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From David Lynch to Stanley Kubrick: The favourite books of 7 iconic directors

“As a kid, I was a big reader. Books and theater were the way I understood the world, and also the way I organised my sense of morality, of how to live a good life.” – Greta Gerwig

As David Lynch once said, “Stories hold conflict and contrast, highs and lows, life and death, and the human struggle and all kinds of things.” Thus, for directors to transpose that depth of life-encompassing narrative on the big screen, it is the bookshelf that they usually turn to.

For many a director, novels are the collage from which they extract their cinematic tapestry and just like all of us, they have their well-thumbed favourites. There are directors like the Coen Brothers who have imparted a long reading list through the course of their work and then there are others who have also provided a rather more literal snapshot of their bookshelves. 

We have trawled through interviews with some of the greatest directors in history to bring you a curated collection of directors and their favourite novels of all time.

Check out the list of great reads and why they provide inspiration, below. 

The favourite books of seven directors:

1. George Clooney – War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy

In a career as prolific as George Clooney’s, on both sides of the camera, it’s remarkable that he has even had time to finish the near 600,000-word Russian classic. However, when he appeared on Desert Island Discs he declared that if he was to be cast away with only one novel then Tolstoy’s classic would be his choice. 

Despite joking at the time that “it’s a huge book and there might not be a lot of toilet paper,” his quip does not diminish his love of Tolstoy’s epic, having stated that it even meddled its way into his retelling of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 for the TV series of the same name. 

2. Jodie Foster – Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

The creative field is fraught with doubt and dismal dangers even for the established greats. When a renowned actor transitions into a directorial role it amplifies the scrutiny on their tenfold. In this daring creative act, a word of encouragement and empathy is a valuable thing and there is no better embodiment of that than Rainer Maria Rilke’s seminal assortment of letters. 

As Jodie Foster once told O Magazine, “This is a collection of letters that Rilke wrote to a poet who’d asked for his advice. It’s clear that Rilke wants to encourage the younger man, yet he can’t help betraying his own disillusionment with the world and his feelings of insignificance.

“I love how humble Rilke is—how beaten down by the creative process yet hopeful. I’ve given this book to a few directors and wrapped each copy in a silk scarf. When I feel like a failure or have doubts about my work, this is the sacred book I take off the shelf and unwrap, very delicately.”

3. Sofia Coppola – Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima

The life of Yukio Mishima is the stuff of cinematic surrealism far too manic for the minimalist stylings of Sofia Coppola’s work. However, aside from the unbelievable biography of his life, Mishima also established himself as an undeniable master of prose and poignancy and it is this that Coppola relishes when it comes to Spring Snow

The director once told The WeekThis novel, the first of Mishima’s four-part Sea of Fertility series, takes place in turn-of-the-century Japan, and explores the clash between the old Japanese aristocracy and a new, rising class of elites. The son and daughter of two prominent families won’t admit they love each other until it’s too late, and she’s engaged to the emperor. It’s super-romantic, especially when the doomed lovers kiss in the snow.” 

4. Greta Gerwig – To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf once wrote “you cannot find peace by avoiding life” and that is a mantra that runs centrally through Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird. All of the director’s works have been permeated with the notion of finding profundity in the smallest of places and the work of Virginia Woolf has been invaluable in establishing this style. 

As the up-and-coming director once told One Grand Books, “A classic for a reason. My mind was warped into a new shape by her prose and it will never be the same again. The metaphysics she presents in the book are enacted in a way that allowed me to begin to understand that corner of philosophy.”

5. David Lynch – The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka 

Stanley Kubrick once said: “If it can be written or thought, it can be filmed,” and it has been causing problems for directors ever since. Franz Kafka’s seminal work, The Metamorphosis, is not the easiest to film on paper, but David Lynch had the passion and vision to once attempt it.

While the story of one man’s profound confusion at turning into a giant bug might sound right down Lynch’s street, in the end, his passion for the book meant that he feared he could not match it. The director told an audience in Rome, “Once I finished writing the script for a feature film adaptation, I realized that Kafka’s beauty is in his words.”

Adding, “That story is so full of words that, when I was finished writing, I realized it was better on paper than it could ever be on film.”

6. John Waters – Serious Pleasures: The Life of Stephen Tennant by Philip Hoare

The Sultan of Sleaze, John Waters, once declared, “We need to make books cool again. If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em.” Within his Baltimore home is over 8000 novels and he has transposed this literary lust onto the big screen over the course of his career while turning out a clutch of acclaimed books himself.

Amid the collection, however, Waters reserves reverence for a select few including the non-fiction biography of the decadent British socialite Stephen Tennant. “Aubrey Beardsley, Ronald Firbank, Denton Welch – believe me this ultimate British eccentric made them all seem butch,” the director once wrote. “It’s a crime this book has gone out of print.”

7. Stanley Kubrick – The Saga of Eric Brighteyes by Henry Rider Haggard

Within the epic lodges of Stanley Kubrick’s prized possessions, The Saga of Eric Brighteyes is one of the most self-evidently cherished. In fact, in the Jon Ronson documentary film, Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes the novel is more well-thumbed than David Attenborough’s passport to the extent that it is falling apart. 

The Viking epic is written in a Victorian style and traverses the romance of a farmer boy who falls in love with a princess and has earned his stripes to try and entice her into marriage. Such straightforward storytelling wrapped in sui generis stylings and hidden depth is the literary embodiment of Stanley Kubrick’s work and it is clear to see how the book influenced his style. 

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