A shot of Charlie Kaufmann's 'I'm thinking of ending things' (2020).Twitter @Books_in_movies

As my return to Cambridge creeps closer, I find myself transitioning back into academic life. On the one hand, this transition is practical – like reading the books I was assigned three months ago and never got around to – while on the other it is deeply personal – that is, watching movies.

Since I study English, I am luckier than those in other subjects; the number of films about the wonders of medicine, engineering, or land economy are, alas, dismally few. Us English students, however, have hundreds of book-to-movie adaptations to turn to before we return to reading and writing all day. Given this deluge of adaptations ranging from the practically perfect to the perfectly dull, where does one start? Read on to discover a few of the many films that will prepare you for a term filled with reading, writing, and literary wonder.

The Jane Austen One

Kiera Knightly as Elizabeth Bennet in Joe Wright's 'Pride and Prejudice' (2005).Twitter @pandp2005

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an English student in possession of a fanciful view of love, must be in want of a good Jane Austen adaptation. Joe Wright’s 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice is one such film. Kiera Knightly and Matthew Macfadyen shine as Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, presenting a relationship in which gentle, subdued emotions give way to bursts of pure passion. Embracing a naturalistic green-and-yellow colour palette, Wright’s camera basks in the worn charm of the Bennet house and the haughty elegance of Pemberley as it slowly follows the characters around. But if the visuals are grounded, Dario Marianelli’s score emphasizes the exuberance of Austen’s original novel; when the Bennet sisters learn they will be meeting Mr. Bingley at a local ball, the music swells, reflecting and heightening the girls’ elation. Though not entirely faithful to the text, Wright’s Pride and Prejudice captures the ethos of Austen’s novel. Ultimately, it is a charming movie that’s perfect for bringing the summer to a romantic, tranquil close.

Other films to watch: Emma (2019), Clueless (1995)

The Dark Academia One

A shot from James Ivory's 'Maurice' (1987).Twitter @CINEMA505

There is another element of studying English at Cambridge that every student looks forward to: the fact that they’re studying English at Cambridge. Many novels and their adaptations embrace this romanticized view of university life, including Maurice: James Ivory’s 1987 adaptation of the E.M. Forster novel. Chronicling the romance between Maurice (James Wilby) and Clive (Hugh Grant), the film initially takes place in Cambridge, establishing it as a place of personal discovery but also tradition. Cambridge is depicted as a shrine for intellectual discussion, as Ivory initially pans from a view of King’s College to a group of young men debating the merits of music. Maurice and Clive fall in love among old books, medieval buildings, and formals lit by candlelight; they muse about desire while punting down the Cam. In short, theirs is the perfect Cambridge experience, a dark and ancient university secretly brimming with youth and life. For a student preparing to return to this university, there is no better way to idealize the journey of the next year.

Other films to watch: 84 Charing Cross Road (1987)

The Shakespeare One

Lawrence Olivier in 'Richard III' (1955).Twitter @RexRichardusIII

Just as there have been dozens of Jane Austen adaptations, so too has Shakespeare been subject to adaptation, reinterpretation, and reimagination. There is Baz Luhrmann’s eccentric Romeo + Juliet (1996), Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957), and even The Lion King (1994). However, the predecessor to them all is Laurence Olivier’s Richard III. Released in 1955, Olivier’s Richard III is like a page from a Book of Hours come to life, bursting with colour and featuring an almost cartoonish performance from Olivier himself. It is an extensively edited version of Shakespeare’s text, so perhaps not the best to watch before a supervision, but perfectly captures the chilling, enthralling personality of the titular character. Because of Olivier’s received pronunciation and the use of soundstages rather than on-location shooting, this adaptation can feel dated, yet there is something about it that compels one back again and again. For the English student preparing to brave the many interpretations of the Bard, Richard III is the most iconic place to start.

Other films to watch: My Own Private Idaho (1991), Titus (1999)

The Wild Card

Dev Patel as Sir Gawain in David Lowery's 'The Green Kight' (2021).INSTAGRAM @THEGREENKNIGHT

Unlike most adaptations, which simply translate the words into images, these films embody the nature of the text itself. More than just a movie, they are a chivalric romance, a satirical serial, a stream of consciousness novel, taking the essence of the literary style and embedding it in the visuals, writing, and performances. They also often leave audiences divided; David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021) is the latest in a category spanning from Barry Lyndon (1975) to High-Rise (2015). In this interpretation Dev Patel’s charming yet ignorant Gawain navigates the divide between pagan and Christian, science and magic. Like the poem itself, the film takes its time, digressing to send Gawain on the occasional side quest. It embraces the medieval tropes of symbolism and allegory, surrounding Gawain with broken crosses, murdered saints, and charming enchantresses, each as visually compelling as it is thematically resonant. These “wild card” adaptations may not be the most conventional, but they are guaranteed to stick long after the credits roll.

Other films to watch: Orlando (1992), The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)


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Mountain View

The Green Knight': translating Medieval poetry to the screen

The end of summer and the start of university can be a nerve-wracking time – the responsibilities and stresses of life pick up once again. So, as reading lists pile up, essay prompts start rolling in and supervisions are scheduled, take some time to watch one of these movies. Brimming with love for their original source material, they remind even the most anxious English student exactly why they fell in love with literature in the first place and constitute perfect escapism material for anyone who does not study literature.