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Top 10: Adaptations of LGBTQ Stories

From “Birdcage” to “Brokeback Mountain,” here are the best story adaptations in queer cinema.

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For June Pride Month, it’s important to consider some of the greatest LGBTQ onscreen stories began as books, plays, or other non-film mediums. This Top 10 list honors these originators as well as the directors who brought those cherished works to life. Rather than compare the merits of source material and adaptation, we celebrate the merging of artists who changed cultural perception on queer storytelling.

10. The Hours (2002)
dir. Stephen Daldry

The Hours
Nicole Kidman won an Academy Award for her role as Virginia Woolf in “The Hours” (2002)

Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel still holds the record for Academy Award nominations received by a female-driven LGBTQ drama. Three generations of women connected by Virginia Woolf’s novel, “Mrs. Dalloway,” are given extraordinary depth by masters of their craft: Nicole Kidman (who won the Best Actress”Oscar portraying Woolf), Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep. The talented trio show that buried secrets and internalized longing ultimately inhibit women from expressing their inner desires. While prosthetic babble and awards-bait casting diminished its reputation over time, “The Hours” was nonetheless a major step in recognizing repressed bisexuality and lesbianism, both past and present.

9. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
dir. John Cameron Mitchell

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John Cameron Mitchell stars in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (2001)

John Cameron Mitchell takes the stage musical he and composer Stephen Trask created and gives it new life. Mitchell’s directorial debut maintains its raw integrity despite knowing its bold narrative alienates unprepared audiences. Tackling subjects controversial at the time — gender identity and transgender romance — this Sundance gem revels in the raucous spirit of its star headliner. Mitchell’s audacious refusal to pacify his showstopping numbers makes this among the most uncompromising adaptations in LGBTQ cinematic history.

8. Love, Simon (2018)
dir. Greg Berlanti

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Nick Robinson stars in “Love, Simon” (2018)

Greg Berlanti takes a small reprieve from presiding over his CW superhero kingdom to prove gay-driven teen comedies can also be box office hits. A game changer that spawned an upcoming spin-off series on Hulu, Berlanti’s adaptation of Becky Arbetalli’s “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda” is as warm, inclusive, and inviting as its universal message of tolerance. Jennifer Garner’s role as Simon’s mother is a benchmark of parental acceptance, giving kids hopeful breathing room to admit who they are. Depicting young interracial romance is also a rarity in queer cinema, too often dominated by the white male lens.

7. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)
dir. Marielle Heller

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Academy Award nominees Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy star in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (2018)

This restrained character study examines the life of Lee Israel, a lesbian biographer who forges old letters from prominent literary icons. There is no justifying Israel’s crime, nor does the adaptation of Israel’s autobiography exonerate her in any way. Instead, director Marielle Heller, actors Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, and writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty focus on the desperate actions taken by those always on the brink of collapse. The friendship between Grant’s Jack Hock and McCarthy’s Lee is a treasured rarity of lesbian-gay onscreen bonding. The oddly lovable pair may walk a shaky moral tightrope, but even in their small-crime endeavors they know the real injustice is the loneliness caused by social rejection.

6. Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013)
dir. Abdellatif Kechiche

Adéle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux star in “Blue Is the Warmest Colour” (2013)

Behind-the-scenes abuse taints this otherwise extraordinary iteration of the French graphic novel that inspired it. The coming-of-age story accurately showcases the imprisonment young adults experience when hiding their sexuality. The judgmental gaze from peer, parent, and neighbor suffocate closeted protagonist Adéle (performed with tour de force brilliance by Adéle Exarchopoulous). The only solace from the pressure to conform or be shunned are liberating sexual encounters with Emma (Léa Seydoux). Her defiance, confidence, and love for Adéle offer a hopeful future at the end of a dismal tunnel of surrounding hatred. The two leads ooze passion and emotional truth into their intense relationship. Chief example: their legendary breakup fight features some of the best acting you’ll ever see.

5. The Birdcage (1996)
dir. Mike Nichols

The Birdcage
Nathan Lane and Robin Williams star in “The Birdcage” (1996)

The highest-grossing LGBTQ movie at the time of release, “The Birdcage” blazed a new trail by snuffing out stereotypes. Jean Poiret’s “La Cage aux Folles” was given rejuvenated treatment for a slightly more accepting — yet still problematic — world. Robin Williams and Nathan Lane play Armand and Albert, lifelong partners who have to hide their gay domesticity to appease the prospective in-laws of Armand’s son, Val (Dan Futterman). Lane especially expounds the reality that “effeminate” men are routinely minimized and mistreated, even by members of their own community. The comedy demonstrates that “passing straight” is just another instance of catering to heteronormative culture.

4. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
dir. Ang Lee

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Academy Award nominees Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger star in “Brokeback Mountain” (2005)

Ang Lee took Annie Proulx’s short story about a same-sex cowboy romance and turned it into one of the most sweeping love epics of the current century. Taking place in the 1960s – when even the the smallest expression of homosexuality could get you killed in the rural Midwest – two sheep herders played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal develop a fondness that takes hold and never releases. This is one of those narratives where viewers viscerally share the pain that distance causes whenever the two men are apart. Losing the Oscar for “Best Picture” was a shocking disappointment, but the power in this revolutionary big studio gamble is its unrivaled, enduring gay icon legacy.

3. Carol (2015)
dir. Todd Haynes

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Cate Blanchett was nominated for an Academy Award for her role in “Carol” (2015)

Patricia Highsmith’s “The Price of Salt” is in many ways held back by its own author’s reluctance to fully own her sexuality. Todd Haynes kicks down this fear by letting Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) dive into the warmth of their forbidden union. While the performances range from frosty to lustful in a matter of fleeting moments, the thread connecting the pair is sacrifice. Women endure so much adversity, inequality at both work and home, and are burdened by the responsibility of pleasing their families well before themselves. This was especially true in the 1950s setting of this fateful, domestic-shattering love story. Queer cinema too often ends on a tragic note, but “Carol” shows that making the first move and allowing happiness to creep into your countenance is its own mini revolution.

2. Call Me By Your Name (2017)
dir. Luca Guadagnino

Image from the movie "Call Me by Your Name"
© 2017 La Cinéfacture − All right reserved.

Speaking of heartbreaking, Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name” opens the tear ducts and never lets up. Screenwriter James Ivory’s adaptation of André Aciman’s doomed summer romance presents its version of gay utopia: a beautiful paradise where reality can never tear love apart. Timothée Chalamet’s Elio and Armie Hammer’s Oliver have instant magnetic attraction, born out of sensual curiosity and intellectual appreciation.

What makes Guadagnino’s version so great is that the narrative maintains its original eroticism without being explicit. This is a sacred love, so personal in fact that its most intimate moments are privately respected by cutting away. Viewers know time is not on this couple’s side. Oliver eventually has to leave the Italian Riviera, back to a world where experimentation is prohibited, where love between two members of the same sex is viewed as a cardinal sin. Ivory’s script saves Aciman’s true ending for a potential sequel, promising a lovers reunion even if it hurts.

1. Moonlight (2016)
dir. Barry Jenkins

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The best adaptation of all comes from an unpublished play, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” Director Barry Jenkins took this unrealized story and rendered it with dazzling, striking honesty. Presenting black masculinity in such a soft and vibrant way is something that had never been attempted in Hollywood to this degree. Adding the struggle of gay repression while maturing in this community is an even rarer cinematic endeavor. His three actors across three stages of young Chiron’s life shed perspective on the tragic identity molding necessary to survive as a black man in America. Jenkins orchestrates a tender drama that bleeds truth and pours love.

What are your ten favorite LGBTQ story adaptations? Share your list with us in the comments!

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Written by Joseph Braverman

My name is Joseph Braverman. I am 31 years old and a graduate from the University of California, Santa Cruz with a Bachelor of Arts in Film and Digital Media. I love watching and analyzing films and television shows. I live in Los Angeles, CA, enmeshing myself in the movie industry scene in any way possible. Don't forget to follow me on Twitter @JBAwardsCircuit.


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