Keira Knightley in ‘Anna Karenina’/Photo © Laurie Sparham/Focus Features
Hollywood seems to be getting serious in its on-again, off-again romance with the nineteenth-century novel. Things started heating up late last year when director Joe Wright (“Atonement”) fast-tracked his high-gloss production of “Anna Karenina.” Then came “Submarine” director Richard Ayoade’s very promising cinematic rendering of Dostoyevsky’s The Double, starring Mia Wasikowska, who’s suddenly become the redux romantic heroine of choice with her finely calibrated performance in last year’s gothic iteration of “Jane Eyre” and her upcoming title role in the upcoming adaptation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which added Ezra Miller, the creepy kid from “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” to its talented cast earlier this week.
Now it seems that romantic novels may have upgraded to “trending” status — a distinction that places the last century’s literary giants in dubious company alongside the likes of “The Avengers” and John Travolta’s masseuse – now that Greg Mottola has signed on to direct a big-screen adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ post-college novel, The Marriage Plot, about post-college romantic and intellectual entanglements (whose title references the narrative device of choice for bourgeois turn-of-the-century novelists like George Eliot and the Bronte Sisters).
The classics have always been fertile terrain for filmmakers who have produced a reliable yield of fortifying cinematic meals. A few of the best examples of canon-to-celluloid renderings include Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility,” the A&E “Pride and Prejudice” miniseries starring Colin Firth as Darcy, Orson Welles’ and Cary Fukunaga’s versions of “Jane Eyre,” and Scorsese’s doomed love epic, “The Age of Innocence.” But none of these adaptations has packed the emotional power and timelesness befitting such major works of art.
After considering the slew of stupidly talented and innovative players behind this new batch of Big Book adaptations, there is reason to believe at least one of them may deliver that long overdue masterpiece. Need proof? Take a moment to consider the pioneering talent involved: Richard Ayoade, the cutting-edge Eraserhead-coiffed British TV comic-turned-Arcade-Fire-video-director who made his mind-blowing feature debut with last year’s “Submarine,” an utterly original take on the first love bildungsroman. It would have taken a soothsayer to have predicted his followup film would be a Dostoevsky adaptation, reason enough to believe that the alchemy of Russian master and modern classicist will combust into a thought-provoking and visceral moviegoing experience. The same could be said of watching Mia Wasikowska and Keira Knightley play two of the nineteenth century’s most desperate housewives — Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina — characters so vivid and alive with the timeless tragedy of human yearning and fallibility that they’re crying out to be rescued from the hermetically sealed archives of archetype.
Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot takes a meta approach to using recycled classic literary devices in a contemporary narrative. He even adds another layer of self-awareness by placing his characters among the semioticians and deconstructionists of Brown University’s lit-crit circles. For this reader, the self-referential concept turned out to be more compelling than the present-day players in the novel’s marriage plot. But Mottola, best known for directing “Superbad,” is such a curve-ball choice to tackle this heady material, we’re definitely more intrigued than we might have been with a more obvious choice of, say, Stephen Daldry.
What do you make of this flash mob of literary giants making their way to the screen? What romantic novels are most calling out for adaptation? And which ones should be ruled off limits?