A book and a movie: Still Alice

In the past four days, I’ve read the book Still Alice by Lisa Genova and then watched the movie version as well. Talk about intense!

Still AliceStill Alice (the book) is the profoundly moving story of Dr. Alice Howland, a world-renowned Harvard professor specializing in cognitive psychology. In her early fifties, Alice notices a few lapses, moments where a word she uses in her daily life is suddenly gone and beyond her reach. After getting lost while running a route she’s followed for years, Alice considers what might be wrong, at first associating memory issues with menopausal side effects.

Finally, a neurologist delivers the awful news: Alice has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The progression can be delayed, perhaps, with medication, but cannot be prevented. Through Alice’s eyes, we feel the heartbreak as this incredibly talented, intellectual woman slowly loses bit and pieces of herself — losing the ability to teach, to work, to read, and even to recognize her own children.

It’s astounding to get Alice’s perspective, because while she recognizes that she’s losing more and more, she often doesn’t know in the moment that anything is wrong or just how bad it’s become. And yet, she’s a remarkable woman who sees the beauty in life as well. Early on, she contemplates suicide, but realizes she still has a list of things she wants to do. She may no longer lecture or publish, but she can look forward to holding her first grandchild and seeing her children find their own paths to happiness.

In the 2014 movie version, Julianne Moore plays Alice, and absolutely deserves her Best Actress Academy Award for this role. She capture Alice’s changes with such emotion and nuance — the disbelief, the helplessness, the striving to connect even as she faces a growing chasm between herself and the people around her. It’s beautifully acted, and beautifully told.

Still AliceI don’t always love movie adaptations of books I’ve read, and often find myself too busy being nit-picky to really just sit back and experience the movie. That didn’t happen here, even though only a day had gone by in between. The movie is faithful to the book, with only minor changes such as relocating from Boston to New York — nothing that substantially changes the main idea or tone of the story. The supporting cast is terrific as well, especially Alec Baldwin as Alice’s husband — loving, angry, hurt — and Kristen Stewart as the youngest daughter, Lydia. The relationship between Lydia and Alice is very well done in the movie. They start with conflict between them: Alice wants Lydia to go to college, and Lydia wants to pursue her acting career. Neither can help hurting the other, but as Alice’s disease progresses, she loses her intense focus on her plans for Lydia and becomes more open to appreciating her in the now, and Lydia finds a patience and devotion for her mother that let her get past the earlier tension and mistrust. It’s actually quite lovely to watch this pair — I totally believed them as mother and daughter.

No movie can capture everything from a book, and by necessity, the movie presents us with an external view of Alice’s ordeal, rather than allowing us to experience it alongside her as we do in the book. Even so, the movie is beautiful and moving, and I recommend it highly.

Lisa Genova is a fiction writer with a Ph.D. in Neuroscience. I’ve now read three of her four novels, and these three each show, in different ways, the human, emotional impact of a severe, life-altering medical condition. She manages to combine absolutely fascinating science with family dramas that feel true to life.

Still Alice is a tough book to read, in terms of emotional impact, but well worth it… and I feel the same about the movie.

Beyond this book, I also recommend Left Neglected, about a woman with an incredible, intriguing brain injury that changes her whole life, and Inside the O’Briens (review), one of my top picks for 2015, about a family dealing with Huntington’s disease.

Is reading before watching always the best policy?

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I’ve always been a big believer in reading books before seeing the movie or TV adaptations. But lately, I’ve been wondering if that’s necessarily the best approach.

For sure, I don’t enjoy a book nearly as much if I’ve already seen the movie/TV version. But the same can be said for the opposite, and I’m debating whether there are times when reading (or rereading) first doesn’t make sense.

In my case, the issue comes down to enjoyment. How much do I want to really savor the viewing experience for its own sake?

What I find is that when I’ve read the book first, especially if I’ve read it immediately before watching the movie/TV version, is that I spend the entire time watching with a little running commentary going on in the back of my head. I’m so distracted by noticing and cataloguing all the differences from the book that it’s hard to just sit and back and enjoy it for what it is. And at the same time, reading first is like intentionally giving myself spoilers, so the viewing experiences tends to lack the punch it might pack if I’d watched it as something completely fresh and new.

Two examples from last year:

One — I fell in love with Poldark on PBS. (The show, not specifically the character, although… damn. Check out my Poldark love here.) Poldark was completely new to me, and after watching the first episode, I was burning with impatience to know more. So, I dashed right out (or actually, dashed right to Amazon) and got myself the first two books in the series, which correspond to the TV show’s first season. I gobbled up the books and then watched the remaining episodes… and while I loved the books, I missed the sense of suspense that was now missing as I watched. Even worse, the big, dramatic, emotionally intense moments from the show’s finale were flat for me. I could tell that they were very well done, but the emotional impact was missing, because I’d already experienced the feels while reading the book.

Okay, second example: OUTLANDER. I think I’ve given a hint or two (or a thousand) about how much I love everything Outlander. So, season one last year — I obviously love the TV show madly and deeply. As the season progressed, I decided to read along. That is, I started the book from the beginning and read as far as I guessed each week’s episode would cover. Definitely not my first time through the book — it was more like my 4th or 5th. Still, I decided I wanted to have it all fresh in my mind so I could pick up all the little nuances that are straight from the book.

And as an approach, it wasn’t bad. I had a strong appreciation for how much dialogue was word-for-word from the source material, which is especially gratifying when it’s some of the most swoonworthy Jamie-isms. On the flip side, though, rereading right before watching made me hyper-aware of every little deviation, every little omission. And that wasn’t always a good thing.

I ended up watching each episode several times each week. The first time through, I couldn’t shut down the mental gymnastics involved in comparing the book and the show. My little internal calculator was busy tracking every change or every point of staying completely true to the book. I still enjoyed the show, but with distractions. By the second viewing, I could let go of all that. Now that I knew the content, I could sit back and just enjoy it for itself. And by a third time through, it was just a chance to soak up the atmosphere, notice themes and cinematography, and the overall artistry of each episode.

So, here’s where the dilemma comes into play. Season two is fast approaching (TWO WEEKS FROM TODAY), and I haven’t quite decided what to do about it.

I’ve read the source material, Dragonfly in Amber, more than once — but it’s been a couple of years since I last read it. I’m trying to decide whether to read along with the episodes, or just watch the show on its own, perhaps going back to the book for reference afterward. Either approach has its pros and cons, and I’m still up in the air about which path I’ll end up following.

So, share your thoughts and experiences please! Do you watch (or re-watch) before viewing, and how do you think it affects your experience? Are there times when you wish you hadn’t read the book first (or recently)? I’d love to hear some opinions!

Top Ten Tuesday: Top ten book-to-movie adaptations that I can’t wait to see

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Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is the top ten movie (or TV) adaptations of books which we really want to see. My list is a bit of a mix: Some here are movie/TV adaptations that I’ve finally seen, some are movies that are already out that I just haven’t gotten to, and a few are movies/TV adaptations that are coming up in the next year that I’m really looking forward to.

Recently seen:

1) The Martian by Andy Weir: Finally saw it this past weekend! I loved the book, and I was really wondering whether the movie would do it justice… but I thought it was terrific! Hint: See it while it’s still in theaters — this is a movie that needs the big screen/3D experience!

2) North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell: Even though the BBC mini-series is from 2004, I’d never seen it before this week. I loved the book, and thought the TV version was beautifully done. And also: Richard Armitage. Need I say more?

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Need to see:

3) Room by Emma Donoghue: The book was powerful and painful, and so even though the movie version looks like it’s really well done, I’m a little hesitant about sitting through it.

4) Still Alice by Lisa Genova: Another tough subject, which is probably why I’ve held off on seeing the movie, even though I’ve heard such good things about it.

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Still to come:

5) Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them by J. K. Rowling: It’ll be interesting to see how a Hogwarts textbook gets turned into a full-length movie! The early photos certainly make it seem intriguing.

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6) Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith: Jane Austen and zombies, oh my! I think the trailer looks awesome.

7) 11/22/63 by Stephen King: I loved, loved, loved this book. The TV series airs in February 2016 on Hulu, starring James Franco, and I just hope it sticks to the book!

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8) Me Before You by Jojo Moyes: The movie version is due out in March 2016, starring Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin.

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9) Into the Forest by Jean Hegland: I had no idea there was going to be a movie version until I started researching this post! I loved the book, so this is super exciting. The movie premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September, but so far, I haven’t found a US release date. Let’s go with 2016, shall we?

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And finally…

Why haven’t I ever seen this at any point in my life?

10) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: I don’t know what was wrong with my upbringing, but clearly something was deficient, because I never, ever saw the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird, and that’s just not okay. Adult me needs to fix this.

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What movie adaptations are you most excited about? Let me know in the comments, and don’t forget to share your link!

If you enjoyed this post, please consider following Bookshelf Fantasies! And don’t forget to check out my regular weekly features, Shelf Control and Thursday Quotables. Happy reading!

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Do you host a book blog meme? Do you participate in a meme that you really, really love? I host a Book Blog Meme Directory, and I’m always looking for new additions! If you know of a great meme to include — or if you host one yourself — please drop me a note on my Contact page and I’ll be sure to add your info!

Poldark!

Anyone else out there loving the glory of Poldark on PBS?

I mean, how can you resist?

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I haven’t seen the two-hour season finale yet (airing this coming Sunday), but as for the rest of the season so far, I’m loving it.

Ross PoldarkTo back up a bit, Poldark is adapted from a series of books by the late author Winston Graham (which were also made into a PBS series in the mid-1970s). Book 1, Ross Poldark, was published in 1945, and the author went on to write a total of twelve book in the Poldark saga. The books are historical fiction set in Cornwall, with the first book opening in 1783 as Captain Ross Poldark returns to his family home after fighting in the American Revolutionary War — on the losing side.

Ross finds much changed upon his return: His home is tumbling down and in terrible shape, his family’s copper mines are failing, the workers are starving, and his beloved Elizabeth has become engaged to marry his cousin Frances, who belongs to the wealthier part of the Poldark family. Ross deals with disappointment and hurt by throwing himself into the restoration of his estate and his mine, and eventually falls for the lower class girl he rescued from abuse and brought into his home as a servant.

DemelzaDemelza is a breath of fresh air, not hung up on manners, full of impetuous good spirits, laughter, and a good heart. With Demelza’s love, Ross begins to find happiness finally, and the two make an unconventional couple who incite the gossip of the upper class throughout the area.

After watching the first episode of the TV series, I just knew I had to read the books. The 8-hour first season covers the content of books 1 (Ross Poldark) and 2 (Demelza), and I ended up reading both. Normally, I dislike reading books after seeing the TV or movie versions of a story, but in this case, it only added to my enjoyment. I found that I enjoyed the TV episodes best without knowing what was going to happen, but knowing what would happen didn’t at all detract from my enjoyment of the books.

The TV show is very faithful to the major plotlines of the books, with only slight changes here and there to heighten the on-screen drama. (For example, a character’s mine in the books fails due to a crumbling economy, whereas on TV, the character loses the mine in a card game.) Likewise, the show plays up the love triangle aspect of the plot more than the book does, although to be honest, it’s really not as big a factor as the early promos might have led us to believe.

The books were simply terrific! Even reading them after viewing the events on TV, the level of detail and beautiful writing in the books adds to what I already knew, so I was never bored or feeling like I was going over familiar ground. The writing is lovely, and the descriptions of landscapes, interior scenes, even clothing and candlelight, are so masterfully worded that there’s a sharply visual element to the words on the page. (See my Thursday Quotables post from last week, here, for an example of what I mean.)

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The TV production is stunning to look at (and no, I don’t just mean the curls blowing in the breeze or the sultry, brooding stare). The sea and the fields, the hills, the farms — they’re all gorgeous. Of course, there are some episodes that feature about three too many scenes of Ross dramatically dashing off on his horse as the waves crash beside him… but that’s easy to forgive. It’s not all eye candy. The plot is engrossing, and the supporting characters are, by turn, sadly valiant (cousin Verity), tragically doomed (poacher Jim), and buffoonishly weak (ugh, cousin Frances). And don’t get me started on Jud and Prudie, Ross’s household servants who spend most of their time drinking, fighting, or drinking and fighting.

While there are moments of light and joy, and swoonishly romantic love scenes, the tone seems to get darker and darker as the season draws to a close. As I said, I haven’t seen the finale yet, but I have finished reading Demelza… and boy, it’s a doozy. No spoilers from me, but if the show is anywhere near as tragic, I’ll be a big soppy, weepy mess by the end.

My understanding is that Poldark has been a big success for Masterpiece, so I think we can feel confident that it’ll return for season 2 next year. Meanwhile, I already have copies of the next two books… and while I really should read other things for a while, I’m super tempted to dive right into book #3 (Jeremy Poldark — and no, I have no idea who Jeremy Poldark is), if for no other reason than to find out (I hope!) that there’s some sunshine heading back into the story.

Sigh. Are you watching? Have you read the books? What do you think?

And yeah, I know I said it wasn’t all eye candy, but — seriously! How can they show this on TV and expect people not to paste it all over the internet?

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