The best literary adaptations to watch on Netflix

    26 March 2020

    There are a plethora of films and TV series based on books on Netflix at the moment. Just like the original material which they derive from, some are very good indeed, while others are of more questionable distinction. There is more than enough opportunity for naysayers to be able to say ‘it’s not as good as the book’. But in some cases, what’s available to watch is just as strong as their source material, and in a select few – whisper it – there’s a chance they even improve on it. Here are some of the absolute best, from intense psychological thrillers to the crème de la crème of costume drama.

    Call Me By Your Name

    Call me by your name, Netflix

    Call me by your name, Netflix

    Whether you believe that Timothée Chalamet is the second coming of leading men or a rather irritatingly sappy presence – the Justin Trudeau of actors, minus the unfortunate blackface – there’s no doubt that the film that first brought him to public attention, Call Me By Your Name, is a magnificently rich and moving piece of work. Also starring a never-better Armie Hammer as the older man who seduces him in Italy one summer, it deservedly won an Oscar for James Ivory (of Merchant-Ivory fame) for his excellent adaptation of André Aciman’s original novel. The final monologue, in which Michael Stuhlbarg’s professor consoles his bereft son, is one of the most moving scenes in any film in years.

     Gone Girl

    Gone Girl, Netflix

    Gone Girl, Netflix

    David Fincher has concentrated on Netflix series rather than film lately (although his new picture about the writer of Citizen Kane, Mank, is coming later this year), which makes his last cinematically released picture even more of a treat. A sublime adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel, Gone Girl is less a thriller than it is the blackest of black comedies about modern marriage, focusing on the secrets and lies that permeate the union between Ben Affleck’s Nick and Rosamund Pike’s Amy when she disappears unexpectedly. Its comic credentials are strengthened by the casting of Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry in key roles, and this subtle, elegant and very nasty film is a true pleasure to watch.

     American Psycho

    American Psycho (2000), Netflix

    Many have found Bret Easton Ellis’s famous zeitgeisty satire on consumerism and serial killing all but unreadable, and so it is a relief that Mary Harron’s 2000 adaptation of the novel strips out the vast majority of the violence and misogyny, leaving just enough for it to be uncomfortable but not enough so viewers feel nauseated. In its place is a magnificent, star-making performance by Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, who nails (no pun intended) the narcissism and nastiness of the protagonist, but also makes him seem oddly pathetic and pitiable. It was little wonder that Christopher Nolan decided that Bateman would one day make a fine Batman, and so it proved.

     Pride and Prejudice

    The BBC's adaptation of Pride and Prejudice on Netflix

    The BBC’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice on Netflix

    Whenever any BBC costume drama gets made today, it is always compared to Andrew Davies’ adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel, which obtained iconic status almost immediately for Colin Firth’s smouldering performance as Mr Darcy, which he gamely reprised (in a manner of speaking) in no fewer than three Bridget Jones films. Yet there is much more to enjoy over the course of its six episodes, from perfectly judged character performances from David Bamber (as Mr Collins) and Alison Steadman (as Mrs Bennett) to Jennifer Ehle being quite magnificent as Lizzie Bennett, sparky and witty and courageous in all the right ways. The 2005 Keira Knightley/Matthew MacFadyen film has its charms, but it will never erase memories of this.

     The Great Gatsby

    The film that launched a thousand GIFs, the image of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby raising a martini glass and smirking while fireworks explode behind him is now probably more famous than the picture that it originated from. Yet Baz Luhrmann’s full-fat, excess-all-areas adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age classic, an enormous box office hit upon its release in 2013, is a surprisingly intelligent and nuanced account of the story.

    Although Tobey Maguire’s golly-gosh interpretation of the book’s narrator Nick Carraway is somewhat overdone, DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan, as Daisy Buchanan, the thoughtless object of his obsession, are both the finest casting imaginable, and Luhrmann’s manic, overblown style is the perfect visual accompaniment to the sinister, unsettling milieu that he depicts. It’s also amusing to see Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchain in his first American role as gangster Meyer Wolfsheim. Bachchain was apparently so honoured to be cast that he took no payment to be in the film.

     Layer Cake

    Those who are disappointed at the seven-month delay for the new Bond film should console themselves by watching Daniel Craig in the role that doubled as an audition for 007, the nameless drug dealer protagonist of Matthew Vaughn’s first film. Adapted by JJ Connolly from his novel, it moves far beyond the mockney clichés of Guy Ritchie films in favour of something more discursive and unusual, even as it allows Craig’s anonymous protagonist to ooze effortless charm and charisma. It also introduced Sienna Miller to cinema, in the small role of Tammy, and there’s a splendid Michael Gambon cameo in the part of Eddie Temple, the man who explains what the titular ‘layer cake’ actually is.