Anne Hathaway and Keira Knightley/Photos © Featureflash/Helga Esteb – Shutterstock
This fall has been a banner season for adaptations, with the lush, big-budget showstoppers "Anna Karenina" and "Les Miserables" leading the pack. And gracing each movie is a young actress whose resume is already rife with some of our favorite book-to-film titles. By our (very unscientific) count, Keira Knightley and Anne Hathaway have each appeared in a dozen adaptations (thirteen for Knightley if you count "Pirates of the Caribbean" -- we don’t). Both Hathaway and Knightley have done children’s classics ("Alice in Wonderland" and "Neverland," respectively). Both have taken on nonfiction ("Love & Other Drugs" and "The Duchess"). Both have been romanced while wearing period dress by the dashing James McAvoy.
Two of the most sought-out actresses in Hollywood, these Oscar-nominated starlets with bookish leanings regularly win raves for bringing the page to the screen. But who does it better? In the spirit of healthy competition we’ve pitted them head-to-head in a few key categories to bring you the Battle of the Lit It Girls.
Round One: Big Sprawling Classic
Keira: Though reviews for director Joe Wright’s and screenwriter Tom Stoppard’s bold adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina have been somewhat mixed, Knightley’s notices have been primarily positive -- The Guardian said she revealed “new subtlety and maturity in her acting” -- and her name has been popping up regularly in pre-awards predictions (though she didn’t get the Golden Globes nod).
Anne: Forget the fuss about her wardrobe malfunction at the recent Les Miserables premiere. Since the teaser trailer was first released in May, much of the buzz around the enormously anticipated movie musical has been focused on Hathaway’s raw, emotional take on Fantine’s song “I Dreamed a Dream.” And during the first screening of the film last month, her rendition earned a mid-movie round of applause from industry insiders, solidifying her as a favorite for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar race and earning her a Golden Globes nom.
Round goes to: From her haircut to her weight loss to that wrenching vocal performance, Hathaway’s performance as Fantine has been the talk of this holiday movie season. Winner: Hathaway
Round Two: Pop Project with Pedigree
Keira: Knightley is currently filming "Jack Ryan," a reboot of the ever-popular Tom Clancy series, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Chris Pine as the titular character and Kevin Costner as his CIA mentor. Knightley, who plays Pine’s love interest, says she took the role for two reasons: to work with childhood hero Branagh and for the chance to do something in the “Hollywood sort of run-around, explosions [vein].”
Anne: Next up for Hathaway is "Robopocalypse," slated to begin filming in early 2013. Directed by Steven Spielberg and adapted by Drew Goddard (frequent Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams collaborator), this sci-fi thriller is based on Daniel H. Wilson’s acclaimed novel, which has drawn repeated comparisons to the work of Michael Crichton. Blockbuster darling Chris Hemsworth has also signed on, and for an added dash of tony clout, British actor Ben Whishaw is rumored to be on board. Like Knightley, Hathaway says the director was a big draw to the project: "Whenever I'm taking time off, I always joke to my team that I'm on vacation unless Steven Spielberg calls. And I was on vacation and Spielberg called. So I was like, 'OK, put my money where my mouth is'."
Round goes to: Since neither will be in theaters anytime soon ("Jack Ryan" is scheduled for a Christmas 2013 release and "Robopocalypse" for April 2014), we have to go on the sheer anticipation factor. An origin story reboot of a beloved franchise with an A-list cast and an esteemed director? A bestselling hot newcomer also with an A-list cast and an esteemed director? We’re pretty excited for both. Winner: A draw
Round Three: Jane Austen Adaptation
Keira: In the role every literary young actress dreams of playing, Knightley was called “a knockout” by The New York Times and praised for bringing “ferocious bite” to Pride & Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennet by New York magazine. Though Knightley’s Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) paled in comparison to our sentimental favorite, Colin Firth, the actress’s performance was enough to make this Pride & Prejudice a stunner -- and to earn Knightley an Oscar nomination.
Anne: Because "Being Jane" is “based” on the author’s own letters, this modern romantic comedy disguised as a period Austenesque tale almost counts as an adaptation. Hathaway’s performance as the feisty Miss Austen was called “a triumph” by The New York Times and in James McAvoy, James Cromwell, Maggie Smith, and Julie Walters, she’s got a stellar supporting cast. But ultimately this forgettable faux-biography is little more than a trifle.
Round goes to: Hathaway gets points for taking on the author herself, but ultimately, Knightley’s “knockout” performance delivers a hearty K.O. to the competition. Winner: Knightley
Round Four: Contemporary Bestseller
Keira: In the film version of Ken Bruen’s bestselling crime thriller, London Boulevard, Knightley is just fine (though even waifier than usual) as Charlotte, a starlet who, hounded by paparazzi, seeks protection from a felon-turned-bodyguard played by Colin Farrell. While the movie has a killer soundtrack and a stylish, edgy noir vibe, with subplots galore and lots of brutal violence, it’s ultimately a bit of a mess.
Anne: Though the protagonist of Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada is wide-eyed Andrea Sachs, a recent college grad who lands a dream (nightmare) job at Runway magazine, the star of the chick lit bestseller was always clearly Miranda Priestly, the Anna Wintour-inspired editor with an acid tongue and a killer sense of style. And the film version is no different -- Meryl Streep owns this picture, and while Hathaway is solid as the not-so-ugly duckling Andy, we only have eyes for Meryl.
Round goes to: Movies are a team sport and Meryl leads her "Prada" teammates to victory. Winner: Hathaway (by a hair -- one of Miranda Priestly’s perfectly coiffed silver ones)
Round Five: Award-Winning Contemporary Classics
Keira: Working again with "Pride & Prejudice" (and future "Anna Karenina") director Joe Wright on the adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Booker-nominated Atonement, Knightley received generally solid reviews to the film’s overall mixed ones. Roger Ebert commended the “stunning style” with which Knightley played the posh, lovestruck Cecelia (remember her flitting around in that gorgeous green gown?) and the Telegraph praised her for using “a veneer of hauteur to mask her tremulous feelings” -- essential to the story’s dark turn.
Knightley’s second entry in this category is another Booker-shortlisted novel -- Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian Never Let Me Go, also received with generally ambivalent reviews, revealing once again how difficult it can be to create satisfying adaptations of beloved books. (Spoiler: Knightley also got knocked a few points by critics, who doubted that her “fearfully thin frame would be many people’s first choice of organ-incubation unit.”)
Anne: Of the four leads in Ang Lee’s stunning adaptation of Annie Proulx’s short story Brokeback Mountain, Hathaway was the only one not to receive an Oscar nod. And while her performance as Lureen, the former rodeo queen who becomes hardened and bitter as her husband Jack (Jake Gyllenhaall) drifts into the arms of another man, may not have had the same showstopping force of her costars’, in her first adult dramatic role, Hathaway was wholly impressive.
Round goes to: Despite Knightley’s double-punch of two Booker-nominated novel adaptations, "Brokeback" is the superior film, and Hathaway’s performance was a turning point in her career. Winner: Hathaway
Round Six: Charles Dickens
Keira: As Rose, Oliver’s aunt, in the 1999 British mini-series "Oliver Twist," Knightley didn’t have a ton to do, but she cut her teeth with other British big shots, including fellow book-to-film staple Andy Serkis as Bill Sikes. And she gave the world a taste of just how at home she is in a corseted adaptation.
Anne: Like her competitor, in the 2002 film "Nicholas Nickleby," Hathaway was surrounded by a stellar cast, including Jim Broadbent, Nathan Lane, and Christopher Plummer. And like Knightley, Hathaway showed solid period ingénue potential as Nicholas’ love interest Madeline Bray.
Round goes to: By taking on Dickens early in their careers and holding their own in impressive casts, both competitors show their adaptation mettle and prove themselves to be lit It girls in the making. Winner: A draw
And your champion is: Each actress has plenty of other adaptations in her arsenal. How would Hathaway’s "One Day" fare against Knightley’s "A Dangerous Method"? "The Princess Diaries" against "The Duchess"? These are decisions for a later bout. Both played admirably, but today’s match goes to ... Anne Hathaway.