Best film and TV adaptations of 2019

Photo: Good Omens © Amazon Prime, His Dark Materials © HBO/BBC, If Beale Street Could Talk © Annapurna Pictures

John Le Carré once joked that having your book turned into a movie is like turning a cow into a stock cube. And there are plenty of examples to prove his point which we're far too polite to mention here.

But then there are the exceptions: the big or small screen adaptations that elevate its source material to new heights, explore its themes in interesting ways or just uses it as a springboard to a new kind of greatness. 

According to research from the Publishers Association, films based on books currently take 53 per cent more at the box office worldwide (44 per cent in Britain) than original screenplays, which says something about the enduring value of the novel.

And so to 2019. From the Oscar-nominated adaptation of James Baldwin’s classic If Beale Street Could Talk to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, it’s been a wildly successful year for the adaptation. Here are our ten favourites of the year.

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin: January (FILM)

It took 44 years for someone to translate James Baldwin’s 1975 rhapsody of love in the face of a racist world for the screen, which proved worth the wait: the result was a cinematic masterpiece of such beauty and dignity it was an Oscar’s front-runner.

In the end, Regina King won best Supporting Actress for her stirring performance as the mother of lead character Tish (Kiki Layne), whose life takes a drastic turn when childhood friend and lover Fonny (Stephan James) is falsely accused of rape. Heavily pregnant with Fonny’s child, Tish sets out to prove his innocence.

It is, in short, a gorgeously lyrical visualisation of Baldwin’s famously rhythmic prose – one of America’s greatest writers adored as much for his crystal clarity of language as his belief in the transcendent power of love. 

Gentleman Jack by Anne Lister: April (BBC)

‘It’s Fleabag in petticoats’, wrote one reviewer over Sally Wainwright’s eight-parter based on the diaries of Britain’s ‘first modern lesbian’. Like Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s game-changing drama, Gentleman Jack proved a sensation when it strode onto our screens in April.

Starring the magnificent Suranne Jones, it’s based on the diaries of Anne Lister, a real-life industrialist and landowner in 1840s Halifax with – per her screen manifestation, at least – cheekbones that could cut ice and a sideways glance that could chill a kettle. Fearless, sharp and witty; too brilliant for her family and determined to live unbound by the backwards conventions of her time – Lister was gay in an era when women were expected to stay indoors, marry, produce children and certainly not run the family business or have affairs with other women.

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman: May (Amazon Prime)

It’s a devil of a shame that Terry Pratchett never got to see Amazon’s sumptuous adaptation of Good Omens, the fantasy novel about the end of the world which he wrote with Neil Gaiman in 1990. Gaiman said he’d never write a script without his old friend, who died in 2015 from a rare form of Alzheimer’s. But he changed his mind after Pratchett handed him a letter – to be opened only after his death – bidding him to do just that. And what a hell of job he did.

Starring small-screen heavyweights David Tennant and Michael Sheen, it follows an angel and a demon who must prevent the apocalypse by finding the antichrist who, down to a baby mix-up at birth, is an 11-year-old schoolboy living in rural England. Tennant and Sheen’s chemistry is a joy.

‘He didn’t believe in heaven or hell or anything like that,’ Gaiman said of Pratchett in May, ‘so there wasn’t even a hope that there was a ghostly Terry around to watch it. He would have been grumpy if there was. But I made it for him.’

Further Reading: Dave Rudden on Pratchett and Gaiman's fallen Gods

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: (Hulu/C4)

George Clooney – the man who’s spent more than a decade trying to persuade Americans to enjoy espresso – is not a man to turn his back on a challenge. So, when the opportunity arose to turn one of literature’s most famously ‘unfilmable’ novels into a film… well, what do you think he said?

Catch-22’s tricky reputation grew in part because someone did try to film it once - Mike Nicholls in1970 - an attempt which has not aged well. Clooney’s go, however, pulled it off. Beautifully-written, lusciously shot, it hilariously reflects Heller’s 1961 satire about a World War Two pilot – the inimitable Yossarian – trying desperately to escape his own fate.

Part of the series’ success is that it takes a lot of liberties with the book – it contains half the characters, foregoes most of the flashbacks and reorders Heller’s higgledy-piggledy plotline. The result is a very honourable – not to mention critically acclaimed – attempt at capturing the weirdness and sheer hilarity of Heller’s seminal work.

 Sanditon by Jane Austin: August (ITV)

Twenty-four years after he conjured Colin Firth from a lake in dripping underwear in Pride and Prejudice, Britain’s best-loved adapter of literary classics for telly was sending hearts aflutter once more. Sun, sand, a sex act in a forest and three bare bottoms on a beach - this was Sanditon, Andrew Davies-style. Hard to imagine what Austen would have made of it, but Britain lapped it up.

Sanditon was the novel Austen abandoned four months before she died in 1817 and never finished. ‘She only wrote 100 pages or so,’ Davies said in an interview, ‘which I’d used up midway through the first episode. So the rest I’ve had to make up. It’s been a blast.’

The story follows the spirited and unconventional Charlotte Heywood and her spiky relationship with the swoonsome Sidney Parker in a seaside holiday town rocked by industrial-age transformation. Good-old end-of-the-pier fun.

Further reading: Where to start with Jane Austen

Unbelievable (previously A False Report) by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong: September (Netflix)

Visceral, raw and devastating, Netflix’s true-crime drama based on a teenager whose rape was discounted by detectives turned a floodlight onto the reality of sexual assault today. Coming at a time when less than 2% of reported rapes in England and Wales lead to conviction (less than 1% in America) – the lowest levels in more than a decade – Unbelievable couldn't have been more important. It was also matchsticks-in-the-eyes compelling.

Nothing about the story was made up. In fact, the book was a result of a painstaking investigation by American reporters T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong when they blew apart the enduring failures of detectives in a series of rape cases in Washington and Colorado between 2008 and 2011. It was important enough that they won a Pulitzer Prize for their work.

The series – starring Toni Collette, Merritt Wever, and Kaitlyn Dever – opens with Marie’s rape and unravels from there, as minor inconsistencies in the victim’s story lead police to charge her with false reporting. Soon, it becomes clear that the rapist has attacked again.

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman: November (BBC)

‘Here’s your new Sunday night obsession…’ opined the BBC's introduction as sensually as a Marks & Spencer’s Christmas profiterole ad, ‘… a dazzling drama with a stellar cast.’

In normal circumstances, such hyperbole might be considered a bit much. But this was the BBC’s most-expensive ever series. This was the televisual realisation of the trilogy of books that, a quarter-century ago, propelled Philip Pullman’s name into storytelling lore. This was His Dark Materials, for Pantalaimon’s sake.

It chronicles the lives of two children (Lyra and Will) as they wander through a series of parallel universes and battle a shadowy oligarchy of evil overlords called The Magisterium (a not-so-subtle allegory for the Catholic church). It’s a weaving and complex tale about destiny and morality that involves angels and magical bears and ex-nuns and out-of-body animal souls. The books are, as a Guardian editorial said in November, ‘remarkable literary achievements, readable by children and adults with equal pleasure.’ And, while the series doesn’t end until Christmas, the BBC’s beautiful, brooding vision of Pullman’s universe has, so far, more than lived up to the hype.

Further reading: With The Secret Commonwealth, Pullman continues to redefine what a children’s novel can be

The Good Liar by Nicholas Searle: November (FILM)

The book – by former British intelligence officer Nicholas Searle – was an instant bestseller upon its release in 2016. It seemed a matter of time before someone made the movie. And when they did, it proved as ravishing as the novel.

Stars Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen are exquisitely matched in this elegant if slightly silly dance of desire and deception. He’s a career swindler and she’s a well-to-do widow. He inveigles himself into her life with his raffish charm and twinkly-eyed naughtiness, only to set into motion his plan to fleece her of all her wealth. As the plot unfolds, he learns she may not be quite as soft a target as he’d envisaged.

Mirren and McKellen move through this thriller with all the panache and powerhousery you’d expect of two of Britain’s greatest living actors. As one reviewer suggested, it's like ‘watching two magnificent vintage cars in a road race, without minding too much who wins.’

War of the Worlds by HG Wells: November (BBC)

Given the source material, this was sure to be a hit. The title alone holds a certain ring of ‘now’ to it. Could it be a prescient warning of environmental extinction? Maybe a veiled critique of the destructive evils of capitalism? Something about Brexit? Or maybe it is just a cool story about aliens invading Earth.

It’s also a love story. Set in London during the Edwardian era, George (Rafe Spall) and Amy’s (Eleanor Tomlinson) attempt to start a life together is gazumped by a Martian invasion.

First published in 1898, HG Wells’ classic has been made for film and TV many times since, and its 2019 rendering is up there with the best. Its CGI was awesome enough to give even James Cameron a touch of the willies, not least the giant stomping Tripod fighting machines that smash and kill everything in their path.

The carnage Wells described was so prescient ahead of the two world wars that would soon change everything, while the Martians could be seen as an allegory for what Britain did across its empire. This BBC adaptation did a pretty solid job in keeping it up to date.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott: December (FILM)

The film of Little Women hadn’t even come out in November and already it was being tipped for the Oscars. Empire magazine said Little Women confirmed director Greta Gerwig as ‘a major talent in American cinema’. Critics said actor Saoirse Ronan's fourth Academy nod is 'inevitable' for her turn as Jo. And praise abound for its pertinence, instilling a vigorously modern brand of feminism to the classic tale that feels every bit alive today as it must have 150 years ago.

Alcott’s coming-of-age novel follows the fails and fortunes of four sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy – as they grow into women in the aftermath of the American Civil War. It is widely accepted as a semi-autobiographical work, based on the author’s own family, and was rapturously received upon publication.

A tale of kindness and manners, sisterly rivalry and big hugs, it’s about four young women finding for their voices in a male world. If Rotten Tomatoes had existed in 1869, it almost certainly would have given the book 98%, as it did this year.

Further reading: 9 of our favourite Little Women quotes

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