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7 daring movie adaptations of literary classics

And this weekend’s best new releases.

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A young man sits in period garb, surrounded by papers.
Dev Patel plays David Copperfield in Armando Iannucci’s Dickens adaptation, out in theaters this weekend.
Searchlight Pictures

These are strange times at the movies. For the first time since pandemic lockdowns began in the US in March, a handful of films are coming out in theaters — but not digitally at the same time. Theaters are tentatively reopening in some parts of the US but remain closed in others. Meanwhile, they’re cranking into gear internationally; Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is already playing in several countries, even though it won’t hit most US theaters until Labor Day weekend at the earliest.

One movie that’s coming out in theaters and as a digital rental or purchase is Bill & Ted Face the Music, which concludes the trilogy that began with an excellent adventure in 1989 and continued with a bogus journey in 1991. The new film — which is utterly delightful — follows Bill and Ted (Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves), now fathers of teen girls (Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine), as they try to write the song that will unite all humanity. (In case you don’t remember, we found out in the first movie that that’s why they’re revered in the distant future.)

Nearly all of the original cast reunites for the film, with the addition of some fun new members, like Jillian Bell, Holland Taylor, and Kristen Schaal. It’s a sweet, funny, heartwarming romp, and a worthy conclusion to a most excellent trilogy. (You can rent it from FandangoNow, buy from several different services, or see in your local theater, if you wish.)

When adaptations of classic literature get a little creative

Another great movie out this weekend — but only in theaters, for now — is The Personal History of David Copperfield, an adaptation of Charles Dickens’s 1850 novel, directed by Armando Iannucci (Veep, In the Loop) and starring Dev Patel.

It’s Iannucci’s specialty to craft satirical takes on the absurd ways power functions in politics. The Personal History of David Copperfield is satirical as well, though it’s a gentler, less biting period piece than Iannucci’s phenomenally sharp 2018 film The Death of Stalin.

The Dickens adaptation features Patel as Copperfield, surrounded by a stacked cast that includes Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Ben Whishaw, Gwendoline Christie, Benedict Wong, and Peter Capaldi (as a pitch-perfect Mr. Micawber, the role he seems born to play). It retains a plentiful sense of the ludicrous in its exploration of class and social norms, though the film is affectionate in the end.

Like the character he plays — a young man with literary aspirations who bounces from relative to relative after his mother marries the sadistic Mr. Murdstone and endures all kinds of indignities on the way to success — Patel is British, born and raised in England. But unlike Copperfield, Patel was born to parents who emigrated from India. That casting choice holds significance given the story’s exploration of social strictures and the long history of anti-Indian sentiment in England. And it means the white characters who fancy themselves upper-crusty and respectable, in comparison to the earnest and put-upon Copperfield, look even more ludicrous by comparison. Iannucci makes his point.

But The Personal History of David Copperfield is hardly the first adaptation of a classic novel to fiddle with its source material in surprising ways — sometimes just for fun, and sometimes to make a point.

So if you can’t — or simply prefer not to — go to the theater this weekend, you can still indulge in a deliciously original retelling of an old story. Here are a few of our favorites.

The Lion King (1994)

In the rare case of species-bending casting, The Lion King transports a tale that seems suspiciously like Shakespeare’s Hamlet to the African savannah, setting it among a pride of lions whose royal family is working through a few issues with jealousy and claims to the throne. Simba, the young prince, is Hamlet; his uncle, Scar, murdered Simba’s father, the king Mufasa, and usurped the throne. Mufasa shows up as a ghost to offer advice to his son. Nala is Ophelia, Simba’s love, though thankfully she doesn’t go mad from being ignored by him and drown. And this savannah’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Timon and Pumbaa, who are just kind of always around. William S. would be proud. —Alissa Wilkinson

How to watch it: The Lion King is streaming for Disney+ subscribers. It is also available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.

Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Baz Luhrmann can always be counted on to think outside the box, and in the case of Romeo + Juliet — which Shakespeare adapted from an older tale, as he often did — Luhrmann swings big. The film draws directly from the Bard’s text, but now the Montagues and Capulets are opposing mafia families in 1990s America. They don’t duel with swords; they have guns. A few characters’ names have been updated, and a few details rearranged. But the mid-90s spin, which is marvelously effective and helped accelerate the then-rising stars of Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio, is both familiar and fresh. The original play was written for a circa-1600 audience, but old grudges and star-crossed lovers were just as common in the waning years of the 20th century as they were in Shakespeare’s day. —AW

How to watch it: Romeo + Juliet is streaming for Starz subscribers. It’s also available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, or Vudu.

An Education (2009)

An Education, a simultaneously effervescent and melancholy film directed by Lone Scherfig and starring Carey Mulligan, is based on a memoir of the same title by the British journalist Lynn Barber. (The chapters that inspired the movie specifically were also published in Granta.) But it has the bones of another, older story, which is why Mulligan’s character, 16-year-old Jenny, is reading Jane Eyre in her English class, and why her English teacher asks forebodingly if Jenny’s older new boyfriend is a “Mr. Rochester figure.” He is, in the worst possible way. What ensues explains why An Education is the only effective Jane Eyre modernization I have ever come across: because it understands that if you move Jane Eyre out of the 19th century, you have to reckon with the fact that Mr. Rochester will become a villain. —Constance Grady

How to watch it: An Education is streaming on Netflix.

Wuthering Heights (2012)

Andrea Arnold is hardly the first filmmaker to adapt Emily Brontë’s classic novel, but she’s the first to envision Heathcliff as Black, which casts the whole story in a different light. As with David Copperfield, the social divisions of Wuthering Heights spring into even bolder relief onscreen once race enters the picture. (This is also Arnold’s only film with a male protagonist.) The movie is a wild, cold, blistering retelling of the tale, in which orphaned Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) is treated poorly by Hindley, the son of the family that took Heathcliff in, while sustaining a difficult passion for the daughter, Cathy (Shannon Beer). Years after being thrown out, Heathcliff returns (now played by James Howson) to the manor to find Cathy (Kaya Scodelario) married. And revenge is not sweet. —AW

How to watch it: Wuthering Heights is streaming for subscribers. It is available to stream for free (with ads) on Vudu and Crackle. And it’s available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

Studio Ghibli’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is based on a 10th-century Japanese folk tale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. So it’s not exactly an adaptation of a book you’ve seen at the library — instead, it’s an imagining of one of Japan’s most famous stories. A poor bamboo cutter finds a baby sleeping in a bamboo shoot one day, and takes her home. He and his wife immediately start to think of this peculiar child as not just otherworldly, but godly. She must be a princess, they decide, and that is how they choose to raise her.

Princess Kaguya grows up loving her rural, simple lifestyle, but when she comes of age, she is whisked away to live a fancy royal life in the city — with servants attending to her and suitors pursuing her — all to her chagrin. Kaguya knows her elevated status is what her parents dreamed of for her, so that she could live the privileged life they never had. But Kaguya has other ideas for herself.

Director Isao Takahata, in his final film before his death in 2018, transforms this classic story into a stunning, magical journey. Every frame looks like an ukiyo-e print in motion, kinetic and untethered to the physical world. It’s as delightful to look at as it is heartbreaking; the animation style conveys both awe and the deep sadness of the source story. I doubt the film will convince many viewers to seek out the original folk tale, but they’ll certainly come away knowing all of its wonder and grief. —Allegra Frank

How to watch it: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is streaming on HBO Max.

Lady Macbeth (2016)

Lady Macbeth is based on a Russian novella, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, published by Nikolai Leskov in 1865 (and, interestingly, in Dostoevsky’s magazine called Epoch). But, in the hands of two Brits, playwright Alice Birch and director William Oldroyd, the story migrates to the UK as well as deviating from the novella’s ending. It’s a story of a woman who decides she has, at last, had enough of the abusive, stifling, cruel men she must live with — her domineering father-in-law and dissipated husband — and takes her revenge. Starring Florence Pugh before she became a sensation for movies like Midsommar and Little Women, it is cold, gorgeous, shocking, and just a little delicious. —AW

How to watch it: Lady Macbeth is available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.

Also new and noteworthy this week

  • Epicentro, a nonfiction portrait of post-colonial Cuba, begins playing in virtual theaters on August 28. (You buy a virtual ticket through one of the theaters listed on the film’s website and receive a rental link; the proceeds will be divided between the theater and the distributor.)
  • All Together Now lands on Netflix on August 28. Directed by Brett Haley (Hearts Beat Loud, The Hero) and starring Moana’s Auliʻi Cravalho, it’s an adaptation of Matthew Quick’s YA novel Sorta Like a Rockstar, about a talented teenager who is trying to keep her homelessness a secret.
  • Lingua Franca was released August 26 on Netflix through Ava DuVernay’s distribution company. A love story about a trans Filipina caregiver who is undocumented and trying to get a green card, the film made history at the Venice Film Festival in 2019 for being the first movie directed by and starring an openly trans woman of color to screen in competition.

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