Battle of the Book-to-Screen Queens: Cate Blanchett vs. Emma Thompson

Cate Blanchett, Emma Thompson/Photos © Featureflash/Shutterstock
Cate Blanchett, Emma Thompson/Photos © Featureflash/Shutterstock

Here at Signature, we clearly spend a lot of time thinking about movie adaptations, and about the writers, directors, designers, and actors who bring books, articles, and short stories to the screen. In our study of the art of adaptation, we’ve noticed that some actors are more bookish than others, regularly popping up as characters first imagined on the page. And rising to the head of this literary class are Cate Blanchett and Emma Thompson. Each has appeared in more than a dozen adaptations and each can currently be seen in a film version of magical, mysterious young adult favorite: Blanchett in the first of the new “Hobbit” series and Thompson in the soon-to-open “Beautiful Creatures,” based on the book of the same name by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.

But which of these Oscar-winning actresses has better perfected the art of adaptation? As we did with Anne Hathaway and Keira Knightly, we bring you a friendly head-to-head competition to crown one of these literary ladies as the Queen of Book-to-Screen.

Round One: Booker Prize Winners
Cate: In her breakout role in “Oscar and Lucinda,” Blanchett played Lucinda, an heiress with a gambling addiction and a dream of building a church entirely of glass, who finds an unlikely kindred spirit and paramour in Oscar (Ralph Fiennes), an Anglican minister with a similar attraction to playing the odds. Australian director Gillian Armstrong’s adaptation of Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning novel was widely hailed as visually stunning, captivating (if eccentric) film, and Blanchett’s vibrant performance received glowing comparisons to young Judy Davis in Armstrong’s debut film “My Brilliant Career.” It wasn’t a bad way to start a screen career as a literary darling.

Emma: Set almost entirely in the mind of its unreliable narrator, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker winner The Remains of the Day was generally thought to be a) something of a masterpiece and b) probably unfilmable. But as their follow-up to “Howards End,” James Ivory, Ismail Merchant, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala turned the story of a single-mindedly devoted butler into what The New York Times called a “spellbinding” “exquisite work.” As the butler Stevens, Anthony Hopkins carried the film with prim precision, but Thompson, who like her co-star received an Oscar nod, gave the film its warmth and emotional center as the housekeeper Miss Kenton, whose heartbreaking longing is lost on the indefatigable Stevens.

Round goes to: In period dramas based on contemporary novels, both actresses distinguished themselves as modern-day interpreters of bygone eras, able to capture old-fashioned customs and manners while simultaneously making their characters’ desires feel timelessly relevant. And they’ve both been doing it ever since. Winner: A draw.

Round Two: Beloved Magical Series

Cate: For all their fantastical, imaginative, funny appeal, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books were never known for their strong female characters. And while Blanchett appears in all three of the “Rings” movies and will be in each of the prequel “Hobbit” films, very often her limited screen time left her performance as the elf queen Galadriel feeling like little more than a cameo. Still, Peter Jackson and his team felt her essential enough to defy Tolkien purists by adding Galadriel into “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” even though her character isn’t in the book -- making her the only woman to appear in the series’ first film.

Emma: Similarly, as divination professor Sybil Trelawney in three of the “Harry Potter” films, Thompson never had a ton to do. However, Roger Ebert praised her “daffy enthusiasm” in “Prisoner of Azkaban,” she broke our hearts when Umbridge sacked her, and critics were always happy to see her and the rest of the pantheon of British screen greats show up for cameos in the other films.

Round goes to: Blanchett wins points for being written into “The Hobbit” (Sir Ian McKellan himself wrote on his blog, “Thank goodness for the ravishing reappearance of Cate Blanchett’s serene Galadriel”). However, with a bit more oomph to her role, Thompson has a slight edge -- plus she gets bonus points in this category for writing and starring in her own adaptations of Christianna Brand’s Nurse Matilda series, which became “Nanny McPhee.” Winner: Thompson

Round Three: Inappropriate Romances

Cate: For her performance as Sheba, the bobo school teacher who takes up with one her students in “Notes on a Scandal” (based on Zoë Heller’s Booker short-listed What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal), Blanchett received a much-deserved Oscar nom. Beautiful and lissome, her reckless but well-meaning Sheba draws our sympathy even as she messes up big time, and she holds her own against Judi Dench’s tour de force of a performance as Sheba’s smug, unctuous colleague Barbara. The two women crackle when on screen together, creating what Variety called “riveting interplay [that] draws blood with every scene.”

Emma: Based on Lynn Barber’s memoir about her teenage romance with a much older smooth-talking playboy, “An Education” heralded the breakout performance of another literary-minded actress, the stunning Carey Mulligan, as Jenny, a teenager who longs to escape the stultifying existence of early-sixties suburban England. Thompson, as the Headmistress of Jenny’s uptight Anglican school, represents the boring, meaningless future the young woman hopes to avoid in favor of a more glamorous life in swinging London with her paramour David (Peter Sarsgaard). Thompson perfectly nails the stuffy, narrow-minded authority figure in a performance that The New York Times called “a practice run at her inevitable portrayal of Margaret Thatcher.”

Round goes to: With far more screen time and a juicy role that allowed her to go head-to-head against a true Dame of the cinema, Blanchett delivers a knockout. Winner: Blanchett

Round Three: Stage to Screen

Cate: An Ideal Husband, Oscar Wilde’s 1895 screwball comedy of manners, has always belonged to Lord Arthur Goring, Wilde’s alter ego, who like his creator has all the best lines. As Goring in Oliver Parker’s 1999 film version of the play, Rupert Everett (then fresh off his scene-stealing turn in “My Best Friend’s Wedding”) was no exception, milking each biting, witty line for all it was worth. And though Everett owned the movie, Blanchett, along with the rest of the cast (including Jeremy Northam, Minnie Driver, and Julianne Moore), also delivered a dynamic, Wilde-worthy performance. As Lady Chiltern, the proper, appearances-obsessed wife of politician Sir Robert Chiltern (Northam), Blanchett, according to Rolling Stone, “manage[d] the neat trick of making virtue seem enticing.”

Emma: We’ve got a Joss Whedon-helmed version of Much Ado About Nothing to look forward to, but thanks to Thompson’s star turn as Beatrice, Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 take on the Shakespearean romance remains a classic in our book. At the peak of their golden era as the first couple of British cinema, Ken and Em clearly delighted in flirting through Benedick’s and Beatrice’s constant barbed banter. And while the film overall received mixed reviews, most seemed to agree with Vincent Canby who in The New York Times wrote that Thompson played Beatrice as “an especially desirable, unstoppable life force.”

Round goes to: In a performance so good we were willing to sit through Keanu Reeves’ odd, stilted performance as Don John, Thompson did the near impossible. Winner: Thompson.

Round Five: Yanks vs. Brits

Cate: Though she’s sunk her teeth into the work of Brits like Heller and Sebastian Faulks (“Charlotte Gray”) and fellow Australian Carey, much of Blanchett’s adaptation acting has serviced the words of American authors. From her turn as Kevin Spacey’s promiscuous ex-wife in the adaptation of Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Shipping News to Brad Pitt’s star-crossed lover in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” to jittery heiress Meredith Logue (a role created for the film) in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” Blanchett has distinguished herself as a go-to interpreter of American lit. And soon, she’ll return to the work of Ripley-scribed Patricia Highsmith in “Carol,” an adaptation of the author’s romance novel The Price of Salt.

Emma: She explored the American political system in “Primary Colors” and played the Angel America in HBO’s adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, but much of Thompson’s literary leanings have taken her to the other side of the pond, pitching her into the heart of some of Britain’s master works. In addition to Shakespeare and Ishiguro, she’s brought to life the words of Evelyn Waugh ("Brideshead Revisited"), John Osborne ("Look Back in Anger"), and E.M. Forester ("Howards End"). Oh yeah, and she won an Oscar for adapting Jane Austen’s "Sense and Sensibility."

Round goes to: Not to be unpatriotic, but with two Oscars under her belt in this category (the second for acting in “Howards End”) and for penning her own adaptation, Thompson handily takes the round. Winner: Thompson

And your champion is: With nothing but tremendous esteem for Blanchett, in today’s battle our clear winner is Thompson. But Blanchett will soon be back in the ring with two more “Hobbit” films, the new Highsmith adaptation, a George Clooney-helmed version of Robert Edsel’s The Monuments Men, and a live-action Cinderella. Watch out Emma, she’s coming for you.