How do you feel when a beloved book gets adapted for the silver screen?
Unlike most people, I love it when Hollywood turns a book into a movie.
I don’t think they always do a good job. In fact, I think they rarely do. Still, whenever I hear that a book that I liked is being turned into a film or TV series, a part of me gets a thrill. I love seeing how another artist interprets the work (even if it looks and sounds different that I envisioned it). I love how new life is breathed into the story, ultimately expanding its audience and offering new insights. And—if the director gets it right—it can be gold.
For the last two years, the LGBTQ leg of the Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival has co-presented book adaptations as part of the Image + Nation film festival. With that in mind, I thought I’d share three of the books I felt were well-served by their transition to the screen.
Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim
I read most of Mysterious Skin in my old childhood bedroom, itself located in a sleepy suburb not unlike Hutchison, Kansas, where the book was mostly set. The teens in this novel seemed complex in ways I never was, especially Neil McCormick, the sexually precocious protagonist who is anxious to leave his small town. When I found out that director Gregg Araki would be adapting the book for the screen, I was thrilled. Familiar with his work, I knew that Araki would bring a look and feel (and edge) to the movie that would honour its tormented characters. And that he did. Araki kept the film set in the 1990s, filling it with powerful scenes and a dream-like soundtrack by Robin Guthrie, whose music added a whole other dimension to this heartfelt story that has stayed with me all these years.
A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood
A slim volume of under 200 pages (and not a part of his Berlin oeuvre), I hadn’t heard of Isherwood’s A Single Man until it was recommended by a friend of mine. Not very long, the book still packs a punch. At the time, it was the only novel I had read that spoke about what aging was like for gay men. Its main character is a middle-aged professor named George who is going through the motions, mourning the untimely death of his younger lover, Joe. I wondered how first-time director (and fashion icon) Tom Ford would do with this work I found heartbreaking in its honesty. Was it a vanity project? It turned out the script was solid and the visuals as lush as an ad campaign (casting heavyweights Colin Firth and Julianne Moore as leads didn’t hurt either). When I think back to the book, I still see Firth reading on the couch with Matthew Goode, who plays his lover. A sign the film has indeed stayed with me.
We the Animals by Justin Torres
Blue Metropolis co-presented the film adaptation of this book at Image + Nation in 2018. When I first found out they were turning We the Animals into a film, I was skeptical. It had been years since I’d read it; I remembered it to be more prose that plot, wonderfully written poetic scenes that told the story of a chorus of three young brothers growing up with an absent father and an abused mother. Jeremiah Zagar makes slight changes to the story, but it’s all there. I remember watching the movie in the cinema for the first time, staring at the screen and marveling how the director had created his own visual poem that felt like a great companion piece to the original work.
There are also a number of books I’d love to see adapted for the screen. A few years ago, I heard that Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance was being turned into a film. Although it will be a great challenge, I look forward to seeing if the director is able to recreate 1970’s gay NYC nightlife. And I think Joe Keenan’s madcap comedy My Blue Heaven¾about two friends who get married for the gifts¾is ripe to be turned into a Birdcage-esque farce for a set of a-list actors.
– Christopher DiRaddo