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“Great Books to Great Movies” at the National Book Festival

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So let’s do the math. If a picture is worth a thousand words and a 100 minute film, at 24 frames-per-second, has 144,000 pictures, that means a movie is worth 144 million words, or more than 26 copies of War and Peace.

Ah, the joys of false equivalency.

Literary adaptations have been on my mind lately, primarily because I’m going to host a program at this weekend’s National Book Festival called “Great Books to Great Movies,” which starts at 8 p.m. at the Washington Convention Center. It’s sure to be an entertaining evening. Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday will moderate a discussion with Paul Auster, E.L. Doctorow, Alice McDermott, and Lisa See, talking about the promise and peril of seeing one’s work translated to the screen (I encourage you to read Ann’s recent piece in the Post, as she previews some themes that are likely to emerge on Saturday).

My colleagues Valerie Cervantes and George Willeman were very helpful in excerpting clips from Smoke (Auster), Ragtime (Doctorow), That Night (McDermott) and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (See), so I’m looking forward to hearing what the authors have to say about them. Assembling the clips also got us ruminating on the thousands of movies deriving from literary sources, a practice that’s been around since the dawn of cinema. For example, here’s an animated film from 1917 called Mary & Gretel, adapted from a series of books called Motoys in Life:


Of the 625 films on the National Film Registry, more than 200 started as books, poems, plays, and other literary works. Some, like The Grapes of Wrath (20th Century-Fox, 1940), In Cold Blood (Columbia, 1967), and To Kill a Mockingbird (Universal, 1962) are well known, while others have more obscure origins (I had no idea that the 1933 Warner Bros. musical 42nd Street was based on a novel by Bradford Ropes, but now I really want to read that book!)

We put together a modest montage of scenes from eight films on the Registry, all of which were adapted from books. I’ll be using it in my introduction to the program. Hope to see you there!


  1. Who knew the Jayson Werth Garden Gnome was around in 1917!! “Mary & Gretl” is hilariously entertaining. Reminds me of the Chrismas favorite “Hardrock, Coco and Joe.” Thanks for sharing this treasure, Mike.

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