The First Book List of 2017

Hello, my friends. Welcome back to Novel2Screen, where Chris and I try to read everything we can, especially books that will probably become movies, so we can talk about the adaptation process (read: scream to the heavens, “Why the hell did they cut that? It was the best part!”)

First, my Outlander fans– I know, I know? When will it start already? I’ve heard everything from April 1 (which is around when it usually starts) to not until June. June? That’s, like, forever from now. But whatever, the fact is nobody knows anything and everybody’s guessing. One thing I think we’ve all determined is that all these sites that claim to have “exclusive” new details about season three– yeah, they’re just repeating a couple of the plot details from the book.

I mean, it’s not like the plot is a secret, guys. Diana wrote it down in a book.

 

Anyway, moving on. I have managed to read three very different books in past couple months, at least two of which are slated to become movies at some point, and the third one of which is simply delightful… but will probably never be a movie.

As always, click on the title if you want to read it.

ANNIHILATION by JEFF VANDERMEER

 

annihilation

A book whose title sums up how a lot of people are feeling about the planet week dropped into my lap quite unexpectedly last month. This book is excellent in so many ways, I’m hesitant to discuss the ways it frustrated the hell out of me. But I’m going to anyway, because that’s what I do.

It’s a taut little thriller, set in some unspecified dystopia (our future, perhaps? our past? Who knows) in which a group of four female scientists is sent to explore an overgrown bit of jungle known simply as Area X. We are given no other information about this area, other than at some point “an event” happened there, causing it to become unstable, and since then the government has sent 11 expeditions to explore it. No one has ever returned… at least, not as they were before.

Our protagonist, known simply as the Biologist, is a member of the 12th expedition. Now I won’t give too much away about the plot, because I hope you’ll read it. It really is quite good. But I don’t think it’s revealing too much to say that the Biologist signed up for this mission because her husband was part of the 11th expedition, and she was hoping to find answers about what happened to him in the mysterious overgrown marshes of Area X.

Okay, so this being novel2screen, not novel2what’sfordinner, let’s discuss the ways this thing will become a movie. And yes, it will become a movie, slated for release later this year, directed by Alex Garland (writer and director of Ex Machina) and starring Natalie Portman as the Biologist. And if you saw Ex Machina, then you’ll understand that I’m REALLY FRIGGIN’ EXCITED to see what Alex Garland is going to do with this thing. Because what works about it, and works brilliantly, is the FEEL of the book. It’s mysterious, beautiful, evocative, full of lush scenery and hidden structures begging to be explored. The set pieces alone are going to blow everybody away. And it’s got this super emotional backstory that will give Natalie Portman a chance to do that crying face where she wins Oscars.

Also it stars four women. Four women, people! Onscreen at the same time, and not talking about men! The only reason it doesn’t pass the Bechdel test is because none of the characters have names, but that’s beside the point.

And now—slight spoiler alert—for the part that drove me crazy. Here it is: I didn’t know what the hell author Jeff VanderMeer was talking about half the time. And lest you think maybe I’m just not that bright, my husband read it too, and he had the same problem. It comes down to the descriptions. Mr. VanderMeer is one of these authors who seems to have a sixth sense about pacing—the scenes FEEL like they’re supposed to. They’re suspenseful and cryptic, doling out information like spoonfuls of heroin, just a trickle at first and then a torrent. Which is good, right? Yes, it is good! And then when it comes time for the big pay-off, the hit that flows right into the bloodstream, and…

Well, he spends like a page or so kind of sort of describing this ambiguous, um, thing, that is kind of scary, but maybe not because it’s hard to tell what it is, and it doesn’t have a name, which is fine, I guess, and so the Biologist kind of sees it, but not really because it’s dark. Um… yeah.

And this doesn’t just happen once. It happens throughout the book. Again, I’m almost hesitant to even say this because I don’t want to discourage people from reading it. It is a really good thriller. Seriously. But if I were Alex Garland, who’s adapting the screenplay himself, my first job would be to fix that problem. Like, seriously fix it.

Okay, moving on.

THE GIRLS by EMMA CLINE

the-girls

Okay, so this is also probably going to be a movie at some point in our lives. It was optioned almost immediately upon release by Scott Rudin, the veteran producer of No Country for Old Men and The Truman Show.

This book was the big “hit novel of the summer” last year, or so the Internet keeps telling me, and if you read it, you probably know why. Because it’s good. It’s really good. In fact, Emma Cline, who is so young, I believe she may actually be a zygote (okay, fine, she’s 25), is a preternaturally gifted author. She’s one of these people who writes words the way Roger Federer hits tennis balls. She probably doesn’t even know that what she’s doing is really, really hard for, like, everybody else.

The novel is chockful of some remarkable turns of phrase, similes, and the kind of evocative descriptions that writers like Joan Didion and Kurt Vonnegut used to whip out just to make the rest of us feel dumb. Check this out:

The feast was not a feast at all. Bloated cream puffs sweating in a bowl until someone fed them to the dogs. A plastic container of Cool Whip, green beans boiled to structureless gray, augmented by the winnings of some dumpster. Twelve forks clattered in a giant pot—everyone took turns scooping out a watery vegetal pabulum, the mash of potatoes and ketchup and onion-soup packets. There was a single watermelon, rind patterned like a snake, but no one could find a knife. Finally Guy cracked it open violently on the corner of a table. The kids descended on the pulpy mess like rats.

The whole book is like that, people. Paragraph after paragraph. Page after page. Until it almost starts to feel like—well, how to put this? A bit of a parlor trick. Not that there’s no depth underneath the wordplay. There certainly is a story here about a young girl’s coming of age in a particularly difficult part of American history (oh, yeah, did I mention it’s about the Manson cult? Because it is). And Cline’s observations about the torturous yearnings of young women, the day-to-day objectification that constitutes the sum total of the id of a teenage girl—see what I’m doing here? It’s catching.

Anyway, at the end of the day, it’s a book about a girl of remarkably depleted moral character who gets seduced and brainwashed by a gaggle of Narcissistic sociopaths with no regard for anyone but themselves, and comes dangerously close to becoming one of them before a fluke incident sends her in another direction.

And while I appreciated the quality of the writing, I couldn’t help but feel like it was a story only young people would find interesting. For me, not quite as young anymore, and perhaps a bit too entrenched in similar dramas unfolding around us as we speak, I simply didn’t find myself looking forward to reading more about this girl. Now is not the time to indulge in fictional egomania.

And I’ll probably skip the movie.

FLIRTING WITH FRENCH by WILLIAM ALEXANDER

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I’m including this book on the list for two very simple reasons: 1. I read it. And 2. I loved it. No, it will never become a movie. After all, the niche audience is probably people my parents’ age, and there’s no role for Meryl Streep in it. So no movie.

But so what?

This book is a memoir by an older American man with a very simple goal: learning French. And you may think, How the hell do you fill an entire book talking about something so boring? I mean, what is it? “Chapter one: nouns. Chapter two: past imperfect.” I’m already looking for a noose.

But not to worry, Mr. Alexander is a wonderful memoirist, brilliantly mixing a LOT of scientific research into our brains, how they work, how we pick up language and why we (sometimes) can’t pick up language with some fantastically funny and personal anecdotes about his life and his quest to master the Gallic tongue. (Full disclosure: I myself have been trying to learn French for years, and despite the fact that I speak fluent Spanish, I find myself constantly bewildered by it. Case in point, the French word for “99” is quatre-vingt-dix-neuf, which translates literally to “four twenties plus ten plus nine.” Seriously, French people?)

In the end, it’s a book about goals. It’s a book about paths not taken, lives not lived… and making the most of the one we have. It made me laugh and it made me cry. And I really hope you’ll read it.

And that’s where I’m going to sign off today, folks. With the positive idea that life is ours for the taking.

Be well,

Rebecca

Follow Rebecca Phelps on Twitter @DownWorldNovel, “like” us on Facebook at Novel2Screen, or just follow this blog for more on your favorite novel-to-screen adaptations.

To read my Voyager series in its entirety, click here.

Want more? Check out Chris’s latest articles on the hit TV show Shadowhunters.

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