Book-to-screen adaptations our critic can't wait to see in 2023
My critical life began as a reader. Authors created characters and dreamscapes that demanded as much of me as they presented. Their books taught me stories, taught me how to consider the world — what it was and what it could be. I came to movies later, but found myself at times longing for the words on the pages to be translated onto the screen.
But how would those adaptations compare to the source material?
From dramatic interpretations like Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple (1985) and Louis Malle's Damage (1992) which earned Academy Award nominations, I began to relish the possibilities. An actor like Liam Neeson could find himself in bringing to life a character from the pages of Captain Bligh and Mr. Christian (in The Bounty alongside Mel Gibson, Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Olivier and Daniel Day-Lewis); earn an Academy Award nomination for Schindler's List, and even play a noted comic book villain in Batman Begins.
Now, audiences have the opportunity to experience adaptations on screens derived with the utmost fidelity, allowing not only page-to-screen translations, but musicals and video games. This year offers a plethora of narratives via film and streaming that will challenge our imaginations and the daring filmmakers willing to put their visions to the test.
Trailers posted where available.
The Nickel Boys (no official release date)
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author Colson Whitehead already has an Emmy nomination for the Barry Jenkins adaptation of The Underground Railroad, so the bar is quite high for director RaMell Ross's feature film translation of The Nickel Boys, starring Luke Tennie, Hamish Linklater and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor. The story is based on a historic reform school in Florida that was the subject of a university investigation that uncovered unmarked graves on its grounds and reports of emotional and physical abuse of students. Ross earned a Best Documentary Feature Academy Award nomination in 2019 for Hale County This Morning, This Evening. The Nickel Boys will be his narrative feature film debut.
The Color Purple (adaptation of the musical, December 25)
Blitz Bazawule, the Ghanian director of the Netflix release The Burial of Kojo and Beyoncé's Black is King, has set his sights on an adaptation of the musical The Color Purple with Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg and Quincy Jones as producers. Bazawule puts his creative heart to the test, tackling not only a legendary Spielberg film, but the extraordinary Alice Walker novel, although he's supported by a cast including Taraji P. Henson, Louis Gossett Jr., Colman Domingo and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor (who is apparently everywhere).
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (November 17)
Helmer Francis Lawrence returns for this Hunger Games prequel from Suzanne Collins that spotlights Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) as he mentors and finds himself attracted to Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), a female District 12 tribute during the 10th Hunger Games. Viola Davis, Peter Dinklage, and Jason Schwartzman play along as well, but can this iteration of the Games survive and thrive without Jennifer Lawrence?
Killers of the Flower Moon (October 20)
David Grann’s book, which details the mysterious murders of members of the Osage tribe in the 1920s and the major FBI investigation involving J. Edgar Hoover, inspired Martin Scorsese to petition Chief Standing Bear to convince the current Osage Nation to lend their support to make this film. It likely won’t hurt that Scorsese also has Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons, John Lithgow and newly minted Best Actor winner Brendan Fraser on board.
Dune: Part Two (November 3)
This adaptation of Frank Herbert's sci-fi epic — the second of two-parts from Denis Villeneuve — is the book-to-screen journey of a lifetime. While fans are divided about the David Lynch version from 1984, most would likely agree that Villeneuve's decision to split the narrative into two films was the wisest choice for such dense galaxy-spanning material. I certainly hope that Part Two is the trippy spice-fueled warrior fantasy that worms its way into our collective pop cultural consciousness. I have no fear, because the all-star cast of the first film — led by Timothée Chalamet — is joined by Austin Butler, Léa Seydoux and Christopher Walken.
Kindred (available now on Hulu)
Having waited decades for someone to take on Octavia Butler's revolutionary slavery time travel novel, I welcomed series creator Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's contemporary update. No longer set during the country's bicentennial, this version directly incorporates the Black Lives Matter movement into its take on an aspiring writer (Mallori Johnson) who finds herself inexplicably drawn back to a 19th century plantation that is connected to her family's past. The eight episodes don't come close to completely telling the full story and sadly FX cancelled the series. My hope, and that of an audience of Butler faithful, is that another streamer will pick up the series and finish telling this unforgettable story.
Bosch: Legacy Season 2 (Amazon Freevee; release date TBD)
Back in 2014, Amazon chose to embark on a gritty adaptation of the work of writer Michael Connelly, focusing on LAPD detective Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch, and found the perfect actor in Titus Welliver. What made the series pop was the call to allow each book to breathe over the course of a season rather than turning them into movies of the week. That is the inherent genius of streaming platforms. Bosch carried on for eight seasons before jumping over to Amazon Freevee to explore Bosch’s life after he retired from the LAPD. Now on Season 2, which is anticipated to premiere later this year, Legacy captures the parallel journeys of a seasoned veteran working as an investigator for a high-profile defense attorney (Mimi Rogers) while his daughter (Madison Lintz) begins her career as an LAPD rookie.
The Last Thing He Told Me (Apple TV+, April 14)
New to the streaming game, Apple has enjoyed success rather quickly. The Morning Show arrived with ripped-from-the-headlines drama and Ted Lasso has come close to triggering a revival of the water cooler-vibe from the 1990s. Their aim now seems to be to develop a dramatic thriller that can catch fire. Author Laura Dave joins Josh Singer as creators of this series based on her novel, featuring Jennifer Garner as a woman attempting to bond with her 16-year-old stepdaughter after her husband disappears. There's a big bet on this deep dive into a rabbit hole, but Garner's series work in the past (Alias) promises a degree of safety.
American Born Chinese (Disney+, May 24)
Sometimes a bit of luck and good timing can make all the difference, which is what Disney+ is leaning into as American Born Chinese prepares to hit small screens. Gene Luen Yang's graphic novel intertwines the story of Jin Wang (Ben Wang), a child of Chinese immigrants who struggles as his family moves to the suburbs with mythological gods. The series arrives with a pair of new Oscar winners in tow (Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan) and strong ties of culture, identity and family to Everything Everywhere All At Once. Talk about a winning formula.
Leave the World Behind (Netflix, December 8)
Netflix has proven adept at balancing adaptations as both series and feature films, and it looks like a strong awards season candidate on the film side this year will be director Sam Esmail's take on Rumaan Alam's novel. The story upends racial dynamics as white vacationers face off against Black rental homeowners when a large-scale blackout and other unnatural events trigger worldwide panic. Having previous directing experience with Mr. Robot and Homecoming, Esmail knows his way around unsettling narratives, so expect sparks to fly as Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke, Kevin Bacon and Mahershala Ali seek to keep the peace.