Saoirse Ronan is the Queen of Book-to-Film Adaptations
A ranking of the Little Women star's literary movies
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I n case you haven’t heard the Beatles-level shrieks of joy on the internet — Greta Gerwig just might be in talks to adapt Little Women to the big screen. Gerwig’s bringing some of the Ladybird cast back together to make everyone’s dreams come true— Saoirse Ronan as Jo, Timothée Chalamet as Laurie. It’s like Ladybird went back in time and her dad is a transcendentalist veteran and her mom isn’t afraid to hug her and her first boyfriend is actually an adoring but problematic dude who is kind of obsessed with her family.
The news got me thinking. Keira Knightley, Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Oprah Winfrey, and Meryl Streep have all made it into quite a few book-to-film adaptations over the years (Meryl Streep is even slotted for the role of Aunt March in Gerwig’s Little Women). But in the past ten years, has anyone rivaled Saoirse Ronan for bringing books to the big screen? I say no. To prove my point, here is the definitive ranking of all of Saoirse Ronan’s best book-to-film moments, just in case you needed another ten reasons to love her.
#1 —Young Briony Tallis in Atonement by Ian McEwan, 2007
Ronan was twelve years old when she delivered the Academy Award-nominated performance for Best Supporting Actress of young Briony Tallis in the earth-shatteringly beautiful adaptation of Atonement. At the time she was one of the youngest actresses to be nominated for the award. Atonement makes it to the top of our list because both Ronan’s performance and the film hold up exceptionally well to the novel’s own greatness.
#2 — Eilis Lacey in Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín, 2015
The film, adapted to screen by Colm Tóibín and another novelist, Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy) follows the young Irish immigrant Eilis to Brooklyn in the 1950s. She falls in love with a young Italian American man, learns how to twirl her pasta and forges on as the only woman in her accounting class. But when she learns of trouble back home in Ireland, she has to choose between who she once was and who she’s become.
#3 — Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, 2009
Susie Salmon tells the story of her own murder, which occurred on December 6, 1973. Susie, now in heaven, is narrating the events she witnesses down on earth as her family navigates the tragedy, her murderer buries his tracks, and the world goes on. And she was only thirteen years old when she starred in the role. Ronan’s delivery is piercing — and pushes Lovely Bones up high on our list.
#4 — Nina Mikhailovna Zarechnaya in The Seagull by Anton Chekhov, 2018
Okay, so this one is kind of a stretch because it’s an adaptation of a play, but it’s too great not to include. One of Chekhov’s most significant plays, The Seagull follows four characters — the young Nina, the middling writer Boris Trigorin, the aging actress Irina, and her son the playwright Konstantin.
#5— Florence Ponting in On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, 2017
After 10 years, the all-grown-up Ronan and McEwan teamed up again for the adaption of his 2008 novel. In this one, a young couple negotiates societal pressures and sexual desires in 1962 England. McEwan, who also wrote the screenplay, told EW: “Movies do suffer from not being able to give you the inside of someone’s head — Saoirse just turning away, saying nothing with a look, can do all that for you…I was very happy to cut lines because we didn’t need them because we were in the hands of someone with [the] supreme ability of conveying the inside of a character’s thoughts.”
#6 — Melanie Stryder/Wanda in The Host by Stephenie Meyer, 2013
As McEwan so rightfully pointed out, Ronan is queen of the inner monologue made visible, which is maybe why she is the queen of book-to-film adaptations. What if you could use a love triangle to save your life? In The Host, written by the author of the Twilight series, an invisible enemy is invading people’s bodies and scooping out their memories. When Melanie Stryder’s body is invaded by the “soul” of Wanda, Melanie refuses to disappear, and the two struggle internally to inhabit the same body. Melanie makes Wanda an ally by filling her head with images of Jared — whom Melanie loves. And pretty soon Wanda does, too. The two take off in search of the man they both love. What could possibly go wrong?
#7 — Daisy in How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, 2013
In this adaptation of a dystopian YA novel, Ronan plays Daisy — the scrubby Manhattan teen sent to live in the English countryside to visit her aunt and cousins during a fictional third world war. Her aunt leaves on business, and in short order Daisy and her cousins are left to fend for themselves on the farm as London is bombed by an unknown enemy and the war gets closer to home.
#8— Lina Mayfleet in City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau, 2008
Right after proving she could take on the heaviest of real-life tragedies of death and war in Atonement, young Ronan showed us how to make the science fiction novel work on screen, too. City of Ember is a trilogy which follows two friends — Lina Mayfleet and Doon Harrow — as they try to save their city from total darkness. City of Ember, built 200 years ago, was meant to be the last refuge for the human race. Once a city of shimmering light, Ember is now starting to dim and flicker. Lina discovers an ancient message that might be the key to saving the city.
#9 — Celia Hardwick in The Christmas Miracle of Jonathon Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski, 2007
It’s crazy to imagine Ronan starred in Atonement the same year as this one. Originally a children’s book, this film follows three lost souls: a broken-hearted boy mourning the loss of his father, the boy’s mother, and the carpenter she hires to rebuild the boy’s lost nativity set in time for Christmas. The stodgy carpenter has his own reasons to be sour and mournful, which come to light as the Christmas holiday approaches.
#10 — Mary Stuart in Mary, Queen of Scots by John Guy, 2018
This one is only at the bottom of the list because it hasn’t come out yet. But if you’ve been keeping track, this will be Ronan’s third book-to-film adaption to in 2018 alone. The film is an interpretation of the biography My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots by John Guy, which retells the story of Queen Mary as a shrewd and charismatic ruler at an unruly time. The film comes out in December, and I will be counting down the days until we get to see Ronan play the tough-as-nails queen who ruled with vigor from the time she was nine-months old and battled for power against Queen Elizabeth I before being executed.
For those films in which books play a supporting role:
Agatha in The Grand Budapest Hotel (inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig), 2014
Really this one deserves to be in the top ten, but only gets bumped to the “honorables” list because the film was “inspired” by Zweig’s writing, but is also 100% Wes Anderson. Zero Moustafa becomes the entrusted apprentice and confidante of Gustave H, the illustrious concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel in the Republic of Zubrowka. Zero falls in love with Agatha (Ronan), the badass pastry chef with a birthmark that looks like Mexico, who can whip up a prison break with little more than a palette knife, flour and sugar.
Arrietty in The Secret World of Arrietty (based on the novel The Borrowers by Mary Norton), 2010
A Japanese animated adaptation of the The Borrowers, Arrietty follows the Clock family, the tiny folks living in another family’s home, “borrowing” the small, simple things they need to get by. All is well and good for the Clocks until their daughter, Arrietty (Ronan) is discovered by the family the Clocks are borrowing home from.
Irena in The Way Back (inspired by the memoir The Long Walk by Sławomir Rawicz), 2010
The year is 1941 when three men escaping communist Russia meet four other escapees and a young teenage girl (Ronan) as they trek 4,000 miles on foot to freedom in India. The movie was inspired by The Long Walk, a memoir about Sławomir Rawicz’s personal experience as a Polish prisoner of war who escaped communist Russia in the ‘40s.