A few weeks back, I listed some book-to-screen adaptations that you can stream right now. Here are two more films based on novels that are on Netflix for quite some time now: 12 Years a Slave and Hugo. Both have received major Oscar nominations and awards. I wasn’t so impressed by them, but perhaps you, my dear reader, would glean something brilliant from these critically acclaimed films.
‘12 Years a Slave’ (2013)
Steve McQueen’s sobering true-story drama on American slavery, centering on real-life character Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), has some deeply moving and beautiful dialogue. It boasts of nine Academy Award nominations, winning four, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay in 2014.
Adapted from Northup’s slave memoir published in 1853, 12 Years a Slave feels self-conscious, and it’s got some artsy fartsy affectations to it that are distracting, sometimes irritating, taking away the meaning from dramatic moments rather than enhancing them.
Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o deliver searing performances, and although both actors were nominated for an Oscar for their supporting roles, it was Nyong’o who bagged the award. Ejiofor, who won Oscar Best Actor that year, can be replaced by any other performer.
There are also surprisingly melodramatic, theatrical performances from the minor cast, including ridiculous and unconvincing wailing (like spoiled whining rather than unspeakable pain).
One of the final scenes made me cry, and there are definitely memorable scenes. The writing is strong; however, the entire movie does not stir my soul, considering I always cry at black slavery. Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, albeit the comedy, has a more serious impact on me. (2.5 out of 5 stars)
Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, based on Brian Selznick’s 2007 bestselling novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, is a cross between The Artist and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
It’s Paris in 1930s, and Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfiled; The Boy in the Sriped Pyjamas, The Space Between Us) is an orphaned boy living behind the clock-face in Gare Montparnasse railway station.
His everyday routine is to wind the station’s clocks (in place of his missing uncle, the station’s clock-winder), and try to evade the railway inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen; Bruno), lest he wants to be thrown into an orphanage.
From time to time, Hugo also tries to steal mechanical parts from an old toy owner (Ben Kingsley) to fix his Automaton — a creepy mechanical man left behind by his late father (Jude Law), in the hopes that once the Automaton works, he’ll receive some sort of a message from his father so that he wouldn’t feel so alone anymore.
Like Oskar Schell in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Hugo is seeking closure for the sudden and unexpected death of his father. However, no matter how unbearably irritating Oskar is, he’s got more personality and depth than the dry and blank-faced Hugo, whose strikingly blue eyes are the only interesting thing about him.
Visually striking as it is, the movie offers zero emotional involvement. Paris in the 1930s is charming and magical, but the story is hollow. The narrative is messy, going in awkward directions and swinging from one subplot to another.
The characters are bland. Cohen brings some life and laughter in the movie, sure, but it’s the mysterious George Méliès, the toy owner played Ben Kingsley, that truly connects on many emotional levels. You can see through the broken man.
Méliès’ story is the obvious reason why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated Hugo for Best Picture in 2012. Yes, the revelation of George’s secret had woken me up from my stupor, momentarily delighting me, as I am passionate about the subject matter (which I won’t spoil here). But because of the chaotic storytelling, the entire movie is still underwhelming.
The movie’s visuals are gorgeous, and the story of Méliès is tragically beautiful. But Hugo, at its core, is supposed to be an adventure story — and sadly, it failed to touch and sweep me off my feet. Plainly speaking, the movie is dull and uneven. It’s the abrupt twist to Méliès’ story that actually saves the film from becoming completely soulless.
Hugo received 11 Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture) in 2012, and it won five awards: Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing and Best Visual Effects. So if you haven’t seen it, it’s still worth checking out, simply for its technical achievements. (1.5 out of 5 stars)