The Best Literary Adaptations You Might Have Missed


From Shout Factory and Pathé comes director Christophe Gans’ adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, starring Vincent Cassel and Léa Seydoux. The film opened in select theaters this weekend. The classic fairy tale has been the subject of numerous adaptations, but Gans’ imaginative vision lends a modern twist to this remake. We collected other literary adaptations you might have missed that prove not all book-to-film cinema is better left on the page.

Edward II

Based on a play by Christopher Marlowe of the same name. Your Derek Jarman and Tilda Swinton fix. From Rolling Stone’s 1991 review:

Like Howards End, Edward II reaches back to the past — this time to a 1592 Christopher Marlowe play — to illuminate the present. Unlike E.M. Forster, British director Derek Jarman does not hide his homosexuality. Forster delayed publication of his gay-themed novel Maurice until after his death in 1970. Jarman, who is HIV positive, uses his films (Sebastiane, Caravaggio) to express his gay activism. The anachronistic liberties he takes with Marlowe expose contemporary gay-bashing and result in a mesmerizing film that bristles with fury, sexuality and radical wit.

The Duchess of Langeais

From Roger Ebert on Jacques Rivette’s Honoré de Balzac adaptation:

The lovers in The Duchess of Langeais never consummate their love, but it consummates them. The film is about two elegant aristocrats whose stubborn compulsions eat them alive. They’re bull-headed to the point of madness. Their story is told with a fair amount of passion, but its interior passion, bottled up, carrying them to a point far beyond what either one expects or desires. The director is Jacques Rivette, one of the founders of the French New Wave, here giving himself over to a deliberate style that intensifies the impact of his fairly simple story.

Revengers Tragedy

If you ever wondered what the director of Sid and Nancy can do with Eddie Izzard in a manic adaptation of Thomas Middleton’s 1607 play The Revenger’s Tragedy. From critic Jeffrey M. Anderson:

The truly subversive and rebellious English director Alex Cox has taken on a film similar to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet and Julie Taymor’s Titus. But he hasn’t adapted a Shakespeare play. Instead he has chosen a 17th century play by Thomas Middleton that, according to the director, ‘was said by some to be the vilest piece of work in the English language, the product of a diseased mind.’

Four Nights of a Dreamer

Robert Bresson does White Nights by Dostoyevsky. From Chicago Reader:

An adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s White Nights, Robert Bresson’s 1971 film is an exploration of romantic love rendered in the precise, austere style of his better-known studies in spirit (Lancelot du lac, Une femme douce). In the secular turn Bresson reveals an unexpected sense of humor and worldly irony. The transformation of Paris at night into a dream landscape pulsing with electric mystery is reminiscent of Minnelli, although the economy of expression is clearly Bresson’s. A very beautiful and essential film.

Lady Windermere’s Fan

Ernst Lubitsch’s 1925 silent adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1893 play Lady Windermere’s Fan. From critic Dennis Schwartz: “It turns into an austere but amusing morality play that skillfully casts its light on the hypocrisies and phony games played by the upper-crusts, who live a shallow life following their repressive society rules of behavior.”

Vanya on 42nd Street

Louis Malle casts Wallace Shawn and Julianne Moore in a conceptual performance of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, as adapted by David Mamet. From SFGate:

The product is a rare look at a work in progress. The actors don’t ‘project,’ but speak in soft, aching whispers. The ‘set’ is a bare stage at the New Amsterdam Theater on Times Square, a dusty cavern of crumbling plaster and eerie textures. The play’s themes of family discord and lost dreams are enhanced, not betrayed, by the fact that the actors wear contemporary clothes and not turn-of-the-century Russian costumes.

The Romance of Astrea and Celadon

Roger Ebert discusses Éric Rohmer’s adaptation of Honoré d’Urfé’s novel L’Astrée in his 2009 review:

The French New Wave began circa 1958 and influenced in one way or another most of the good movies made ever since. Some of its pioneers (Melville, Truffaut, Malle) are dead, but the others (Godard, Chabrol, Rivette, Resnais, Varda) are still active in their late 70s and up. And Eric Rohmer, at 88, has only just announced that The Romance of Astrea and Celadon may be his last film. It doesn’t look like typical Rohmer. He frequently gives us contemporary characters, besotted not so much by love as by talking about it, finding themselves involved in ethical and plot puzzles, at the end of which he likes to quote a proverb or moral. His films are quietly passionate and lightly mannered.

Look Back in Anger

Tony Richardson directs Richard Burton in an adaptation of John Osborne’s love triangle tale of the same name. From Film School Rejects:

Look Back in Anger is a film about a whole generation, but of timeless value, as intense and uncompromising with the past as its title clearly suggests. As intense and uncompromising with its characters as the past they desperately try to overcome.