From Guernsey to Paris – The Best Films about Literature

By the time you read this the twee British drama, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (dir. Mike Newell) will have finished its run in theatres. However, any bookworms, like myself, would have had the most joyous time seeing characters so impassioned by literature, something made all the more lovely by the numerous references: the gin-loving Isola (Katherine Parkinson) rising to her feet quoting “You think wrong! I have as much soul as you!” being a particular favourite. Seeing as films and books go together so well, I thought I would look at the best films inspired by literature.

Midnight in Paris (dir. Woody Allen)

Midnight in Paris follows screenwriter and aspiring novelist Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) who, whilst vacationing in Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams), finds himself whisked away to a Paris of the 20s and face to face with some familiar literary figures. This film is charming in every sense of the word; Gil’s naïvety and wonder at meeting legends such as F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) lead you through the film. This one is for all readers who pick up a Brönte or Wilde and wish they could live the story. I’d be surprised if it doesn’t leave you wanting to head to the City of Lights yourself.

My Left Foot (dir. Jim Sheridan)

This Academy Award winning film not only provd that Daniel Day-Lewis was one to watch but also showed the power of writing and  literature. Following the true story of Christy Brown, an Irishman born with cerebral palsy who overcame all odds to become a writer, poet, and painter. The film presents triumph over adversity in the most interesting way and has literature at its heart. Plus, with compelling performances and complex characters, there are so many reasons to watch My Left Foot whether a reader or not.

Kill Your Darlings (dir. John Krokidas)

Though not as much about literature than set within a literary world, Kill Your Darlings is an biographical drama surrounding the writers from the Beat Generation – Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs – and their involvement in the infamous killing at Riverside Park. So much of this film is about breaking the rules, and the title itself plays on writing advice: “remove the self-indulgent passages, murder your darlings”. There’s no surprise that by exploring anarchy, poetry, and finding inspiration in some truly strange places, Kill Your Darlings brings as much angst as you can expect for a film about poetry, and then some.

Bright Star (dir. Jane Campion)

Continuing with the poetry trend, Bright Star follows the final three years of poet John Keats’ (Ben Whishaw) life, focussing on his blossoming romance with outspoken proto-feminist Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) during the illness which would claim his life. With cinematography that calls to mind the imagery of Romantic poetry, this biographical drama shows literature as an equal to life and love with Keats’ work at the heart of this film. The title referencing the sonnet “Bright Star, would I were steadfast as though art”, apt given this film is as constant and assured as the bright star itself, and as light as one too.

Shakespeare in Love (dir. John Madden)

Shakespeare in Love may have been nominated for 13 awards at the 71st Academy Awards, winning seven including the all-mighty Best Picture Award, but its real success was in its wonderful portrayal of our literary hero William Shakespeare – although entirely fictional. Plucky cross-dressing actress Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) becomes the muse for The Bard (Joseph Fiennes) with typical Shakespearian misunderstandings and mayhems ensuing throughout. Also, did I mention it was nominated for 13 Academy Awards?

Dead Poets Society (dir. Peter Weir)

We’ve had Keats, so Mr. Keating – the unorthodox English literature teacher (Robin Williams) who started the titular literature society – has to follow. A favourite of many book lovers, Dead Poets Society takes the lives of a group of senior year high-school students as its premise and follows their relationship(s) with their teacher. Acting as teacher-cum-life-coach, Keating educates the young men (and by extension the audience) about looking at the world from a different angle, to carpe diem, and how important literature can be in helping us find our own words and our own voice.

Atonement (dir. Joe Wright)

I’m going to finish up with a personal favourite. Most films that hold literature at their core show the joy and inspiration that can resonate from those little things that fill up our shelves. Atonement, however, takes a darker look at the power of literature. The film follows 13 year-old aspiring writer Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), and the consequences of her actions after witnessing the rape of her cousin Lola Quincey (Juno Temple). The repercussions of which affect her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightly) and the son of the family’s maid, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy). Watching the drama unfold allows us to question whether Bryony’s accusations were sincere or made by a child fuelled by an imagination borrowed from her books – literature can bring people together as well as tear them apart.

Alex Dewing

Updated: May 31, 2018

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