Another year is over, not sure how – it was July just last week. So, here’s a small list of books that were adapted into lustrous and intricate screenplays for you to read/watch at the beginning of a new year. The term “underrated” is so overused now that I don’t want you to get me wrong, none of these films or books are unknown. They all got a fair share of acclaim when they came out, but somehow aren’t as popular as they perhaps ought to be. By that description too, this could easily become an unending list. But these are just a few personal favourites.
1. Wonder Boys (2000) based on Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon
Writing about writers is often murky territory but Chabon knocked it out of the park with this 1995 winner. Grady Tripp is an ageing author who’s struggling with his latest magnum opus, smoking a copious amount of pot, and generally struggling to find his way. During this time, his closest friend, Terry Crabtree, who is also his editor, visits him and chaos ensues. A story of companionship, life’s surprises, and artistic apprehensions. There’ll always be a special place for this film in my heart because Robert Downey Jr plays my day job in Wonder Boys – a book editor.
2. Shubho Mahurat (2003) based on The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side by Agatha Christie
The setup is that of a classic Christie whodunit – at a fundraiser a woman mysteriously dies, and Miss Marple steps in to solve the mystery. Late filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh changed the setting to a film-within-a-film format which made the unfolding of the events even more delicious. It’s a traditional crime story that crackles because of the inspired casting, pitting two ace actors like Raakhee as Ranga Pishima (a Bengali Marple) and Sharmila Tagore against each other, and some excellent use of dialogues.
The film did go on to win two National Awards but isn’t celebrated as much as many other works by the director. Ghosh was also a maker who understood the art of adaptation in the truest sense because he introduced new characters and made them so inherently rooted to the city of Calcutta that even after knowing the story has been taken from an Agatha Christie novel, you’d start seeing an entirely new world a few minutes after the film starts playing.
3. A Scanner Darkly (2006) based on A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick
In a not-so-distant future, nearly every person alive is addicted to a new hallucinatory drug called Substance D – also referred to as “Slow Death” or “Death” in the book. To combat this epidemic, the government develops a high-tech surveillance system and builds a secret network of cops and informants. Caught up in the middle is Bob Archer, an undercover officer who has become addicted to Substance D, struggling to maintain his sanity. The overarching theme of drug abuse in this book was a direct reflection of author Philip K. Dick’s personal experiences.
Other running ideas here are state surveillance and authoritarianism, which feel eerily familiar today. It’s a world filled with unreliable, manipulative characters but what makes it relatable is that it’s not devoid of compassion or empathy. Filmmaker Richard Linklater will always be known as the Before Trilogy guy, maybe School of Rock for some, but this is where he was at his inventive and imaginative best. And the trippy rotoscoping animation really hits home, especially in this overdosed age of cybernated superheroes and avatars.
4. The Descendants (2015) based on The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings
Hawaii is not a place but a major player in The Descendants – one of the most bittersweet family tragedies ever. Matt King (George Clooney in the film doing his life’s best work) descends from a line of Hawaiian privilege who has inherited a vast expanse of virgin land and must decide as trustee for the family's property whether to sell it, a decision that could instantly make him and several of his relatives considerably wealthier. He is also amidst enormous personal tragedy; his wife of several years has just been in a boating accident that has left her in a coma from which she may never wake up again. King is suddenly a single parent – responsible for his two young daughters, one at a critical crossroads dealing with boarding school, drug abuse, and teenage rebellion while another, just ten years old, still unaware that she’s about to lose her mother.
You’ll meet a wild bunch here, whether you pick up the book or play the film on a balmy afternoon, including some poignantly written minor characters. But even at their most defenseless, none of them seem like they lack emotional heft. It won’t change the way you look at grief but reassure that grieving while not forgetting to laugh a little every now and then is possible.
5. Burning (2018) based on the story “Barn Burning” from The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami
One look at Burning and the viewer will know they are now a part of the Murakami universe. There are solitary aimless characters, a glimpse into the dark side of human nature, and of course a cat too but one that never shows its face.
The plot is deceptively simple – two childhood friends, a man and a woman who grew up in a farming village, run into each other in Seoul and reconnect. Soon a third lead is introduced, a rich and sophisticated young man who instantly comes across as charming and worldly wise. He admits to his weird avocation, he locates and burns down greenhouses during his spare time. A little while later, the woman disappears, and her friend starts suspecting the other man. The violence in Burning isn’t always obviously discernable but epitomized by the constant display of status and wealth. Don’t miss this haunting exploration of social and economic disparity that’s palpably altering the South Korean landscape forever.