Writ Large: 5 Recent Movies That Should Be Books

Oscar Isaac in ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’/Image © CBS Films

Remember what Diane Keaton’s character did for a living in 1979’s “Manhattan”? When she wasn’t mispronouncing Van Gogh or declaring F. Scott Fitzgerald “overrated,” she wrote “novelizations” – books based upon already released movies. It was a weirdly popular cultural phenomenon that still exists, though its appeal has faded with the advent of DVDs and streaming content. But what if it got resuscitated? Despite their potential to fail to live up to our expectations, literary adaptations are considered a very legitimate genre of film. So maybe it’s time for these adaptations to go in the other direction. Certainly the films of 2013, a terrific year in cinema, offer many worlds that could be expanded wonderfully on page.

This travelogue about aging Midwestern alcoholic Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) on a fool’s errand enabled by David (Will Forte), his adult son, succeeds not only because of director Alexander Payne’s inimitable poker face but because of the affection he and screenwriter Bob Nelson demonstrate for their characters. Imagine if a Richard Russo or Annie Proulx had their way with this material – the multigenerational bathos they could build for the Grants based upon the family history only alluded to in the screenplay; the sad, sere loneliness that could be assigned to the film’s black and white vistas. It would be the kind of Great American Novel that hasn’t come down the pike in too long.

“Inside Llewyn Davis”
It’s hard to believe the Coen Brothers’ latest opus, about a sadsack 1961 singer/songwriter (Oscar Isaac) who is flailing in Greenwich Village’s folk scene, isn’t already a novel. Redolent with cigarette smoke, terse dialogue, and bleak interiors, it’s screaming for the internal monologues only alluded to in Davis’ mournful expressions. I picture this as a lost novel written in the stream-of-consciousness style of one of the Beat writers – perhaps one of the less-celebrated ones in a delicious bit of extra irony.

“Before Midnight”
The third installment in the much-beloved trilogy about lovers Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is by far the rawest of the three films. In it, the two have been living together long enough to develop the simmering resentments of any red-blooded couple, and their inevitable big fight blasts a relationship reality the likes of which rarely grace big screens. Imagine this as a thick, juicy standalone novel of modern love, one that alternates “his/her” perspectives and archly contrasts their rage with the gorgeous Greek backdrop. Delpy and Hawke – who co-wrote this film with director Richard Linklater – could easily knock it off together. After all, Hawke already has two not-terrible books under his belt, and he’s always at his best when paired with Delpy, who seemingly can do anything – be it write, direct, act, or perform music.

“Enough Said”
Writer/director Nicole Holofcener’s most recent comedy of manners – in which a fiftysomething woman (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) begins dating the loathed ex-husband (James Gandolfini) of her new friend (Catherine Keener) – is her best yet. That’s not only because of the strong cast but because this is her first to focus on one central, flawed yet sympathetic character.  It’s the stuff of which smart romance novels are made, and Holofcener herself could write a great one. Then again, so could Jennifer Weiner, and we suspect she just might be game.

No 2013 film asked more haunting questions than Spike Jonze’ stylish, melancholy love story between Theodore, a recently separated writer (Joaquin Phoenix), and Samantha, his operating system (Scarlett Johansson). It probed at the distinctions between finite and infinite consciousness, the hazards and happiness of our reliance upon technology, and the possibility that love extends far beyond the scope of the human body. A novel could delve even more satisfyingly into all these points – including Samantha’s burgeoning self-awareness, the “slight future” that Jonze references in the film’s press notes, and the ultimate revolution of the collective operating systems. Such a book would require an author with as much wit, empathy, and prescience as Jonze himself possesses – and Douglas Coupland or David Mitchell might be just the chap to pull it off.