The year 2012 doled out more than its share of storms and strife. But even when the news was at its worst, there were a few shining examples of forward momentum in areas where the image in the rearview mirror didn’t induce a wince and a shudder and a plea for things to improve. Hollywood, of all places, happens to be one of them: The film industry, in particular, delivered an annus tremendous after many years of backsliding toward canned commerciality. Narrative storytelling on screens big and small caught an evolutionary updraft, exceeding weary audience members’ expectations with an array of robust and risky projects that challenged the conventions of escapist formulas and embraced the messy complexity inherent to life on Planet Earth.
Literary filmmaking stands out as a particular bright spot in this warm-hued portrait of bold creative output. Over the past few years, Hollywood has increasingly turned to books for its most profitable and/or substantive releases. This trend reached a new high watermark in 2012, when studios unleashed a flood of masterful adaptations by a vanguard of established visionaries (Ang Lee, Steven Spielberg, and David O. Russell), talented upstarts (Ben Affleck, Andrea Arnold, Jacques Audiard, and Stephen Chbosky) and career revivalists (Terence Davies and John Madden).
What sets these films apart from other impressive feats of book-based filmmaking has less to do with any act of faith to the source material and more to do with the bold departures and betrayals these films take in the service of capturing something more intimate and idiosyncratic. Each book, to some degree, functions as a launching pad for themes and ideas as personal to each filmmaker as anything they might have dreamed up themselves.
There were enough worthy and admirable adaptations released this year to spend the rest of 2012’s remaining days camped out in front of screens of all sizes powering through a book-to-film movie marathon. But who has time (or patience) for that? Actually, we did, so you don’t have to. Now all you need to navigate 2012′s massive library of books on film is the following anthology of the year’s highlights in literary filmmaking.
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