Nine Films Based on Epistolary Novels

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

The epistolary novel is the literary equivalent of the found footage film, abandoning a traditional narrative for one cobbled together from fictitious diary entries, personal letters, and so on. Loads of novels have been written in this style, but how many films based on these works manage to capture their epistolary – which, after extensive research, I've concluded is a word only academics love to use – essence?

  1. Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992). Stoker's 1897 Dracula upped the epistolary game by employing not just letters and diary entries but telegrams, newspaper articles, etc. After decades of increasingly unfaithful screen adaptations, Francis Ford Coppola sought to make something true to Stoker's vision, hence the title. Bram Stoker's Dracula includes several letters, read in voiceover and shown on screen, and even scenes emulating documentary footage from the Victorian era. It was Coppola's last major film, in terms of both box office performance and artistic ambition.
  2. 84 Charing Cross Road (1987). This charming if staid drama is another example of how to portray epistolary style onscreen, even if Anthony Hopkins and London are the only two things 84 Charing Cross Road has in common with Bram Stoker's Dracula. Based on American book collector Helene Hanff's own 20-year-long correspondence with English bookseller Frank Doel, the film often has Anne Bancroft (as Hanff) and Hopkins (as Doel) reciting their letters directly into camera.
  3. Bridget Jones's Diary (2001). Renée Zellweger may have two Oscars under her belt, but she will always be remembered as hapless Londoner Bridget Jones. (London and epistolary novels were apparently made for each other.) This unimaginative adaptation relies on extensive voiceover to simulate that diary feeling.
  4. The Martian (2015). Andy Weir's (initially) self-published bestseller, about an astronaut stranded on Mars, unfolds in a series of ship's log entries. Ridley Scott simply turned them into video log entries, with star Matt Damon narrating his character's intricate survival techniques, step by step, into his ship's onboard camera(s).
  5. We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011). Lynne Ramsay's version of Lionel Shriver's 2011 novel just plain ditches Shriver's format, in which the mother of a mass killer tells her story through letters to her husband. With no epistolary touches in the film itself, the "We" of the title now suggests the collective "We", whereas in the book it meant Kevin's mother and father.
  6. Charly (1968). Let's go back a few decades for this one, a drama about a mentally retarded man (Cliff Robertson, who picked up an Oscar for his work) who undergoes experimental surgery that transforms him into a genius. It's based on Daniel Keyes's 1966 novel Flowers for Algernon, a high school English staple. Flowers for Algernon consists of journal entries written by its protagonist Charlie Gordon. His mental development is marked by the quality of his writing: the first chapters are poorly-spelled and grammatically incorrect – the simple thoughts of a man with an IQ of 68. The erudite language in later chapters reflects the leap in Charlie's IQ to an incredible 185. Correctly figuring that Robertson's performance was enough to show Charlie's progress, director Ralph Nelson eschewed any epistolary touches such as voiceover.
  7. Dangerous Liaisons (1988). One of the earliest epistolary novels was Les Liaisons dangereuses, written by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos in 1782. (It was his only novel.) His tale of seduction and manipulation between French courtiers caused a scandal in pre-Revolutionary France. It's gotten at least half a dozen big-screen translations, in nearly as many countries. Not having seen them all, I nominate this star-studded costume drama, based on Christopher Hampton's stage adaptation. There's plenty of letter writing on display, but of course not nearly as much as in the book.
  8. World War Z (2013). At this point, we've run out of movies that made any serious attempt at maintaining an epistolary tone. And so it goes with World War Z, based on the novel by Max Brooks (son of Mel and 84 Charing Cross Road star Bancroft). Brooks's novel was an "oral history" – a collection of survivor interviews and memoirs, compiled by a government commission, after a global zombie outbreak. With the countless problems in getting the film version to the screen, it's little wonder that World War Z director Marc Forster ignored the legions of characters in the novel and focused all the action around Brad Pitt.
  9. The Color Purple (1985). It would be fitting to end this list with a found footage movie based on an epistolary novel. Alas, such a movie has yet to be made, so instead I'll close with Steven Spielberg's first "serious" film, based on Alice Walker's 1982 novel. The book is made up of letters sent between poor 1900-era sisters Celie and Nettie, with some notes to God along the way. Text from the letters was repurposed into monologues for the film's cast.