Every Oscar season books of all kinds and reputations enter the refractory spotlight of the red carpet. It’s a good time to remember where directors and producers find their stories, where our silver screen heroes find their statue-winning characters. The process of moving words to the screen has many pitfalls and advantages. A flat story explodes in the hands of a great cinematographer. Or a complex character withers without pages of inner-life. This year the Oscar nominees showcase a range of approaches–some successful, some less so.
12 Years a Slave is a gripping, eerily terse memoir. Published nearly a decade before the Civil War, the book is written with an open frankness that reads like an attempt to set down the facts (for fear they might be forgotten, or distorted). Atrocities pile on atrocities, and Solomon guides you through with clear eyes. Quickly the nightmarish unreality of Solomon’s kidnapping and torture turns into the slow tick of degradation. From the beginning, we know Solomon will survive to tell the tale; the true terror is the magnitude of tales we’ll never hear. Steve McQueen’s film version is an amazing tribute to the memoir. Following Solomon’s story very closely, the film brings a visceral life to the characters that the book simply can’t capture. Brutalized into silence, when characters with so much to say are finally given the room to speak, they deliver with Shakespearean fervor and precision.
Captain Phillips brings Hollywood to the memoir A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea. The first successful pirate seizure of an American ship for nearly two centuries, Phillips’s story really didn’t need much screenwriting. His bravery and clever tactics are all detailed and analyzed in the book from the eye of a ship captain; in fact, the memoir is mainly an explanation of how preparation and dedication to the job saved Phillips’s life. Most of the book is a tutorial on living as a Merchant Marine. It’s a fascinating keyhole into the relatively unknown and unappreciated profession. We get to know the crew. We get to know the ship. We get to know how hard it is to spend most of the year away from family. The story of Richard and Andrea Phillips feels conventional, but it’s still singular and romantic–her courage bolsters his. It’s a shame the film is set up as a mano-a-mano death match with the pirates. Phillips’s story is far more interesting than that.
The Wind Rises by Hayao Miyazaki takes its title from Tatsuo Hori’s 1937 novella about a boy following his betrothed to a tuberculosis sanitarium. Hori’s original tale is used like a stanchion by Miyazaki to wrap his own story around: Jiro Horikoshi, a fictional WWII aeronautical engineer. Miyazaki’s cinematographic powers are in full force during the flying and bombing scenes. Sleek wings, the tumult of rising earth. But while he delves into nationalist issues at a touchy time for Japan, Miyazaki also reaches the other direction for a story that speaks to a more peaceful past. This gap gives the film velocity. Hori’s original tale is a quiet ode to young and painful love. The over-analytic narrator is overwhelmed by the scenery of the sanitarium and his muddled emotions. You can see his mind churning over the same questions. As he attempts to reconcile his situation, he begins to write the very words you’re reading: “I began to convert our strange everyday life into an extraordinarily sad but serene story.”
Inside Llewyn Davis takes place in the world of Dave Van Ronk, whose memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street details the folk revival moment of the 40s and 50s in Greenwich Village, New York. Unlike the other books here, the original characters from Van Ronk’s memoir play no important role in the film. Instead of following the real Van Ronk, the Coen Brothers chose to take his story as inspiration for their own creations. Inside Llewyn Davis is understated and driven by the music, fantastic acting, and great camera work. But it’s really nothing like the world Van Ronk opens the curtain to. What made Van Ronk special was not his musical ability–you’d probably have his records if so–but his ubiquitous ability to be at all the right places during a revolutionary time. The Mayor of MacDougal street is both a guide to jazz and folk music–the origins, the factions, the instrument styles–as well as a breakdown of the various players on the Village scene. Van Ronk’s in-your-face, loudmouth, and uncompromising style seems light years away from the messily coiffed Oscar Issac, lounging on couches and charming his benefactors. Luckily, the Coen Brother’s chose a tight scope for such ripe subject matter. Not that it needs it, but this book is begging for a better adaptation.