A century ago, the top-grossing film of 1919 was The Miracle Men, based on the 1914 play by George Cohan. In second place, Male and Female, a remake of a film from the year before, itself based on J.M. Barrie’s play The Admirable Crichton. Behind that, Daddy-Long-Legs, starring Mary Pickford and based on Jean Webster’s novel of the same name.
All of which is to say that movies have always drawn from the best (and sometimes the not-so-best) of the older arts. That tradition continues at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, with projects based on everything from an ancient Greek play to a popular podcast, with a whole host of novels in between.
One of the most anticipated titles at TIFF is the world premiere of Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which chronicles a meeting between children’s TV personality Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks, of course) and Esquire journalist Tom Junod, renamed Lloyd Vogel in the film and played by Matthew Rhys.
The article, originally published in 1998, is easy to find online, and a masterpiece of writing. Sure, some flourishes are a touch showy: “He looked as languorous as an odalisque,” Junod writes of his subject. But then there are passages that can move one to tears, as when Rogers (who died in 2003) shows Junod the mausoleum where he will one day be buried. “Where the glass had warped away from the frame of the door – where there was a finger-wide crack – Mister Rogers’s voice leaked into his grave, and came back to us as a soft, hollow echo.”
Equally moving for entirely different reasons is H.P. Lovecraft’s short story The Colour Out of Space. Published in Amazing Stories magazine in September, 1927, one month before the pictures became talkies, the horror/sci-fi tale tells of a meteorite that lands in New England and causes madness and death in everyone and everything nearby.
The prose is a fantastic lesson in circumspection – a woodchuck, changed by the mysterious rock, is said to have had “the proportions of its body … slightly altered in a queer way impossible to describe, while its face had taken on an expression which no one ever saw in a woodchuck before.” The colour out of space is never named, except to say that it is unlike any colour on Earth. The film version (minus the U in Colour) is directed by Richard Stanley, stars Nicolas Cage and will have its world premiere in TIFF’s Midnight Madness sidebar.
Since the dawn of film, books have provided a deep wellspring of material, and this year’s TIFF is no different. High-profile projects include The Goldfinch, based on Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and starring Ansel Elgort; American Woman, adapted from the Pulitzer finalist by Susan Choi about the Patty Hearst kidnapping; The Burnt Orange Heresy, a thriller with an eclectic cast that includes Elizabeth Debicki, Donald Sutherland and Mick Jagger; and Armando Ianucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield, starring Dev Patel. In all, more than 15 films at TIFF are adapted from novels.
But books are not the only source material this year. American Son, from Broadway and film director Kenny Leon, continues the long tradition of adapting plays. So, too, does Quebec writer/director Sophie Deraspe’s Antigone, loosely based on Sophocles’ Greek tragedy from the 5th century B.C.
The wide net means few art forms are overlooked. Radioactive, directed by Marjane Satrapi and starring Rosamund Pike, is based on a graphic novel about the life of Marie Curie. Writer/director Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers’s new film is based on an incident in her own life, but takes its title, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, from a personal essay by fellow First Nations writer Billy-Ray Belcourt. And the TV series Limetown, which will debut its first episode at TIFF, is based on a fictional podcast of the same name from 2015.
Non-fiction is another rich source of drama. In addition to the Mr. Rogers story, TIFF will host the North American premiere of The Laundromat, starring Meryl Streep and based on Jake Bernstein’s book about the 2015 Panama Papers leak. Scott Z. Burns helped write the screenplay, and also directs Adam Driver in The Report, drawn from the awkwardly titled Committee Study of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program.
You’ll never wade through all this prior to watching the film – The Report’s source material alone is 6,700 pages – but in the case of shorter origin stories it can be instructive. Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, starring Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez, is based on an article that ran in New York Magazine in 2015. It chronicles a group of strippers who took advantage of their clients, drugging them and then running up thousands of dollars on their credit cards.
In one scene, a man admires Wu’s character’s penmanship as she writes. It sounds like the weirdest pickup line ever, but it’s lifted directly from the article, as are several other details and even lines of dialogue. Truth is stranger than fiction, an axiom worth remembering when your fiction is based on the truth.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs to Sept. 15. More information at tiff.net.