This past Sunday, the 36th edition of the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) came to a close. Our city’s celebration of all things cinematic provides movie lovers with the chance to engorge themselves on 25 days of films from around the world. A number of SIFF passholders take full advantage of the event by seeing well over 50 films, with a few even breaking the 100 film barrier. However, most patrons see only a carefully selected handful from the genres that most appeal to them—comedies, historical dramas, crime-thrillers. In many ways, selecting a SIFF film for the evening is very similar to selecting your next book: read the description, take a few recommendations, or something about the title just grabs you. And although the world of film and books may seem somewhat removed from each other, there is a vital interdependence between the two.
Take, for example, The Hedgehog, this year’s Golden Space Needle Award for Best Picture at SIFF (as voted by the audience), based on the bestselling novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. To hear SIFF Artistic Director Carl Spence’s account of how he serendipitously discovered the film at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival parallels many readers’ personal discovery of the novel after it appeared on American shelves. Of course, without the original novel the film would not exist, but now that the film has enchanted hundreds of SIFF patrons, many of them will now seek out the novel in order to enrich their viewing experience. The reverse is true as well: devotees of the novel will seek out the film version to see how wonderfully the film had been adapted to the screen.
It is this symbiosis between books and films that often draws filmmakers into making adaptations of preexisting literary works. This year, a number of high profile SIFF films had literary origins. The feature-film version of Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone won the Golden Space Needle Award for Best Actress for Jennifer Lawrence. Local musical artists The Maldives provided accompaniment to the 1925 silent-film version of Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, and Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields—along with Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket—created a whimsical new score for the newly restored 1916 version of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (which also incorporates a hefty dose of The Mysterious Island).
It’s not just literary works that find themselves being given the cinematic treatment, but also two authors as well. Howl, stars James Franco portraying Allen Ginsberg, the poet laureate of the Beat Generation, while the documentary William S. Burroughs: A Man Within examined the eponymous writer’s fascinating yet troubled life. Both films are certain to renew interest in their respective subject’s work.
Of course, most of the films at SIFF weren’t literary adaptations or writer biopics, but even films made purely to entertain can pique interests in a variety of topics. My own personal favorite SIFF film, Neil Marshall’s Centurion, sent me scouring the history section where I found Legionary: The Roman Soldier’s Manual (Unofficial).
Finally, if SIFF has inspired any of you to broaden your general knowledge of film, I’d recommend starting with 101 Things I Learned in Film School by Neil Landau (who recently made an in-store appearance), which is a primer covering basic terminology, film theory, and movie business insights. Edward Jay Epsteins’s The Hollywood Economist further explores the rather Byzantine, but no less fascinating, economic principles under which Hollywood studios finance, market, and sell their films and stars in search of a profit. And, finally, film critic David Thomson has authored a trio of books that are essential reading for film neophytes—The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood is a concise history of the film industry and it’s cultural impact on America. Both The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (with a new edition out in October) and Have You Seen…?: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films are insightful, at times irreverent, look at the iconic personalities and films, from the past and present, which constitute the cinematic mythos.