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Oscar contenders based on outstanding books

Saoirse Ronan as Eilis in the film Brooklyn, adapted from the novel by Colm Toibin. Photo: Kerry Brown/Twentieth Century FoxSo many of the best films of the moment are adapted from books, which becomes more common as Hollywood’s only creative ideas involve cartoons, special effects and violence. They include The Revenant (author Michael Punke), Carol (Patricia Highsmith), The Big Short (Michael Lewis), The Martian (Andy Weir), Brooklyn (Colm Toibin), Room (Emma Donoghue) and The Dressmaker (Rosalie Ham). Many of the films are nominees for the Oscars on February 28 and have already won other awards. The great thing about this crop is the high quality of the original books, many literary novels by leading writers, despite the adage that the worst books make the best films because of their simplistic dependence on action rather than language. I saw Brooklyn this week, wondering if any filmmaker could translate Toibin’s exquisitely subtle and interior story about the homesickness of a young Irish immigrant to America in the 1950s. And yes, thanks partly to novelist Nick Hornby’s intelligent screenplay and Saoirse Ronan’s vulnerable performance, the film is a success – quiet and painfully sad, while also funny and visually rich.


The Dressmaker is the only Australian book and film on that list. Rosalie Ham’s 2000 novel had already sold an impressive 75,000 copies in Australia, France and Germany before the film opened in October. Ham says her 1950s story about a Paris couturier who collides with her past in an Australian country town has been on the Victorian Certificate of Education reading list three times and has themes that interest teenagers, from love and tragedy to bullying, hypocrisy and vanity. But the popular film, produced by Ham’s schoolmate Sue Maslin, directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse and starring Kate Winslet and Hugo Weaving, has given the novel an extra boost. The film tie-in edition was No. 1 on BookScan’s bestseller list at the end of January and has sat on the list for weeks. Ham says 90,000 copies have sold and another 20,000 ebooks. The novel will be published in 11 more countries, including Britain and the US. And her second and third novels are taking off again. All of which has enabled her to take a year off from teaching in Melbourne to finish her fourth novel and start her fifth. She says: “I’m writing about irrigation water and a country community, which doesn’t sound very sexy but it has my trademarks – love and betrayal and high drama.”


Some of my favourite recent novels are next in line for screen adaptations and offer more strong roles for female actors. The Natural Way of Things by Sydney writer Charlotte Wood has been optioned by independent producers Katia Nizic and Emma Dockery. They say the story about a group of women who fight back against sexual abuse, imprisonment and corporate power “feels personal and specific, but also speaks to women the world over”. And Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels, starting with My Brilliant Friend, will be made into a 32-episode TV series by an Italian production company. The mysterious writer behind the pseudonym is involved in the production. While she is unlikely to reveal her true identity, we can hope she protects her complex portrayal of an intense, lifelong friendship between two women set against the society and crime of Naples.

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