Five Books That Would Make Actual Good Multi-Track Ensemble Movies

By now, I’m sure you’ve all seen the trailer for New Year’s Eve, the latest multi-track ensemble dramedy that is the benighted offspring of Love, Actually:

There are many things that drive me nuts about these kinds of movies, from the ridiculous salaries people get paid to mail in a couple minutes of work, to the emotionally-manipulative storytelling, to the treatment of holidays as the most critically important turning points ever. But it’s also irritating because I think ensemble movies where stories are moving on several parallel, not always related tracks, can be a really powerful form of storytelling. Here are five books that, if adapted, could show us why:

1. Underworld, Don DeLillo: Nuns! Conceptual artists! The director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation! Baseball games! It would be hard to corral DeLillo’s attempt at defining an age into a series of coherent narratives. But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t provide a useful set of arresting images and emotional moments to set against each other. Eras can be defined by grand personalities, but they’ve also got their distinct tones. And who doesn’t want to see that baseball game sequence as a movie (or an episode of television) on its now, not even counting what comes after?


2. People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks: Brooks’ interwoven narrative of a book restorer who’s taking care of the Sarajevo Haggadah in preparation of its exhibition and Brooks’ fantasies about how the extraordinary book came together over the centuries and survived despite its exposure to everything from the Jewish expulsion from Spain to the censorship of the Inquisition is more of a short story collection than a novel. And it’s a remarkable testament to the power of art and to interfaith collaboration. The stories don’t have to be directly connected to each other for readers — or viewers — to see how they support those common themes.

3. The Sparrow and Children of God, Mary Doria Russell: These narratives are related, of course, but how awesome would it be to juxtapose a Catholic investigation on Earth, a Jewish-inspired uprising on an alien planet, and the flashbacks to how both the rebel and penitent got where they ended up? Plus, throw in a parallel social history of two alien species — Andy Serkis can totally play Supaari.

4. Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison: Hollywood should give us Song of Solomon anyway as an apology for The Help. And a fair number of these stories intersect. But these powerful, parallel tales, about the impact of faith and the strange, sometimes wonderful, sometimes terrible things that develop in our private lives, would be amazing to see spiral out on a big screen. And it would be awesome to see a big, prestige picture that would provide this many unusual, moving roles for black actors.

5. Canterbury Tales or The Decameron: Yes, I’m a ridiculous dork. But stories about the stories we tell ourselves under conditions of stress, or exploration, or extreme hope are revealing, moving, and as both of these collections reveal, often extremely funny. Plus, personal movies about ordinary and ordinary-ish people experiencing big events like plagues and pilgrimages would be a welcome break from all the Borgias and Tudors we’ve got running around.