6 amazing historical books to read before you see the film


I found Claire at Hisdoryan through the Exciting Emails crew and I've loved nerding out over her thoughtful, fascinating and well-researched blog. I am so excited that Claire has popped over here today with a guide to the historical films we should be looking out for this year and the books we should read before we see them on the big screen! She's very kindly included the Aussie release dates, so you can plan your reading.

History: the greatest storybook of all

The written word and the silver screen have always enjoyed a close relationship. Likewise Hollywood has always taken inspiration from history, which some may call the greatest storybook of all (how closely Hollywood adheres to historical truth is a totally different story though).

When Michelle asked me to write a guest post for The Unfinished Bookshelf, I knew I simply had to write a post combining these two great sources of inspo for filmmakers – literature and history. 

To Marry An English Lord book, one of the six books to read before you watch these 2019 historical films.

The trend of Hollywood taking inspiration from the bookshelf is one that shows no sign of going away. 2019 sees an influx of movies either directly adapted, or taking serious influence from, books from the history genre.

So here’s my pick of forthcoming historical film releases hitting cinemas in 2019 – and the history books you should read beforehand.

The Happy Prince (April 4 release)

What’s it about? The Happy Prince is a biographical drama film about everyone’s favourite Irish wit and playwright Oscar Wilde. The film is written by, directed by, and stars Rupert Everett.

Much like the forthcoming Shakespeare film All Is True, The Happy Prince takes a poignant look at Wilde’s later years. The playwright spent these last years in a disgraced exile in Naples and Paris after being released from prison for his conviction for ‘gross indecency’.

Rupert Everett stars in the new Oscar Wilde bio-pic. PHOTO: WILHELM MOSER

Who’s going to be in it? Apart from Everett, expect to see Colin Firth as Reggie Turner – author and close friend of Wilde – and Emily Watson as Constance Lloyd, Wilde’s wife.

Recommended Reading Up until recently Richard Ellman’s 1988 biography of Wilde was the definitive book of the author’s life. However, last year saw the publication of Oscar: A Life by Matthew Sturgis. The Times Literary Supplement called it ‘The Book of the Year’. 

The Aftermath (April 11 release)

What’s it about? The Aftermath is set in post-WWII Hamburg. Keira Knightly plays a woman who is newly reunited with her colonel husband after the war, ready to move into a new home in the shattered city he is tasked with rebuilding. 

However her husband (for some strange reason) decides to allow the previous tenant and his daughter to remain in the home, igniting an emotional drama about loyalties and betrayal.

Alexander Skarsgård and Kiera Knightly in The Aftermath. A man and a woman look at each other.

Who’s going to be in it? As well as Knightley, Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård plays the tenant Stefan Lubert.

Recommended Reading It can only be the international bestselling book on which the film is based - The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook.

All Is True (May 9 release)

What’s it about? Basically it’s another film about William Shakespeare. However, All is True is different as it’s all about his later life. The film imagines Shakespeare coming home to Stratford for good after a theatre fire in 1613, and finally dealing with some repressed family issues.

Shakespeare In Love is one of my favourite films of all time, but it’s so refreshing to finally see a film about on older Shakespeare. The script is written by Ben Elton, who also writes the cracking British Shakespeare sitcom Upstart Crow so expect good things.

Six people sit at a banquet table, holding hands.

Who’s going to be in it? Sir Kenneth Branagh himself directs and stars as the Bard, along with Dame Judi Dench as his wife Anne Hathaway and Sir Ian McKellan as Shakespeare’s friend and patron the Earl of Southampton.

Recommended reading For a bit of controversy I recommend Who Wrote Shakespeare’s Plays? by William D. Rubenstein. It provides a clear, objective guide to the Shakespeare authorship question by examining all of the candidates. I was also lucky enough be taught by Professor Rubenstein, so I may be a bit biased!

Red Joan (June 6 release)

What’s it about? I am expecting great things from Dame Judi Dench in this film inspired by the life of Melita Norwood, the KGB's longest-serving British spy. In this film Melita is disguised and renamed as Joan Stanley, an ordinary OAP from deepest suburbia. 

Melita was recruited by the KGB as a spy in 1937 and supplied them with information for 40 years. She passed away in 2005 aged 93, only six years after the British media exposed her astonishing secret life.

A man lounges on the ground, a woman looks at him.

Who’s going to be in it? Do I really need to mention anyone but Judi Dench?! Okay, if you really want to know – Tom Hughes (yes, he who plays Prince Albert in Victoria) also stars in Red Joan as communist student Leo.

Recommended reading  Red Joan by Jennie Rooney. A bit of a red herring, as the book apparently has nothing to do with the film despite the fact it is a cold war spy novel and the main protagonists is a university student-turned-spy called Joan. Hmm…

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (August 15 release)

What’s it about? Director Quentin Tarantino’s latest offering is set in Los Angeles during the Manson Family murders, and tells the story of television actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as they try to get involved in the film industry.

Tarantino says that – out of every film he has made since the iconic Pulp FictionOUATIH is most similar to Pulp Fiction in style.  I only hope it lives up to the hype!

Brad Pitt and Leonardo Di Caprio star in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. Two men standing together, looking at the camera.

Who’s going to be in it? Who isn’t going to be in it?! Tarantino’s cast lists always read like a who’s who of Hollywood. As well as DiCaprio and Pitt, expect to see Margot Robbie, Damian Lewis, Dakota Fanning and even AL PACINO!

Recommended reading: Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is set against the backdrop of the infamous Manson murders. To learn more about Charles Manson and his cult, I recommend the award-winning bestseller Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders. 

Downton Abbey (September 12 release)

Whats it about? Probably one of the most anticipated films of 2019, Downton Abbey is back after a four year hiatus.

No official plot details have been released yet for the movie, but Allen Leech (Branson the chauffer) has confirmed that the movie "picks up not too long after the series ended". So will we see Lady Mary’s new baby then?!

A woman in 1920s dress holds a coat closed around her shoulders.
Lady Mary is returning for the highly-anticipated Downton Abbey film.

Who’s going to be in it? All the usual cast are returning (including the iconic Dame Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess) minus Lily James, who’s now off being a superstar in Hollywood.

Recommended reading This book is a personal favourite of mine - To Marry An English Lord by Carol Wallace and Gail McCall. Apparently this book and its stories of American heiresses invading Britannia and swapping dollars for titles inspired Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes to create the character of Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham.

I’m hoping to see all these fab historical films so I better start reading now. Which historical film are you most looking forward to seeing this year?

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Thank you again to Claire for giving us such a fabulous guide to the films we should be getting excited for this year. You all know I love me some true crime, so Once Upon a Time in Hollywood sounds right up my alley. I'm also a Downton Abbey tragic right from season one so you better believe I'll be desperate to see the film. Please make sure you follow Claire on Instagram here and read her blog.

6 amazing books to read before watching these new historical films in 2019.