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Reading Your Way to the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival: Part Two, Non-Fiction

In this, the second part of Bookwitty's reading list for the Toronto International Film Festival, I'm looking at the nonfiction books that have served as inspiration for films in this year’s lineup. The books come in a range of forms; memoirs, historical nonfiction, and psychiatric studies. Likewise the films themselves are very different—some are documentaries while others are traditional narrative films. As is to be hoped, fact provides an equally fantastic range of stories as fiction. The personal and historical stories told in this year’s lineup are spread across time and location, giving a wonderful sense of the enormous spread of human experience.


As I mentioned in the previous list, the TIFF lineup is extensive and there continue to be new additions to the schedule in the run-up to the festival. I've tried hard to provide a comprehensive list, but if there are any that I've missed, do let me know in the comments below. You can find part one of this list here.

Papillon

Called “the greatest adventure story of all time,” Henri Charrière’s Papillon, an autobiographical account of his imprisonment, and later his escape from a penal colony in French Guiana, is regarded as one of the most popular books ever. On its initial publication in 1969 it sold over 1.5 million copies in France alone. Since then it has been adapted into a highly regarded film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. With this impressive lineage, Michael Noer’s new adaptation of the book will certainly be one to watch.

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The Disaster Artist

James Franco leads and directs this highly anticipated adaptation of Greg Sestero’s book, which chronicled the making of Tommy’s Wisseau’s infamous cult classic film The Room. Sestero, who acted in the film, and was friends with Wisseau, describes the bizarre behind-the-scenes story of this famously awful movie, and shows how reality was just as strange and hilariously weird as the film itself.

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Victoria & Abdul

Shrabani Basu’s book Victoria & Abdul explores an almost forgotten part of the life of Queen Victoria. Towards the end of her life, the queen befriended an Indian servant named Abdul Karim. The two become close confidants, with Karim even teaching the monarch to read and write Urdu. However, the friendship was met with hostility in the royal household, causing the memory of Karim to be suppressed. Now, the story has come to light, first through Basu’s excellent book, and now through its lavish screen adaptation starring Judi Dench.

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First They Killed My Father

In her memoir First They Killed My Father, Cambodian author Loung Ung recounts her harrowing experience of surviving Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge years. Her story is depicts the gripping reality of living through a genocide. Told through her childhood perspective and voice, she gives a heart-rending account of the hardship and suffering. Ung worked on the screenplay for the film adaptation, along with director Angelina Jolie.

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The Three Christs Of Ypsilanti

Michael Rokeach’s The Three Christs of Ypsilanti is a book-length psychiatric study from 1964, which records his experiments on three patients in Ypsilanti State Hospital; all three had paranoid schizophrenia and believed themselves to be Jesus Christ. Jon Avent’s darkly comic film adaptation, simply named Three Christs, presents the wonder and complexity of these characters struggling with mental illness. 

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Full Service

Scotty Bowers was immersed in the secret lives of the stars in Hollywood’s Golden Age, operating a as a sexual procurer for the elite and glamorous. At a time when stars were promoted as typically heterosexual, wholesome and virtuous, Bowers knew, and catered for, their true desires. His memoir Full Service was wildly popular and from this success has come the documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, which follows Bowers as he reconnects with old colleagues to chat about their experiences. Bowers is a wonderful raconteur and in both text and on screen his skill storytelling remains at the heart of both.

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Mesmerized

In her book Mesmerized, Alison Walser explores an often forgotten part of history, the exciting world of scientific discovery in the 18th century, and the figure of Franz Anton Mesmer, who was both renowned and later reviled for his work in the field of hypnosis and life-energy channelling. At one point in his career Mesmer was asked to cure a young woman, who was a harpsichord prodigy, of her blindness, and it is this relationship that Walser explores. The screen adaptation, titled Mademoiselle Paradis, delivers the sumptuous setting of high-society in Vienna in the late 1700s, with its courtly opulence and iconic musical backdrop of Mozart and Haydn.

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Stronger

The photograph of Jeff Bauman being carried away from the Boston Marathon bombing in a wheelchair became an iconic image almost instantly. It spread across the world, summing up the shocking horror and personal devastation of that attack. Bauman had to have both of his legs amputated due to his injuries, and his memoir Stronger chronicles his process of returning to his life, overcoming the loss, and finding purpose in his survival. The film adaptation stars Jake Gyllenhaal, giving a characteristically powerful performance in the lead role.

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Molly's Game

Director and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, famous for his high energy films filled with rapid-fire dialogue, including The Social Network, has now taken on the memoirs of Molly Bloom. In her book she recounts how she, as a 26-year-old cocktail waitress, came to run the one of the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker games. Surrounded by Hollywood celebrities, athletes, businessmen and (unbeknownst to her) Russian mobsters, Bloom describes the rise and fall of her poker empire. Molly's Game is the first of two films in the TIFF '17 lineup that features Jessica Chastain as the lead.

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The number

South African author and scholar Jonny Steinberg has dedicated his work to depicting the social reality of South Africa in the era of its move towards democracy. This book is about South Africa’s most notorious and violent prison gang known as The Numbers, and focusses on member Magadien Wentzel who defected after the death of a younger member of the gang. Director Khalo Matabane draws on his experience in documentary work to convey the harrowing realities of these events and Wentzel’s quest for redemption.

Woman Walking Ahead

Delving into a little-known part of history, Eileen Pollack’s book relates an account of Catherine Wheldon, a portrait painter from Brooklyn, who in 1889 travelled to the Standing Rock Reservation in Dakota Territory in order to help the Sioux chieftain Sitting Bull keep his land for his people. The story has now been adapted for film under the name Woman Walks Ahead and sees Jessica Chastain in her second leading role in the festival’s lineup. 

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Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool

Peter Turner’s memoir splices the glamour of the Golden Age of Hollywood with the tragically mundane reality of sickness and death. As a young actor, Turner became involved in a love affair with Hollywood superstar Gloria Grahame. The two remained friends after the affair ended but it was still a surprise when Grahame turned to him to support her through her fatal illness. Turner took her into his eccentric working class home in Liverpool, and his memoir chronicles the tender, yet humorous three weeks they spent together there.

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Editorial content writer at Bookwitty. Lives up to her name by having a housemate called Watson, but is still working on the violin-playing and crime-solving.

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