7 daring movie adaptations of literary classics

These are strange times at the movies. For the first time since pandemic lockdowns began in the US in March, a handful of films are coming out in theaters — but not digitally at the same time. Theaters are tentatively reopening in some parts of the US but remain closed in others. Meanwhile, they’re cranking into gear internationally; Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is already playing in several countries, even though it won’t hit most US theaters until Labor Day weekend at the earliest.

One movie that’s coming out in theaters and as a digital rental or purchase is Bill & Ted Face the Music, which concludes the trilogy that began with an excellent adventure in 1989 and continued with a bogus journey in 1991. The new film — which is utterly delightful — follows Bill and Ted (Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves), now fathers of teen girls (Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine), as they try to write the song that will unite all humanity. (In case you don’t remember, we found out in the first movie that that’s why they’re revered in the distant future.)

Nearly all of the original cast reunites for the film, with the addition of some fun new members, like Jillian Bell, Holland Taylor, and Kristen Schaal. It’s a sweet, funny, heartwarming romp, and a worthy conclusion to a most excellent trilogy. (You can rent it from FandangoNow, buy from several different services, or see in your local theater, if you wish.)

Another great movie out this weekend — but only in theaters, for now — is The Personal History of David Copperfield, an adaptation of Charles Dickens’s 1850 novel, directed by Armando Iannucci (Veep, In the Loop) and starring Dev Patel.

It’s Iannucci’s specialty to craft satirical takes on the absurd ways power functions in politics. The Personal History of David Copperfield is satirical as well, though it’s a gentler, less biting period piece than Iannucci’s phenomenally sharp 2018 film The Death of Stalin.

The Dickens adaptation features Patel as Copperfield, surrounded by a stacked cast that includes Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Ben Whishaw, Gwendoline Christie, Benedict Wong, and Peter Capaldi (as a pitch-perfect Mr. Micawber, the role he seems born to play). It retains a plentiful sense of the ludicrous in its exploration of class and social norms, though the film is affectionate in the end.

Like the character he plays — a young man with literary aspirations who bounces from relative to relative after his mother marries the sadistic Mr. Murdstone and endures all kinds of indignities on the way to success — Patel is British, born and raised in England. But unlike Copperfield, Patel was born to parents who emigrated from India. That casting choice holds significance given the story’s exploration of social strictures and the long history of anti-Indian sentiment in England. And it means the white characters who fancy themselves upper-crusty and respectable, in comparison to the earnest and put-upon Copperfield, look even more ludicrous by comparison. Iannucci makes his point.

But The Personal History of David Copperfield is hardly the first adaptation of a classic novel to fiddle with its source material in surprising ways — sometimes just for fun, and sometimes to make a point.

So if you can’t — or simply prefer not to — go to the theater this weekend, you can still indulge in a deliciously original retelling of an old story. Here are a few of our favorites.

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