the film/book disconnect: My Sister’s Keeper

I believe I have said this before, but I can’t find it so I’ll repeat myself:

If you have a novel and you sell the film rights, you have to divorce yourself from the story. Because it isn’t your story anymore, and what’s up there on the screen has very little to do with you. Unless you’re John Irving and you can negotiate a role for yourself in writing the screenplay and the production.

If there’s a novel you adore and you hear that the film rights have been sold, then you have two choices (1) never see the film; (2) see the film and forget the book. Don’t compare the two. The film might be quite good, on its own.

There are some novels which have translated to film very well: The Godfather, Angels and Insects, Brokeback Mountain, Lonesome Dove, the Shawshank Redemption, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman are some examples.  More often people are disappointed or even outraged by the changes to the story. I personally could not stop laughing all through the tv movie version of The Stand, I found it that bad.   And then there’s the ultimate example of wrong done to a good book: Beloved.

Jodi Picoult’s novels either work for me in a very big way, or not at all. I feel the same way about Anne Tyler, so she’s in good company. I liked My Sister’s Keeper a lot, and now the movie is out there. And I’m not going to see it (option one above), for a very specific reason.

The filmmaker reinterprets the story, of course.  A huge novel cannot be put on film unless the whole thing is taken apart and condensed. It is possible to do this and still keep some sense of the theme of the novel.  The French Lieutenant’s Woman (novel) has two endings, one very dark, the other happier. The filmmaker handled that by assigning one of those endings to the current-day actors who are making the movie (this is a movie about making a movie of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, you see) and the other to the fictional Victorian characters. I was very impressed. I still am, when I rewatch it.

But imagine these films with new endings:

Gone with the Wind

Scarlett: But where will I go? What will I do?

Rhett: Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn. Come here, sweetums. Let me show you what to do, and where to do it.

Batty old Actress in Sunset Boulevard

All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.
Young man, send everybody away and help me look for my marbles. I lost them just about here.

Tale of Two Cities

“It’s a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done. It’s a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.”

Ain’t this a kick in the head.

Wizard of Oz

“Oh, but anyway, Toto, we’re home! Home! And this is my room – and you’re all here! And I’m not gonna leave here ever, ever again because I love you all! – And oh, Auntie Em, there’s no place like home.”

Auntie Em, I don’t think those were Chanterelle mushrooms after all.


“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Louis, I’ve missed you so much. Come sit next to me.


At the end of the novel My Sister’s Keeper there is a twist that took me by surprise. It was a gutsy thing for Picoult  to do, but it did work. The filmmaker was not as courageous. In the movie, that unusual, challenging ending has been dumped and its very opposite, a cliché as big as the movie screen itself, was substituted.

What I am wondering is this: when the DVD comes out, will it have the original ending as an alternate? Because that, I would watch.


One of my favorite movies to rewatch is Crossing Delancey.  The Mathematician and I saw it on the day it came out, which happened to be  two months to the day since our wedding. And I was just barely pregnant with the Girlchild.  I often have very personal memories attached to my recollections about movies. Why this should be, I have no idea. But I remember the exact circumstances of seeing Star Wars, When Harry Met Sally, Animal House, Saturday Night Fever, Groundhog Day and dozens of other movies on the weekends they opened.

Cover of

Crossing Delancey

And still, Crossing Delancey is one of my favorites, partly because it’s set on Manhattan’s lower east side, and partly because of the way it pokes fun at literary pretentions, and partly (a big part) because of [[Reizl Bozyk]], who spent sixty years performing in Manhattan’s Yiddish theaters.  She played Bubbie (Amy Irving’s grandmother) in the stage production of Crossing Delancey and then carried that role over to the film. This picture is from one of the best scenes of the movie, when Bubbie (on the left) finagles Amy Irving’s character (middle) into meeting with a matchmaker (on the right).

The reason all this came to mind is that I’ve been thinking about fruit trees and whether to plant a couple, and the idea of plums came into my head. Which brought to mind  a poem recited by the obnoxious narcissistic novelist character thatAmy Irving’s character  has a (totally inexplicable) crush  on, to her Bubbie’s consternation.  So I have to go watch the movie again, right now, no matter how late it is.  I’ll leave you with the poem.

Ripe plums are falling
Now there are only five
May a fine lover come for me
while there is still time

Ripe plums are falling
Now there are only three
May a fine lover come for me
while there is still time

Ripe plums are falling
I gather them in a shallow basket
May a fine lover come for me
tell me his name.
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Miss Pettigrew’s bodice

[asa book]190646202X[/asa] There’s an article in PW about the revival of interest in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a novel first published in 1938, reissued by Persephone Books in 2000 and about to be reissued again. It was also made into a movie starring Frances MacDormand.

There are many very good things to celebrate about all this,. To start with the publisher:

Persephone Books reprints forgotten classics by twentieth-century (mostly women) writers. Each one in our collection of seventy-five books is intelligent, thought-provoking and beautifully written, and most are ideal presents or a good choice for reading groups.

The books are beautifully edited and produced, from the period-appropriate cover art to the quality of the paper. Persephone was started by Nicola Beauman nine years ago but Miss Pettigrew is the first of the list of seventy-five to really take off, which certainly has something to do with the movie release. The story is, in a word, wonderful, and the film does it justice.

People like to talk about the madcap movies of the 30s with great affection and nostalgia, when in fact many of those films haven’t aged well. Miss Pettigrew, lost to obscurity for more than fifty years until Ms Beauman brought her back to life (and Stephen Garrett produced the film), is everything such stories are supposed to be: stylish, witty, laugh-out-loud funny, with an underlying thoughtfulness you can ignore if you’re so inclined. In this case, the contrast between those who lived through and survived WWI with those who are rushing blithely toward WWII.

Another good thing: Persephone Books are just now starting to be distributed in the States. The company was founded as a primarily mail-order establishment, but has grown into something bigger. For my own part, I’m hoping they might have a look at The Moonflower Vine, another truly excellent, out of print and forgotten novel written by a woman who went unnoticed for most of her life. (More on Jetta Carleton’s Moonflower Vine here).

And now the bad. As I began to write this post I was angry, and I’m angrier now than ever. This has nothing to do with Persephone or Miss Pettigrew. It has to do with the author, Winifred Watson. Or more exactly, it has to do with the way she is presented to the world by some outlets.

Winifred Watson, 2000Watson was born in 1906, into a very well to do family in the north of England that fell on hard times during the Depression, when she went to work as a typist. Watson’s obituary in The Independent tells the story of how she turned to writing and made a success of it, and why she gave it up. When Persephone Books reissued Miss Pettigrew in 2000 Ms Watson was still alive, and the book’s success shone a light on a surprised but gratified ninety-four year old. ((A more recent article in Chronicle Live notes that the film of Miss Pettigrew came too late for its author. ))

These and other obituaries and articles about the Watson’s rediscovery draw a picture of a woman who led a full life, someone of great character. Someone with a sense of the absurd, a keen understanding of human foibles, and a wicked sense of humor not stifled out of existence by social conventions. I certainly would be interested in knowing more about her. Which is how I stumbled on Anna Sebba‘s article dated November 13, 2000 in The Times. The title:

Bodice-ripping fame at 94

First, please note that I only found this article because its title was included in the information for Miss Pettigrew. And that’s all that was included. From the original interview by Sebba:

Winifred Watson has just been rediscovered – at the age of 94. But she thinks she may be just a little too old for the celebrity circus that she has suddenly been plunged into.

“Well, it’s rather nice, and most heart-warming,” says the Newcastle author, who was famous once before, in the 1930s. “But it’s not the same as when you’re young. I’ve got past all that being excited.”

Watson had six novels published between 1935 and 1943, mostly bodice-ripping rustic sagas about life in the North East – long before Catherine Cookson had published a word.

I’ve been trying to figure out why this makes me so angry. Here we’ve got one interviewer, a woman. She’s got the chance to sit down with someone who survived two world wars, who wrote six novels and then went on to raise a family, who has reached ninety-four years of age. And what does the reporter do with this opportunity? She reduces that woman’s work and trivializes it with that most overused, cliched catch-all, bodice ripper. A term that has no equal in terms of negative literary connotations. A term that encourages the reader to dismiss the book in question with a snicker without reading a single page. You know what this is about, is what that term says. It’s tawdry and silly and it’s below you. Do not bother.

All six novels, dispatched with one stroke.

Here’s a question: did Watson even write romances? And another: What does that have to do with anything at all? Does it matter what you call her novels?

I’ll tell you what matters to me: that (especially) a female journalist show respect and thoughtfulness in an interview with one of the women who struggled to be published in a far more difficult era. That she not trivialize books she has mostly likely never even read. And if she has read them, and if Ms Watson herself declared them romances, that she not delegate them to the literary trashbin with a careless flick of the finger. Jane Austen wrote romances, too. And Ms Watson deserved better.

Shame on Anna Sebba and shame on her editors at The Times.

romantic comedy gone sadly off track

[asa book]B000YAA68C[/asa] I haven’t posted about any movies lately, and I think that’s mostly because I haven’t seen many I either loved or hated. There are a few I can recommend: Amazing Grace (though the timing is off at places); the third Bourne movie (what can I say? I like it rough at times.)

Just recently I saw PS I Love You with the Girlchild. I really wanted to love this movie, but as is so often the case with romantic comedy, it falls apart very quickly. Some romantic comedies keep falling when you think there’s no lower they could go. Maid in Manhattan was one of those stinkers. I could name quite a few. But that’s not the case with PS I Love You.

There are some great, great scenes in this movie. I will rent the damn thing just to watch those scenes a couple times. If I had the know-how, I’d re-edit the whole thing because someplace inside the tossed salad that is supposed to be a narrative thread, the best bits got stampeded into the dust or just plain lost.

Who makes these decisions? I know it’s based on a novel, but somebody wrote the screenplay, and then somebody directed it, and still somebody else edited all the scenes together. Who made the series of bad decisions that ruined what could have been a really good movie?

The actors worked so damn hard to keep the thing afloat, but they only succeed in short spurts. Gerard Butler and Jeffrey Dean Morgan are perfectly cast as the good-guy love interests. Scruffy, manly, with killer smiles and gentle ways that can turn oh so devastating when they get up close and personal.

Somebody made the decision to start this movie with an overly long scene between the two primary characters, Holly (Hillary Swank) and her husband of some nine years, Gerry Kennedy (Butler). It’s not an easy scene to pull off because the idea seems to be to front-load all the conflicts, as if getting this out of the way will make the rest of the movie cheery and fun.

But then the husband is suddenly dead of a brain tumor, and from there things drag along while he tries to help her from beyond the grave (by means of letters) to move past her grief. It’s during this long process that we get some great but all too short scenes, but the worst sin is this: we’re three quarters of the way through the damn movie before we see Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s very, very nice, very naked back side.

Okay, that’s not the real problem. The real problem is that it’s not until this late in the movie that we see how Gerry and Holly met. If we had had that up front, we would have all loved Gerry as much as Holly did and we would have understood the depth of her grief. But no. They had to feed us the important stuff in stingy little bites and string them out until the only possible response is to howl with disappointment.

One of the big problems, I think, is that the cast is too big. Holly’s mom and sister and her mom’s bartender (a love-struck, morose Harry Connick Jr.), her best friends plus their husbands and/or significant others…. when really what was needed was more focus on Holly and Gerry and then Holly and WIlliam. I, personally, needed a whole hell of a lot more of William.

I don’t know enough about the film industry to figure out who messed up so badly, but I can say it wasn’t any of the major players. And I can say that if I were one of them, I’d be unhappy about what happened once the film went to editing.