Sundance 2016 by the Books: 12 Must-See Movies for Lit Lovers

James Franco and George MacKay in ‘11/22/63’/Image © Hulu, LLC

The Sundance Film Festival is nigh! America’s premier independent film showcase kicks off Thursday, January 21, and its 120-movie-strong feature-film program — culled from more than four thousand submissions from around the world — will include nearly twenty adaptations, author-related documentaries, or other stories based on true events. Among the more intriguing offerings are “The Birth of a Nation,” writer-director Nate Parker’s narrative take on the life of Nat Turner; “Southside With You,” Richard Tanne’s fictional re-creation of Barack and Michelle Obama’s epic first date; and “Christine” and “Kate Plays Christine,” two competition films (one fiction, one documentary) about the life of ambitious TV newscaster Christine Chubbuck, who killed herself on camera in 1974. Beyond those, take a look below at the dozen must-see book-based films and series screening in Park City this year.

The festival nabbed the world premiere of the two-hour pilot of this high-pedigreed miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s 2011 novel, 11/22/63, about a high school teacher’s strange mission to prevent President Kennedy’s assassination using time travel. King and J. J. Abrams are executive producers, Oscar winner Kevin Macdonald (“One Day in September,” “The Last King of Scotland”) directed, and James Franco stars. “Friday Night Lights” writer-producer Bridget Carpenter scripted the episode, and the special event screening will include an extended Q&A with the filmmakers afterward.

“Ali & Nino”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher Hampton (“Dangerous Liaisons”) adapted this 1937 Kurban Said novel about an epic love story between a Muslim prince and a Christian woman in Azerbaijan on the eve of World War I. Asif Kapadia, who helmed the 2015 Amy Winehouse documentary “Amy” and the popular racing doc “Senna,” which won an audience award at Sundance in 2011, directed the romantic drama.

“Author: The JT LeRoy Story”
This documentary competition film directed by Jeff Feuerzeig reconstructs the “life” of JT LeRoy, a teenaged former prostitute, addict, and writer (Sarah, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things) who was exposed in 2005 as the alter ego or “avatar” of a woman named Laura Albert. The strange story illustrates just how malleable identity, voice, and personal narrative can be. Feuerzeig’s previous documentary, “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” screened at Sundance in 2005.

“Certain Women”
Indie stalwart Kelly Reichardt (“Wendy and Lucy,” “Night Moves”) returns to Sundance with this drama about several women living and striving in the small-town Midwest. Based on Maile Meloy’s bestselling 2009 story collection Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, the film stars Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, and Michelle Williams. Reichardt’s feature debut, “River of Grass,” competed at the festival in 1994 and will be re-screened this year.

“Embrace of the Serpent”
Inspired by the journals of Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Richard Evans Schultes, this drama describes the scientists’ relationship with an Amazonian shaman in Colombia. The last survivor of his people, the holy man helps them search for a sacred healing plant over several decades.

“The Fundamentals of Caring”
Longtime “Late Show With David Letterman” writer-producer Rob Burnett wrote and directed this adaptation of Jonathan Evison’s 2012 novel, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving. The heartfelt comedy follows a grieving man who takes a job as caregiver to a teenager with muscular dystrophy and ends up on a darkly comic road trip. Paul Rudd, Craig Roberts, and Selena Gomez star.

“King Kelly” filmmaker Andrew Neel’s dramatic competition film is based on the 2004 memoir written by Brad Land, which describes how he survived a brutal carjacking as a teenager and then pledged his older brother’s Clemson fraternity, leading to an ugly mix of macho hazing, sibling conflict, and more tragedy. Sundance regular David Gordon Green (“All the Real Girls”) co-wrote the script.

Oscar-nominated screenwriter and frequent Ang Lee collaborator James Schamus (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) makes his directing debut with this adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2008 novel about a Jewish boy’s tumultuous sophomore year at a Midwestern college in 1951. With the Korean War and the draft raging in the background, he dallies with an intense female student and tussles with the dean over religious freedom.

“Love & Friendship”
Oscar-nominated filmmaker Whit Stillman, whose writing-directing debut “Metropolitan” competed at Sundance in 1990, returns with an adaptation of Jane Austen’s early short novel Lady Susan, which unfolds as a series of letters. Kate Beckinsale stars as the titular lady, who tangles with a pair of men and her own colorful reputation while on a visit to her in-laws’ estate.

“Maya Angelou and Still I Rise”
Directors Bob Hercules (“Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance”) and Rita Coburn Whack pulled together this detailed documentary portrait of the award-winning poet, professor, actress, producer, activist, and writer (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Heart of a Woman).

“The New Yorker Presents”
Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”) and veteran “Daily Show” producer Kahane Cooperman are the masterminds behind this new series that will feature documentaries, short films, comedy, poetry, animation, and cartoons taken from and inspired by the storied magazine. The Festival has the world premiere of the first two episodes in the series, which will be followed by an extended Q&A.

“Sophie and the Rising Sun”
Filmmaker Maggie Greenwald, who competed at the fest in 1990 (“The Kill-Off”) and 2000 (“Songcatcher”), here adapts Augusta Trobaugh’s 2001 period novel about the effects of a provocative interracial love affair on a small Southern town right before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.