By Cameron French
TORONTO (Reuters) - Call it renewed appreciation for literary classics or merely further evidence of Hollywood shying away from unproven material, but this year's Toronto Film Festival slate is heavy with literary adaptations, some of which may make a splash during Oscar season.
"Cloud Atlas," and "Silver Linings Playbook," both based on recent best-sellers, are among the most eagerly anticipated titles set to unspool at the festival, which is considered part of the opening bell for the Hollywood awards season.
Classic novels, such as Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina," Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations," and Jack Kerouac's "On the Road," are also experiencing new interpretations on celluloid.
Among the most eagerly anticipated is Deepa Mehta's "Midnight's Children," based on the Booker Prize-winning novel by Salman Rushdie about India's independence from British rule in 1947 and subsequent partition of the country.
Tipped early on to be one of many Toronto entrants to be in contention for the upcoming awards season, the film has instead garnered shaky reviews ahead of its Sunday premiere in front of a festival audience.
The film "dawdles and fails to justify its two-and-a-half-hour running time," said the Hollywood Reporter, while Variety said it "feels like too much to take in all at once."
All told, eleven of the 20 galas, the showcase films of the ten-day event, are based on an existing work such as a play or novel.
"Hollywood likes a proven commodity," said Pete Hammond, movie writer for website Deadline Hollywood.
Hence the recent wave of comic book-based summer blockbusters that bring with them an existing fan base. As summer popcorn movies morph into the more serious fare of autumn, Hollywood appears to be keeping the same script.
Of course, these films aren't free of challenges, and pictures like "Midnight's Children" and "Cloud Atlas," an adaptation of the best-selling novel directed by Tom Twyker and "Matrix" co-directors Andy and Lana Wachowski, both come from source material thought difficult to adapt to the big screen.
"A film like 'Cloud Atlas, with three directors is a bit of a risk, but it's less of a risk when it's based on a best-selling book," said Hammond.
Steven Chbovsky, who directs the big-screen adaptation of his own book, the popular 1999 teen novel "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," said the success of the book paved the way both for the funding of the film and to allow him direct it as his first feature.
Prominent among the young cast is "Harry Potter" star Emma Watson in her first major role since the series concluded.
"Even with the cast that we were able to put together, I don't know if Hollywood would have taken a chance on this material without the book behind it," Chbovsky said.
WHEDON ON SHAKESPEARE
Of course, that is not to say that adapting a novel into a film is simply recycling material. Some of the films, even those that have been adapted for the big screen before, promise a fresh take on old stories.
Joss Whedon, known for blockbusters, including "The Avengers," and TV series such as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," aims for plenty of pop-culture credibility to his take on Shakespeare's "Much Ado about Nothing."
"Dangerous Liaisons," which has been adapted several times from the 1782 French novel, will likely bear little resemblance to past editions in South Korean director Hur Jin-ho's version, which is set in 1930s Shanghai.
"It's all about the lens that is the director and the vision that the director and the adaptor have for that particular story," said Jane Schoettle, international programmer at TIFF.
Even "Anna Karenina," which has been adapted more than a dozen times for the screen, will get a new look helmed by "Atonement" director Joe Wright, and starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law.
Perhaps showing that there is always something new to be wrung out of an old story, reviews have commended the film on its originality, including filming the story as if it's taking place on an elaborate late 19th-century stage.
"There is a grandness and universality and timelessness about certain novels and I think it's only right that they should be reinterpreted by a new generation," added Schoettle.
(Reporting by Cameron French; editing by Christine Kearney and Gary Crosse)