From 'Life of Pi' to 'Lincoln': The Best Literary Adaptations of 2012

Stills from 'Argo,' 'Lincoln,' and 'Rust and Bone'
Stills from 'Argo,' 'Lincoln,' and 'Rust and Bone'

The year 2012 doled out more than its share of storms and strife. But even when the news was at its worst, there were a few shining examples of forward momentum in areas where the image in the rearview mirror didn't induce a wince and a shudder and a plea for things to improve. Hollywood, of all places, happens to be one of them: The film industry, in particular, delivered an annus tremendous after many years of backsliding toward canned commerciality. Narrative storytelling on screens big and small caught an evolutionary updraft, exceeding weary audience members’ expectations with an array of robust and risky projects that challenged the conventions of escapist formulas and embraced the messy complexity inherent to life on Planet Earth.

Literary filmmaking stands out as a particular bright spot in this warm-hued portrait of bold creative output. Over the past few years, Hollywood has increasingly turned to books for its most profitable and/or substantive releases. This trend reached a new high watermark in 2012, when studios unleashed a flood of masterful adaptations by a vanguard of established visionaries (Ang Lee, Steven Spielberg, and David O. Russell), talented upstarts (Ben Affleck, Andrea Arnold, Jacques Audiard, and Stephen Chbosky) and career revivalists (Terence Davies and John Madden).

What sets these films apart from other impressive feats of book-based filmmaking has less to do with any act of faith to the source material and more to do with the bold departures and betrayals these films take in the service of capturing something more intimate and idiosyncratic. Each book, to some degree, functions as a launching pad for themes and ideas as personal to each filmmaker as anything they might have dreamed up themselves.

There were enough worthy and admirable adaptations released this year to spend the rest of 2012’s remaining days camped out in front of screens of all sizes powering through a book-to-film movie marathon. But who has time (or patience) for that? Actually, we did, so you don't have to. Now all you need to navigate 2012's massive library of books on film is the following anthology of the year’s highlights in literary filmmaking.

With this '70s-style political thriller based on Joshuah Bearman’s nonfiction account of a CIA agent’s harebrained scheme to resolve the Iranian Hostage Crisis, Ben Affleck became the filmmaking version of an athlete who suddenly found his zone and reached unforeseen levels of virtuosity. Hollywood had all but given up on this kind of smart and stylized grabbed-from-the-headlines thriller until Affleck struck the right balance between understated comedy-of-the-absurd and trenchant look at what happens when American lives are on the line in a Middle Eastern hot zone.

Steven Spielberg subtly knocks Abraham Lincoln off his sanctified pedestal in this narrowly focused narrative about the president's quest to legislate the end of slavery. With the help of a masterful lead performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, Spielberg offers unprecedented insight into the mercenary tactics imperative to success in presidential politics. But it's the shadowy moral built into what could be generic American myth-making that elevates this film above the usual sentiment-soaked Spielbergian history lesson in which a few good men persevere and prevail in the face of unmitigated evil. Extra credit goes to screenwriter Tony Kushner for translating the policy debates in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography into flinty and fascinating disputes on the nature of sacrificing the few for the good of the whole.

Rust and Bone
Based on Craig Davidson’s short story collection, this suspenseful and spellbinding romantic drama sounds like the stuff of a Hallmark Channel production on paper: A whale trainer at a Sea World-like amusement park loses her legs in an Orca accident and seeks solace in a relationship with a gentle giant. In director Jacques Audiard's hands, however, that simple story transforms into multilayered allegory interweaving ideas about class, race and the bond formed between two fighters struggling to transcend their physical and emotional limitations.

Silver Linings Playbook
This screw-loose comedy about a couple of lunatic savants made for each other (but not for this world) is David O. Russell’s love letter to madness itself. Loosely based on Matthew Quick’s eponymous 2008 novel about a recently institutionalized bipolar powder keg (Bradley Cooper) who tussles and tangos his way back to semi-sanity with the help of his bereaved borderline neighbor (Jennifer Lawrence), this film exalts and embraces the anarchic struggle to cope with an infectious affection for the crazy that lives within us all.

Life of Pi
Before Ang Lee came along, Hollywood had all but given up on adapting Yann Martel’s 2001 bestselling novel about an Indian boy stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Several directors had abandoned the project, unable to reconcile the book’s technical challenges with its fuzzy spiritual inquiry into man’s relationship with God. Lee’s leap of faith paid off, yielding a vivid and thought-provoking cinematic encounter with the divine.

“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
It would be easy to write off this ensemble dramedy about a bunch of aging Britons who find love and renewal in a tired hotel in India as “The Big Chill” for the Geritol generation. But it would be a mistake to store this late-life love-among-the-rickshaws story (based on the novel by Deborah Moggach) alongside other familiar chestnuts involving exotic travel and romantic reinvention. “Shakespeare in Love” director John Madden assembled some of the world’s greatest living actors to play the kinds of complicated romantic leading roles unavailable to them after the age of forty. As it turns out, watching Judi Dench luminously fall in love on screen is among the most palpable pleasures in this film or most any other.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Stephen Chbosky pulled triple duty on this witty and wistful coming-of-age reminiscence as the author of the source material in addition to being film's screenwriter and director. And though we’ve been given good reason to be wary of any project featuring a self-adapted novel (Nick Hornby’s 1997 version of "Fever Pitch" among them), this is the rare instance where being “too close” to the material turns out to be an asset. If the film weren’t so full of warmhearted insight and knowing laughs, it would almost be hard to watch the painfully familiar film that’s so grotesquely intimate at times, it’s as if Chbosky had captured National Geographic-style close-up footage of an angsty adolescent introvert as he bursts out of his chrysalis and turns into the (social) butterfly he was destined to become.

Wuthering Heights
This is the live and unplugged version of Cathy and Heathcliff’s doomed love affair on the wind-whipped Yorkshire moors. Writer-director Andrea Arnold distilled Emily Bronte’s novel down to its vaporous and visceral essence using sparse dialogue, stark painterly imagery, and an interracial romance whose savage sensuality emerges out of the primal intimacy of early exchanges where Cathy literally licks Heathcliff's wounds and sidles up to him to ride over the rocky cliffs on the bare back of a horse nearly as wild as they are.

The Deep Blue Sea
Rachel Weisz delivers a master class in conveying finely calibrated agony in director Terrence Davies’ adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play about a woman in the grip of romantic infatuation. Set in dreary post-WWII England, Weisz plays a woman of Anna Karenina-sized passions who strays from her loveless marriage with a Vronsky-like undeserving rogue and winds up lonely, alone and unable to shake her magnificent obsession. While Rattigan’s play concerns itself with the constraints placed on women in mid-century England, Davies and Weisz have transformed and updated the story into a more visceral cautionary tale about desire run amok.