Who doesn't love to be able to walk out of a holiday blockbuster and say, "Well, not bad but the book was better"? Get a jump on the season's upcoming films by reading the great books that inspired them, several of which are available in new editions.

It would be impossible to read the entrancing prologue to The Hours by Michael Cunningham and not keep going. The novel, awarded both the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1999, begins with an evocation of Virginia Woolf's suicide, then jumps to the contemporary era, where two women seek to escape their varied bonds through Woolf's writing. The film, with a screenplay by David Hare, stars Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore as the two women and Nicole Kidman as Woolf.

In About Schmidtby Louis Begley, Jack Nicholson again plays the unlikable guy who grows on you; this is said to be among his most affecting performances. Schmidt is an old-school lawyer, now retired, whose beloved wife has recently died. Always cool and distant toward his daughter, Schmidt now finds himself unable to accept the Jewish lawyer she married. The novel sets his pride and loneliness against warmly humorous social commentary as Schmidt's reserve is shaken by the two women who enter his life. The Ballantine Reader's Circle edition includes a reading group guide.

Was Chuck Barris, undisputed eccentric and the mastermind behind The Gong Show, really an undercover CIA assassin known as Sunny Sixkiller? So he claims in his characteristically nutzoid memoir, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, soon to be a major motion picture directed by George Clooney and starring Sam Rockwell as Barris. First published in 1982, the book has long been out of print; Talk Miramax's new trade paperback coincides with the film's December release and includes eight pages of film stills. The script was co-authored by fellow eccentric Charlie Kaufman, the man who brought us Being John Malkovich and Adaptation (see below).

Sticking with the theme of the zany memoir, Adaptation is screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's manic account of his effort to make a film adaptation of Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief. In the film, Orlean's true story of the orchid thief, John Laroche (Chris Cooper), has to compete with the screenwriter's self-obsessed fever dream sparked by his infatuation with the back-cover photo of Orlean (Meryl Streep). Nicolas Cage plays Kaufman and his imaginary twin brother, Donald, a character-within-a-character in a story-within-a-story. The film, both a wacked-out satire of Hollywood and a writer's quest for meaning, reunites Kaufman with Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze.

Occasionally you come across a book that makes you wonder at the deep wells of strength and gumption its author must draw from. Finding Fish by Antwone Quenton Fisher is one such book. Fisher was born in prison to a teenage mom and spent two years with a loving foster family before being moved to the home of the Pickett clan, where he endured 14 years of unimaginable abuse. At 18 he joined the Navy, and it almost certainly saved his life. His remarkable memoir has been adapted for the screen by first-time director Denzel Washington, who stars as the Navy psychiatrist who mentored Fisher.

In conjunction with the film Gods and Generals, directed by Ronald F. Maxwell (Gettysburg), Ballantine is releasing a new boxed set of the Civil War trilogy by Michael Shaara and his son, Jeff M. Shaara Gods and Generals, The Killer Angels and The Last Full Measure. Gods and Generals, a prequel to Gettysburg, documents one of this country's bloodiest eras and follows the rise and fall of legendary war hero Stonewall Jackson (Stephen Lang); Robert Duvall and Jeff Daniels also star. Also timed to coincide with the film is Gods and Generals: The Paintings of Mort Kunstlerfeaturing more than 65 works by the noted Civil War artist and text by historian James I. Robertson Jr.

 

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