Five For The Diary: Books To Read Before Oscar Season

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It’s time to face it: summer is nearly over and autumn is on its way. But never fear! It’s not just a season of mists and mellow fruitfulness; it’s also a season of movies and major filmmaking. The Oscar contenders will soon be hitting screens, so it’s time to prepare yourself to dazzle your friends with in-depth knowledge of the likely nominees, and pepper your conversation with phrases like, “Well, it’s no Tolstoy,” or “I preferred the novel, actually”. Read on and get ready…

THE BOOK Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy (1877)
THE FILM Anna Karenina, directed by Joe Wright

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE Leo Tolstoy considered this his best novel (he didn’t actually consider War And Peace a novel. Presumably, like most of the world, he considered it more of a brick) – and he may well be right. The story of an aristocratic noblewoman who throws it all away for love, it’s more a psychodrama than a romance, more a tiny disaster movie than a soppy melodrama. As in War And Peace, a character – Levin – representing Tolstoy himself takes time out to talk about farming amid the action, which may be of less than huge interest to modern folk unconcerned with 19th century advances in agriculture, but even he has his own story to contrast to Anna Karenina’s bad romance. In other words, there’s less farming than War And Peace, which is basically The Archers with Napoleon in it, and more swanning off to France for a shag. The result is a book that’s rich, layered and intensely human.

It’s been adapted for the screen before, of course, but this year sees Anna Karenina brought to the screen in a beautifully weird theatre-based format, with Keira Knightley as the society star, Jude Law as her noble husband, Matthew Macfadyen as her brother, Aaron Taylor-Johnson as her impulsive suitor and Domnhall Gleeson as Levin. The film’s more gorgeous than a Fabergé egg, and the book is a tragic masterpiece, Tolstoy painting all his characters as fully rounded, fatally flawed people.

DO SAY** “If Dostoyevsky declared it a flawless work of art that’s good enough for me.” DON'T SAY** “I’m more of an Anastasia Steele person myself”

THE BOOK Team Of Rivals: The Political Genius Of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2005)
THE FILM Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE If we learned anything from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, it’s that you can’t just canonise Lincoln and leave it at that. It’s important to dig into the mythology of America’s most beloved president, and that’s what historian Kearns Goodwin does here. Only, unlike Seth Grahame-Smith, she leaves out the undead and focuses on the political shenanigans that enabled Lincoln to do what he did for the country. This book concentrates on how Lincoln co-opted the support of his former rivals for the Republican presidential nomination (think Obama appointing Clinton as Head of State) and managed to finagle the lot to win the Civil War and bring about the abolition of slavery.

Steven Spielberg optioned the book a good four years before publication, having met with Goodwin back in 1999 when she was consulting on another project. For years this was envisaged as a Liam Neeson-starring vehicle; in the event, we’ll see Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead when the film arrives in the UK on January 25, in a cast that also includes (deep breath) Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones, Jackie Earle Haley, Lee Pace, Bruce McGill, John Hawkes, Hal Holbrook, Tim Blake Nelson, Gloria Reuben, Walter Goggins, James Spader and David Oyelowo. Let’s hope they all rival one another’s acting best, eh?

DO SAY** “Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?” DON'T SAY** “Is this a sequel to Rivals? I didn’t know Jilly Cooper was working on one!”

THE BOOK Life Of Pi, by Yann Martel (2001)
THE FILM Life Of Pi, directed by Ang Lee

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning book tells, in three parts, the story of Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel. A boy whose family owned a zoo in Pondicherry, India, Pi sets off to Canada aboard a tramp steamer with his family and their animals – but the ship sinks and Pi is set adrift in a lifeboat with a tiger, a hyena, an orangutan and a wounded zebra. Only two of these characters make it across the Pacific. Then, in the book’s latter section, the question turns to what really happened (presumably for people not paying attention to the middle bit, since that’s totes the bit that’s true). The whole thing is a discussion of faith, hope and perseverance in a largely non-preachy style, an uplifting tale about a boy, a tiger and the endless Pacific.

Given the book’s enormous popularity, talk of a film adaptation was inevitable and extensive. Given its thoughtfulness, richness and layers of storytelling, that film’s development process was inevitably complicated and extensively long. M. Night Shyamalan, Alfonso Cuaron and Jean-Pierre Jeunet were all considered for the job before Lee nabbed it. It finally reaches us on December 21 with unknown Suraj Sharma in the lead and star support from Irrfan Khan and Gerard Depardieu.

DO SAY** “Like Barack Obama said, the book’s ‘an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling’.” DON'T SAY** “I prefer Tony the Tiger, personally.”

THE BOOK Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo (1862)
THE FILM Les Misérables, directed by Tom Hooper

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE OK, so this is really an adaptation at one remove of Victor Hugo’s doorstop of a novel, since Tom Hooper and cast are adapting the insanely popular stage musical. But give the original a go! Hugo’s novel was a smash hit in its day, and while the tastes of 19th century top-hat aficionados cannot always be relied upon, a few million French people can’t all be wrong. The novel has the same plot as the musical – which, admit it, you’ve probably seen and loved – but with additional bits discussing politics, poverty, religion, the Battle of Waterloo, architecture, justice, monarchy and closed religious orders. All still relevant! Mostly.

The film, famously, sees its all-star cast singing the songs live on set, presumably upping the difficulty levels on musical filmmaking from “fiendish” to “demon lord of abaddon”. Hugh Jackman stars as Jean Valjean, with Russell Crowe as his lawman nemesis Javert. Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen and Samantha Barks round out the cast. Expect grit, grime, poverty, a miserable bloke called Les crime and lots of catchy tunes.

DO SAY** “Can you hear the people sing?” DON'T SAY** “Is Susan Boyle in it?”

THE BOOK On The Road, by Jack Kerouac (1951)
THE FILM On The Road, directed by Walter Salles

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE Jack Kerouac’s well-thumbed classic has been lending hipster cool to swooning bookshelves for 60-odd years now, but Walter Salles’ adaptation is the first big-screen rendition. Expect more of the book’s boozing, pill-popping, freewheeling thrills than we’d have seen in any Hayes Code-era adaptation. There’ll be equal amounts of jazz, though, as Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) booze and carouse around ‘50s America torching prejudices and using words like ‘hepcat’ and ‘bop’ a lot.

The book, famously rumoured to have been written by Kerouac in one drug-fuelled download, has been passed around Hollywood down the years before Francis Ford Coppola got hold of it in 1979. The fact that it’s taken 30 years to get made says plenty about the seemingly adaptation-defying text, but Walter Salles and scribe Jose Rivera finally cracked the puzzle, assembling a cast that includes Riley, Hedlund, Viggo Mortensen, Kristen Stewart and Kirsten Dunst. Salles and Rivera are roadtrip specialists, with Motorcycle Diaries behind them, and Hedlund’s pretty well-travelled too – well, he’s been to the Grid – which should auger well for the film’s October 12 release.

DO SAY** “Ginsberg was played by James Franco in Howl and Peter Weller was Burroughs in Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, so the Beat movie hat-trick is finally complete with Kerouac’s alter ego, Moriarty.” DON'T SAY** “Is this the new Fast & Furious movie?”