The best books to read in tandem with their eccentric movie adaptations

Lynn A. Higgins Author Of Bertrand Tavernier
By Lynn A. Higgins

Who am I?

I'm a recently retired Professor of French literature and cinema studies at Dartmouth College. Because I love both books and movies, I developed a course on adaptation, which I taught with pleasure for many years. I wanted to give students the opportunity to learn how to analyze literary texts and films, separately and in juxtaposition, and they especially enjoyed discovering how the “same” story works quite differently in different media. In addition to the two volumes on Tavernier, my published books include New Novel, New Wave, New Politics: Fiction and the Representation of History in Postwar France; Parables of Theory: Jean Ricardou’s Metafiction; and Rape and Representation (co-edited with Brenda Silver).

I wrote...

Bertrand Tavernier

By Lynn A. Higgins,

Book cover of Bertrand Tavernier

What is my book about?

Bertrand Tavernier is one of the most important French film directors in the generation that followed the New Wave. His oeuvre spans many historical periods and genres, including historical dramas, documentaries, science fiction, melodramas, intimate portraits of (fictional) artists, and even comedy. In the United States, he is best known for A Sunday in the Country [Un Dimanche à la campagne, 1984] about an aging post-impressionist painter in the period just before World War I, and Round Midnight [Autour de minuit, 1986], about an American jazz musician in 1950s Paris. Some of his most interesting and memorable films (including A Sunday in the Country) are adaptations.

Note: Readers who enjoy his films and/or my book about him might also want to delve deeper into his reflections about his individual films in my co-edited Bertrand Tavernier Interviews (University Press of Mississippi, pb 2022).

The books I picked & why

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Pop. 1280

By Jim Thompson,

Book cover of Pop. 1280

Why this book?

I was introduced to this book through Tavernier’s brilliant adaptation, Clean Slate (Coup de Torchon, 1981). Set in Texas, Thompson’s novel was published in 1964, during the Civil Rights Movement, and it offers a portrait of petty-minded racism in the continuing aftermath of slavery. Tavernier’s adaptation transposes the story to 1930s French colonial West Africa. I remain haunted by the ways the two settings illuminate each other. Tavernier’s blending of a deadly serious historical crisis with touches of comedy—slapstick even—brings both eras and the novel itself to life in enjoyable and instructive ways.


Billy Budd, Sailor

By Herman Melville,

Book cover of Billy Budd, Sailor

Why this book?

I have never been a Melville fan. I’ve tried several times, unsuccessfully, to finish reading Moby Dick. Two adaptations led me to Billy Budd, however. Claire Denis’ 1999 film, Beau Travail, conjures up a Foreign Legion contingent in colonial Djibouti in a tense and meditative, even hypnotic viewing experience. I am especially intrigued by the intervals of ritual-like dancing at several junctures in the film. Benjamin Britten’s opera, Billy Budd, by contrast, is an edgy and explosive adaptation of the same story. I was curious to read the shared literary source behind these two radically different interpretations, and I wasn’t disappointed.


Passing

By Nella Larsen,

Book cover of Passing

Why this book?

I discovered this novella thanks to its recent screen adaptation. The novel, like the film, outlines the dual traps faced by one of the protagonists, a light-skinned Black woman who can escape racial injustices by passing as white, only to fall prey to the shame, anxiety, and dangers of living a lie. The savagery of this double-edged trap is only partially masked by social niceties and delicate writing that nevertheless betray damaging assumptions and behaviors. The novella is a natural for cinematic adaptation, where the racial dynamic is necessarily more immediately visible, and which necessarily emphasizes dynamics of looking and the gaze of characters and spectators alike. The period, too—1920s New York—is exquisitely but differently rendered in the two media.


Macbeth

By William Shakespeare,

Book cover of Macbeth

Why this book?

You think you know a book, and then an adaptation blows your understanding wide open. This play always rewards re-reading, but especially in tandem with Akira Kurosawa’s film adaptation, Throne of Blood. Set in Medieval Japan, the film looks and seems utterly different from Shakespeare’s writing; astonishingly, Kurosawa’s adaptation uses none of the language from the original play, even in translation! The film is completely self-contained within its Japanese historical and visual setting, and yet the play’s plot, characters, themes, and motifs reappear in the film: prophecy, the mysterious powers of nature, ruthless ambition, fear and revenge, madness, and the supernatural. Seeing the story through a different cultural lens brings uncanny echoes into a rereading of the original play.


Jesus Out to Sea

By James Lee Burke,

Book cover of Jesus Out to Sea

Why this book?

The book is a collection of short stories by my favorite mystery novel writer. Burke’s series detective, Dave Robicheaux, who is both a Louisiana cop and a moral philosopher, repeatedly strives to overcome his own flaws and set right the cruel catastrophes wrought by human ignorance, stupidity, and cruelty. Jesus Out to Sea is infused with the same narrative and poetic ferocity, but without Robicheaux this time. The collection is set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and probes the human costs of the devastation wrought by nature and exacerbated by administrative corruption and bad faith. 

A surprising and powerful adaptation of one of the stories—“Winter Light”—will be released theatrically in the fall of 2022 with the title God’s Country. It’s the first feature by Julian Higgins, a promising young director (who happens to be my son). The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to enthusiastic reviews and stars Thandiwe Newton in a performance that has been described as the best of her career.


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