Hernandez’s inclusive perspective sees the story through various children, as well as their indefatigable program leader. Moreover, it conveys honestly how these public programs offer vital support systems for children in low-income communities. Scarborough honestly makes one look at the city differently.
The film is currently in production and marks the narrative feature debut from Shasha Nakhai (Take Light).
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
The Luminaries is a tough read. However, this 830-page behemoth is a thrilling adventure. It’s a novel of astounding complexity that made Ontario native Eleanor Catton the youngest person Booker Prize winner. The Luminaries is a tale of fates and fortune set in the New Zealand gold rush. It features a nasty ensemble united by a desire for revenge on a common enemy. Brush up on your astrology before reading The Luminaries, though, since Catton intimately ties her characters to the stars. Each chapter begins with an astrological compass that foreshadows each player’s alignment. This brilliant conceit might not translate to the screen since the book differs depending on one’s own mood and astrological affinity. Catton, who penned a 2020 film adaptation of her own with Emma, adapts her novel here and reportedly has some tricks up her sleeve. In the spirit of her characters, no doubt!
The Luminaries comes to BBC this fall.
What other books for 2020 film adaptations are on your shelf?