In Development – Books into Films: A Summer 2015 Reading List

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By Diana Cheng

In recent months, several actresses at different occasions had spoken out about the lack of female lead characters in movies. Seeing the dearth of significant female roles, actress Reese Witherspoon had even started her own production company to seek out worthy books to turn into films. In this summer issue, BookBuzz is bringing you a list of upcoming movie adaptations from books with a female voice. The following makes one attractive summer reading list which you or your book group may like to savour and discuss before the stories hit the big screen.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 

The acclaimed novel by the award-winning author of Half of a Yellow SunAmericanah tells the story of a Nigerian-American and her young lover both having had to flee separately from the military rule in their native land. Their relationship crosses three continents in the countries of Nigeria, US, and England, linking the two lovers through time and space, and exploring the ever more pressing issues of race, identity, drifting and belonging. Adichie’s novel is the winner of the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and one of New York Times Ten Best Books of the Year, among other accolades. It is now adapted into film starring Lupita Nyong’o, on the heels of her 2013 Oscar win as Patsey in 12 Years A Slave, and David Oyelowo, 2015 Golden Globe nominee for his role as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma.

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

Once again the story of migrating and shifting ground, this time from Dublin to Brooklyn. Colm Tóibín’s 2009 Costa Novel Award winner, longlisted for the Booker Prize that year, tells the story of Ellis Lacey moving to America from Ireland in the 1950’s, as many did, for new life and opportunities. But her story did not end there. A single, female immigrant striving for a new life and seeking a new identity finds that she cannot discard her past after all. The movie adaptation premiered at Sundance Film Festival January 26, 2015, and will be released on a larger scale later this year. Saoirse Ronan plays Ellis. Ronan has come a long way in her career with her breakout role as young Briony in Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Cast includes Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters. From page to screen in the hands of the veteran scribe Nick Hornby.

Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates’ imaginary account of Marilyn Monroe was a finalist of the National Book Award in 2000 and the Pulitzer in 2001. It just happened that recently I have re-watched My Week with Marilyn (2011, Michelle Williams as Monroe) and the superb documentary Love, Marilyn (2012), both leaving me with a troubling sadness. Oates’ ‘fictionalized biography’ is said to be a raw retelling of a life exploited. Turning it into a movie could mean a lure to sensationalize. But I sure hope the director will be sensitive in handling the subject, who I feel – despite her talent – was a victim of objectification as a sex symbol, exploited for her beauty and lack of pedigree, despised for her inadequacy even by  her one- time husband Arthur Miller, a tragic heroine who drowned in fame and eventually lost her total self. I hope the film’s perspective is internal and sympathetic, and that the director will be sensitive and not sensationalize. Delivering that perspective rests on the shoulders of Jessica Chastain. I do wish her well.

Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits by Linda Gordon

Lange is an iconic figure of American documentary photography. Her depression-era works had captured the poignancy of a difficult period in American history. Probably her most famous piece, ‘Migrant Mother’ (1936), conveys the expression of strength and despondency on the face of a mother with her three children in a work camp. The image was said to have influenced John Steinbeck’s classic The Grapes of Wrath. The prominent American historian, NYU professor Linda Gordon – who specializes in women, gender, and family – has condensed in her biography the essence of Lange’s life and career as a female photographer and photojournalist in a male-dominated field. Now in development is the movie adaptation, with David Fincher as producer, and Angela Workerman writing the screenplay.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Looks like a new genre had started in recent years, thrillers involving a female protagonist, an unreliable narrator involved in domestic violence as a victim or an instigator. While Gone Girl reads like a page-turner aiming to shock and sensationalize, The Girl on the Train is a gentler and more nuanced read. The memory slip of its protagonist is reminiscent of S. J. Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep. And as I read, its multi-perspectives of storytelling reminded me of Kurosawa’s Rashomon. The movie adaptation is presently being developed by DreamWorks. Latest news is that Emily Blunt is in talks to star, I assume taking the role of Rachel. It will be interesting to see who the rest of the cast will be. Here’s the rub: The novel is quite internal in its descriptions of psychological nuances and motives, a definite challenge to the director and actors who are constrained by showing through visual means. I’ll be interested to see how this adaptation works out.

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow

Rachel is a biracial child, her mother Danish and her father an African American. A tragedy has left Rachel the lone survivor of the family. She is moved to live with her African American grandmother in another city, where she grows up in the 1980s. Not an issue before, but Rachel now has to confront race, identity, and the social stigma of being biracial in her grandmother’s mostly black community. Since its publication in 2010, Durrow’s debut novel had garnered many accolades including winning the PEN/Bellwether Prize for best fiction addressing issues of social justice, being named one of the best novels of 2010 by the Washington Post, and already had its 12th printing in paperback. Relativity Studios’ specialty division has optioned the film rights for the book, Marissa Jo Cerar to write the screenplay and produce. In a society that largely sees people in black or white, the struggle of an ‘in-between’ female protagonist could mean an insightful movie.

Goodbye To All That by Joan Didion

This is not Robert Graves’s autobiography but Joan Didion’s essay wrapping up her collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968). Film rights have been optioned by Megan Carlson and Brian Sullivan as the inaugural project of their new production company. A feature film based on an essay is a most interesting idea, and this is no ordinary essay. Didion’s seminal piece in her iconic collection contains substantial materials as a springboard to a full-length feature; I believe it can be done. The essay is a summarized account of her years living in New York City as a new grad working for Vogue during the 1960’s, an essay prize she won while at UC Berkeley. At first thinking of staying in NYC for six months, eventually she lived there for eight years until she married John Dunne and moved back to California. The producers are seeking for a female screenwriter and director for the feature. I highly anticipate this adaptation. Hope it will be a soulful take like the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis or Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha.

Longbourn by Jo Baker

Two hundred years after Austen’s death, Janites in the twenty-first century now have more ways to share their enthusiasm. A new genre has thrived: fan fiction; interestingly, mostly sprung from her novel Pride and Prejudice. Jo Baker’s Longbourn (reviewed here) delivers a perspective that we would not see in Jane’s masterpiece. All the main characters are from the servants’ quarters of the Bennet household. In addition, the contemporary author mixed a concoction of new, imaginary characters, scenarios and issues that Austen would not have conjured up. Focus Features and Random House Studio are co-producing the movie adaptation of Baker’s 2013 novel, published exactly two hundred years after Pride and Prejudice. Angela Workerman is the scribe for the production. Cast and director have yet been announced. Workerman has several book-to-film titles under her belt, including BronteSnow Flower And The Secret Fan (based on Lisa See’s novel), and two others in this list here. Longbourn is scheduled for release in 2016.

The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

This is a worthy, true story to be made into film. Jan and Antonina Zabinski were keepers of the Warsaw Zoo, a reputable establishment. The zookeepers had seen the Nazis’ maltreatment of the zoo animals and knew they would not hesitate to do the same to the Jews. During the Holocaust, Jan smuggled Jews out of the Warsaw Ghetto into their facility, saving hundreds. Antonina did the day-to-day chores of protecting them, hiding them in the cages, feeding them and keeping their spirits up. The parallel and irony of men and beasts are obvious and poignant. Acclaimed nature writer Diane Ackerman drew from Antonina’s diary to write her non-fiction work (published in 2007 by W.W. Norton). The title may sound like one of those novels in recent years that end with the word ‘Wife’. However, this is not fiction but a historical account of a heroic rescue mission. Screenplay by Angela Workerman, a scribe to note. Workerman has three titles on this list. Jessica Chastain plays Antonina Zabinski. This one is high on my must-read-and-see list. Scheduled to be released in 2016.

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 Diana Cheng’s alter ego is Arti of Ripple Effects in the blogosphere.