Sometimes you just know. You’re only a chapter or two into your latest historical fiction novel but, already, you can tell. “This book will be a movie,” you think. The story is too juicy, too atmospheric, too well-paced and intricately plotted for it not to hit the big or small screen. What’s more, the writing is so detailed and so deft at capturing the setting with atmospheric prose, you can already see cinematic scenes coming to life as you read. You just hope that the execs in Hollywood are smart enough to not only option the book but bring along the author to adapt the screenplay. And for any execs that may be reading this: yes, I do expect some tickets to the premiere.
6 Cinematic Historical Fiction Books That Deserve Screen Adaptations
You likely know of Jeannette Walls from her memoir, THE GLASS CASTLE, which took the world by storm in 2005. That book was brought to life on the screen just five years ago, in a film adaptation featuring Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, and Naomi Watts. Walls’s latest work, HANG THE MOON, is a historical fiction novel set in post–World War I Virginia that I can’t help but think is equally suited for the big screen. In HANG THE MOON, readers are introduced to Sallie Kincaid, daughter of “the Duke.” Known for his stature in the community, the Duke is also a violent-tempered man, having killed Sallie’s mother in an argument years earlier. No matter, the Duke simply remarried, eventually having several children by several women, but when the Duke passes he leaves his estate to Eddie, his only male heir. Sallie, very much “her father’s daughter,” is left with nothing, but she remains devoted to the much younger and emotionally sensitive Eddie . . . until tragedy strikes, and as a result Sallie is cast out. Nearly a decade later, she returns to navigate family intrigue, local politics, and race relations in a story that reads like the best of soap operas. Gripping from the very start, HANG THE MOON is destined to be the next Walls book optioned.
From Jeannette Walls, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Glass Castle, comes a riveting new novel about an indomitable young woman in Virginia during Prohibition.
Most folk thought Sallie Kincaid was a nobody who’d amount to nothing. Sallie had other plans.
Sallie Kincaid is the daughter of the biggest man in a small town, the charismatic Duke Kincaid. Born at the turn of the 20th century into a life of comfort and privilege, Sallie remembers little about her mother who died in a violent argument with the Duke. By the time she is just eight years old, the Duke has remarried and had a son, Eddie. While Sallie is her father’s daughter, sharp-witted and resourceful, Eddie is his mother’s son, timid and cerebral. When Sallie tries to teach young Eddie to be more like their father, her daredevil coaching leads to an accident, and Sallie is cast out.
Nine years later, she returns, determined to reclaim her place in the family. That’s a lot more complicated than Sallie expected, and she enters a world of conflict and lawlessness. Sallie confronts the secrets and scandals that hide in the shadows of the Big House, navigates the factions in the family and town, and finally comes into her own as a bold, sometimes reckless bootlegger.
You will fall in love with Sallie Kincaid, a feisty and fearless, terrified and damaged young woman who refuses to be corralled.
In 1838, May Bedloe’s life on the water is simple. Working for her cousin, the famous actress Comfort Vertue, as a seamstress, she spends her days toiling away but grateful for the opportunity. Until their steamboat sinks, and suddenly both women must seek other employment. Comfort takes a job working for noted abolitionist Flora Howard, giving impassioned lectures. Thanks in part to a loan from that same Mrs. Howard, May secures work on a flatboat—a floating theater that traverses the waters between the northern and southern slave-holding states. May seems to have righted her course until she sees her cousin again. Comfort and Mrs. Howard are now traveling down the Ohio River speaking out against the evils of slavery. That’s when Mrs. Howard uses the debt May owes her to ensnare her in a plot to help ferry slaves across the river to freedom. Acting against her will, May must now break the law and betray her newfound friends. With high-stakes performances being played by the characters, Martha Conway’s THE UNDERGROUND RIVER is already a cinematic masterwork.
Set aboard a nineteenth century riverboat theater, this New York Times Notable book is the “captivating, thoughtful, and unforgettable” (Kathleen Grissom, author of The Kitchen House) story of a charmingly frank and naive seamstress who is blackmailed into saving runaways on the Underground Railroad, jeopardizing her freedom, her livelihood, and a new love.
It’s 1838, and May Bedloe works as a seamstress for her cousin, the famous actress Comfort Vertue—until their steamboat sinks on the Ohio River. Though they both survive, both must find new employment. Comfort is hired to give lectures by noted abolitionist, Flora Howard, and May finds work on a small flatboat, Hugo and Helena’s Floating Theatre, as it cruises the border between the northern states and the southern slave-holding states.
May becomes indispensable to Hugo and his troupe, and all goes well until she sees her cousin again. Comfort and Mrs. Howard are also traveling down the Ohio River, speaking out against slavery at the many riverside towns. May owes Mrs. Howard a debt she cannot repay, and Mrs. Howard uses the opportunity to enlist May in her network of shadowy characters who help ferry slaves across the river to freedom. Lying has never come easy to May, but now she is compelled to break the law, deceive all her newfound friends, and deflect the rising suspicions of a slave catcher.
As May’s secrets become more tangled, the Floating Theatre readies for its biggest performance yet. May’s predicament could mean doom for her friends on board, including her beloved Hugo, unless she can figure out a way to entrap those who know her best. “Twain has his ‘Life on the Mississippi’. Conway’s life on the Ohio makes you see the place, through May’s eyes, in all its muddy glory” (New York Times Book Review).
Few authors capture the genre of historical fiction as well as Joseph Kanon (as he proved in his brilliant book LEAVING BERLIN). In his latest, THE ACCOMPLICE, we meet famed Nazi hunter Max Weill, who is seeking to track down all those responsible for the horrors he experienced decades earlier. Max is a Holocaust survivor who, despite recent reports, refuses to believe his former Auschwitz torturer Otto Schramm is dead. He’s proven correct when one day at a cafe in Hamburg, he spots the notorious doctor. Too old now to pursue him himself, Max enlists the help of his nephew Aaron, an American CIA analyst, to track him down. Like so many Nazis after the war, Schramm is fleeing to Argentina, where Aaron travels to find him. With the help of local agents and journalists, Aaron embarks upon a manhunt to find this monster, capture him, and bring him back to Germany to stand trial. Propulsive and completely gripping, THE ACCOMPLICE brings to life a plot that is primed to be a Hollywood blockbuster.
Named “The Book of the Year” by Lee Child in The Guardian
From “master of the genre” (The Washington Post) and author of Leaving Berlin, a heart-pounding and intelligent espionage novel about a Nazi war criminal who was supposed to be dead, the rogue CIA agent on his trail, and the beautiful woman connected to them both.
Seventeen years after the fall of the Third Reich, Max Weill has never forgotten the atrocities he saw as a prisoner at Auschwitz—nor the face of Dr. Otto Schramm. He was the camp doctor who worked with Mengele on appalling experiments and who sent Max’s family to the gas chambers. As the war came to a close, Schramm was one of the many high-ranking former-Nazi officers who managed to escape Germany for new lives in South America, where leaders like Argentina’s Juan Perón gave them safe harbor and new identities. With his life nearing its end, Max asks his nephew Aaron Wiley—an American CIA desk analyst—to complete the task Max never could: to track down Otto in Argentina, capture him, and bring him back to Germany to stand trial.
Unable to deny his uncle, Aaron travels to Buenos Aires and discovers a city where Nazis thrive in plain sight, mingling with Argentine high society. He ingratiates himself with Otto’s alluring but damaged daughter, whom he’s convinced is hiding her father. Enlisting the help of a German newspaper reporter, an Israeli agent, and the obliging CIA station chief in Buenos Aires, he hunts for Otto—a complicated monster, unexpectedly human but still capable of murder if cornered. Unable to distinguish allies from enemies, Aaron will ultimately have to discover just how far he is prepared to go to render justice.
“With his remarkable emotional precision and mastery of tone” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review), Joseph Kanon crafts another “gripping and authentic” (The New York Times Book Review) thriller that you won’t be able to put down.
After fighting for the Union in the American Civil War, Jupiter Smith returns to the plantation he once worked on, in search of his wife. Instead, what he finds is his old master in severe mental decline, torturing those left on the farm. Out of mercy, Jupiter kills the master and heads west. But little does he know that the slave master’s son, Confederate soldier Archie Smith, arrived home shortly after his departure. When Archie finds his father murdered, he vows revenge, and what follows is a high-stakes manhunt for Jupiter. That is until Archie, now an opium addict, becomes a target of a San Francisco gang, which Jupiter just so happens to work for. Jupiter, again out of mercy, tries to save Archie, but the failed attempt ends with both men shanghaied and aboard a ship engaged in devious activities. An unlikely alliance is then formed, in which the men work together in hopes of returning home alive. THE ABDUCTION OF SMITH AND SMITH is a nonstop thrill ride upon the land and seas, and if a studio can afford it, it’s tailor-made for big stars to play the lead roles.
In this “splendid tale of high-seas adventure” (Marcus J. Guillory, author of Red Now and Laters), two enemies become the unlikeliest of allies as they fight to save their own lives aboard a hell ship headed into the dangerous unknown.
The Civil War is over, though for Jupiter Smith, a former slave and Union soldier, many battles still lie ahead. He returns to the plantation he worked on before the war in search of his woman, but instead finds his old master gone mad, haunting the ruins like a ghost. Out of pity for the now mentally ill colonel, Jupiter strangles him and heads west to seek a new life in San Francisco.
When the colonel’s son, Confederate soldier Archer Smith, arrives home and finds his father murdered, he vows revenge upon Jupiter for all he has lost—following his former slave to the far reaches of the continent.
But things take a new turn as Archer’s desire for retribution is overwhelmed by his dependency on opium, and he ends up the target of a gang of “crimpers”…the very gang that Jupiter works for in San Francisco. When Jupiter fails in an attempt to save Archer, they both end up shanghaied aboard a ship headed on a dangerous mission and ruled by a merciless captain. Will the two Smiths work together to stay alive and return home, or will they become victims of the sea, the crew, and their mad captain?
Following the murder of their father in the summer of 1932, Odysseus “Odie” Banion and his brother, Albert, are sent to the Lincoln Indian Training School. Alongside other orphans, Odie and Albert are subjected to terrible abuse by the headmaster until Odie snaps and violence ensues. As a result, the brothers are forced to flee from the camp, bringing with them their best friend, a Sioux teenager named Mose, and Emmy, the daughter of a recently deceased teacher. The foursome escape down the Minnesota River in a canoe and spend an entire summer crossing paths with others who are adrift in this coming-of-age story that is begging to be an American film classic. As a bonus, if you’re looking for even more action on the American riverways, check out William Kent Krueger’s audio original THE LEVEE, about a 1927 flood and one family’s courageous attempt to save who they can—assuming they can keep themselves alive.
For fans of Before We Were Yours and Where the Crawdads Sing, “a gripping, poignant tale swathed in both mythical and mystical overtones” (Bob Drury, New York Times bestselling author) that follows four orphans on a life-changing odyssey during the Great Depression, from the New York Times bestselling author of Ordinary Grace.
1932, Minnesota—the Lincoln School is a pitiless place where hundreds of Native American children, forcibly separated from their parents, are sent to be educated. It is also home to an orphan named Odie O’Banion, a lively boy whose exploits earn him the superintendent’s wrath. Forced to flee, he and his brother Albert, their best friend Mose, and a brokenhearted little girl named Emmy steal away in a canoe, heading for the mighty Mississippi and a place to call their own.
Over the course of one unforgettable summer, these four orphans will fly into the unknown and cross paths with others who are adrift, from struggling farmers and traveling faith healers to displaced families and lost souls of all kinds. With the feel of a modern classic, This Tender Land is an enthralling, big-hearted epic that is “more than a simple journey; it is a deeply satisfying odyssey, a quest in search of self and home” (Booklist).
In 1860s England, circus mania is sweeping the nation, and Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders is one troupe taking advantage of the craze. When they visit a poor coastal town, the local residents are beside themselves with excitement, but one neighbor is unsure how to feel. Nell, born with a skin condition that left her with birthmarks all over her body, already lives her life as a “human curiosity.” And while she isn’t surprised to find out that her father has sold her to the ringmaster, Jasper Jupiter, she is devastated, nonetheless. That is, until she gets to know the performers and begins to understand that this new position as “leopard girl” offers her more freedom than she previously ever dreamed of. After that, all is well, until Nell’s star begins to shine a bit too bright for Jasper’s liking and he feels the need to save his position in the company. With scenes straight out of The Greatest Showman, this historical fiction novel would be worth the price of admission to any theater—let’s just hope Hollywood is reading this.
From the #1 internationally bestselling author of the “lush, evocative Gothic” (The New York Times Book Review) The Doll Factory comes an atmospheric and spectacular novel about a woman transformed by the arrival of a Victorian circus of wonders—“as moving as it is deeply entertaining” (Daniel Mason, New York Times bestselling author).
Step up, step up! In 1860s England, circus mania is sweeping the nation. Crowds jostle for a glimpse of the lion-tamers, the dazzling trapeze artists and, most thrilling of all, the so-called “human wonders.”
When Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders pitches its tent in a poor coastal town, the life of one young girl changes forever. Sold to the ringmaster as a “leopard girl” because of the birthmarks that cover her body, Nell is utterly devastated. But as she grows close to the other performers, she finds herself enchanted by the glittering freedom of the circus, and by her own role as the Queen of the Moon and Stars.
Before long, Nell’s fame spreads across the world—and with it, a chance for Jasper Jupiter to grow his own name and fortune. But what happens when her fame begins to eclipse his own, when even Jasper’s loyal brother Toby becomes captivated by Nell? No longer the quiet flower-picker, Nell knows her own place in the world, and she will fight for it.
Circus of Wonders is a beautiful story about the “complex dance between exploitation and empowerment, and the question of what it really means to have control over your own life” (Naomi Ishiguro, author of Escape Routes).
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