After I became a parent, I created a secret ritual: Once a year, I would take a vacation day from work, tell absolutely no one in my family about it, and go see the latest Marvel blockbuster. In the mostly empty theater, I’d forget about the long hours commuting in standstill traffic, the dark circles that had formed under my eyes after a child woke me up multiple times a night, and all the other mundane sources of suburban exhaustion. The movie theater was my refuge, and for a few hours every year, nothing mattered except the buttery popcorn between my fingers and the outcome of the epic battle on the big screen.
That changed in 2020. Like many Americans, I didn’t step inside a theater last year. But I signed up for free trials of almost every streaming service out there—and read more books. As it turned out, good streaming went hand in hand with good reading: Many of last year’s acclaimed new releases were based on notable works. Director Autumn de Wilde’s charming if “rather routine translation” of Jane Austen’s Emma was “told with just enough flair and attention to detail to make it stand out,” my colleague David Sims wrote last spring. It’s now a contender for two Academy Awards in the costumes and makeup/hairstyling categories. News of the World—nominated for four Oscars—is based on a 2016 National Book Award finalist. Nomadland, the director Chloe Zhao’s adaptation of a nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder about senior Americans living out of their vans and RVs, earned six nominations, including best picture. The Personal History of David Copperfield didn’t receive any nominations, but perhaps it should have: The director Armando Iannucci “knows in a couple of places better than Dickens himself what David Copperfield is about,” my colleague James Parker argued last summer. Even the blockbuster Wonder Woman 1984 has an equally fascinating origin story, as relayed by Jill Lepore.
I miss the movie theater—but the books have filled my time. Streaming isn’t so bad, either.
Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.
When you buy a book using a link in this newsletter, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.
What We’re Reading
The Delicate and Demanding World of Emma
“Austen’s story chronicles Emma’s growth beyond silliness and selfishness, but it’s also a celebration of froth, anchored by a character whom the author thought ‘no one but myself will much like.’”
🎥 Emma, starring Anya Taylor-Joy
ILLUSTRATION BY ARSH RAZIUDDIN; FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES; GETTY
The New David Copperfield Movie Might Be Better Than the Book
“Today the book reads unevenly and, in a strange way, un-Dickensianly. It billows, it sags, it contracts suddenly to a point of diamond hardness and then billows and sags again. … But if you can rise above your need for coherence and carefully graded shifts in tone, then David Copperfield becomes a kind of fun-house ride, jolting you about with an almost modernist brusqueness.”
🎥The Personal History of David Copperfield, starring Dev Patel
BRENT N. CLARKE / INVISION / AP
Films That Speak to an Industry In Flux
“News of the World is a departure for [director Paul] Greengrass, who often prefers to take on true-story dramas. Based on the novel by Paulette Jiles, it follows a Civil War captain (Hanks) traveling through post-war Texas who is contracted to rescue a kidnapped young girl.”
🎥 News of the World, starring Tom Hanks
Films About American Soul-Searching
“The film is a worthy exploration of the lost American dream, focusing on communities laid to waste by an economic crisis the country has already begun to forget. … In the classic American Western, endless possibility always lies ahead; Nomadland is a modest yet powerful portrayal of Fern’s determined effort to cling to the only thing she has left: her independence.”
🎥 The New Old Age: Jessica Bruder at The Atlantic Festival
🎥 Nomadland, starring Frances McDormand
Wonder Woman’s Kinky Feminist Roots
“In her hugely entertaining new book, Jill Lepore sets out to uncover the true story behind both Wonder Woman and her creator. Make that creators: not the least of Lepore’s revelations is that [creator William] Marston had a lot of help from his wife, Elizabeth Holloway (we have her to thank for “Suffering Sappho,” “Great Hera,” and other Amazonian expostulations), as well as from his former student Olive Byrne, with whom he and Holloway lived in a permanent ménage à trois that produced four children—two from each woman.”
🎥Wonder Woman 1984, starring Gal Gadot
About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Mary Stachyra Lopez. The book she’s reading now is Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We've Left Behind, by Grace Olmstead.
Comments, questions, typos? Reply to this email to reach the Books Briefing team.
Did you get this newsletter from a friend? Sign yourself up.