Bossy Spotlight: Book To Film Adaptations

Oh Dames Nation, do we have a corker for you. 

True whether you’re composing lyrics for an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical *or* determined to get the last word on a past relationship

So, T.S. Eliot is really having a moment. In addition to inspiring one of the worst movies of 2019, he has ushered in 2020 with the best, pettiest literary feud of recent memory. A summary: sometime in 1960, T.S. discovered that his ex-lover Emily Hale Armstrong had left all the love letters he wrote her to Princeton for posterity. He was so furious that he immediately wrote a rebuttal letter and entrusted said letter to Harvard, making clear that if any portion of his letters to her ever became visible to any portion of the public, his rebuttal should be released. Armstrong set her letters to be released to the public in 2020, thus triggering the release of Eliot’s rebuttal and my, folks, what a letter it is. We hope you enjoy both it and Reading The End’s hilarious commentary upon it as much as we did.

Livetweet Reminder: If Beale Street Could Talk, This Sunday!

The love We Your Dames share for Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of Little Women has left us thinking about literary adaptations we love, particularly Barry Jenkins gorgeous adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk, one of 2018’s most underrated films. SO! We are aiming to assure Dames Nation comes to rate it appropriately. On Sunday night, please join us at your laptops to watch this devastatingly lovely film. The details:

What: Watching If Beale Street Could Talk

When: This Sunday, January 19th at 7:30 PM EST

How: Either streaming for free on Hulu, rented for $3.99 or less on another streaming platform, or borrowed from your local library!

Where: Both on Twitter, with the hashtag #DamesStreet, and in a Substack chat we’ll set up that evening — you can pick whichever venue you prefer!

Your paid subscription supports your friendly local Internet culture insight developers!

And Now! Adaptations!

Sorry, aggrieved shark, you’re going to have to get comfortable with some changes as we go from verbal to visual media

Your Dames saw Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women over the holidays and went absolutely gaga for it — like nearly everyone else who saw it. We’re both thrilled that counter to our internally-whispered worry that it would be sort of niche-y, it’s attracted a large audience, earning over $112 million internationally. When the project was announced, we both wondered if another adaptation of Little Women was really necessary, given how many iterations already exist, so we were particularly thrilled with the many fresh insights about the book’s themes and characters that Gerwig, as both director and screenwriter, was able to bring forth in part thanks to her strong attachment to the source material. Our shared enthusiasm for this movie made us think about literary adaptations more broadly, and we realized (shocking news) that we had many thoughts on the subject. So we thought we’d commandeer the pages of our newsletter to have a little chat about two we particularly love — the aforementioned Little Women and Barry Jenkins’s unacceptably underrated adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk — what makes them so successful, and the way they illustrate the challenges of adapting material.

Dame Margaret: Before we go any further, Sophie, I was curious — what is your relationship with Little Women, the novel? Contrary to most people’s expectations of me as a feminist New Englander famed for her love of 19th century lady authors, it’s never been a major text for me. I liked the 1995 movie, of course, but I didn’t read the book until I was 20, at which point I found its (very era-and-intended-audience appropriate!) didacticism off-putting. 

Dame Sophie: I’m pretty sure my only exposure to the novel is through an Illustrated Classics edition that I read at an elementary school friend’s house one afternoon in like third grade. I saw the 1995 movie in theaters, but only once. My feeling was, “ok, this is nice, what’s next?” Meanwhile, I was head-over-heels for Sense and Sensibility and the slew of Austen adaptations that were flooding the market at the time after its success. Having grown up watching Masterpiece Theatre, I had a strong appetite for costume dramas, so that was not the issue.

M: Obviously, same.

S: I think I’ve just always favored a little more tartness in my corseted female and emotionally repressed protagonists.

M: I think I’m just the same, Sophie — A Little Princess notwithstanding. What’s interesting, though, is that even though the book has never been a touchstone for me, I feel like I still know everything about it. I can go toe-to-toe with people about Amy’s purported villainy, whether Laurie and Jo should have ended up together, or if Beth is terminally drippy in addition to being terminally ill. It feels like something I absorbed along with my amniotic fluid. Has there ever been a time I did not know about the March girls? Is that a New England thing, or was that true for you as well?   

S: I’ve always had an ambient awareness of them, thanks to Little Women’s canonicity — it’s not every book that gets to be bowdlerized into an Illustrated Classic, after all.

M: Lol, true. 

S: But I truly didn’t care about the March girls until Christmas Day 2019. Now I would lay down my life for each of them and all of them, as a unit. For me that’s to do with things like my self-conception as a writer, wife, mother, eldest daughter, and most of all, a sibling. I come from a loud, lively family of three girls where we are all constantly carrying on several overlapping conversations at once, and the people in our lives just have to dive in or stay by the shallow end and wait for us to explain things hours later. 

M: God, I hadn’t even considered how being a Brookover Sister would change your experience this particular version of the March Sisters. The way Gerwig portrays them is one of the film’s unique strengths — how each (female) member of the family is brought to life so vividly and but also the familial closeness and chaos it captures. There are all these scenes where emotionally repressed men look on in adoring wonderment as the March women fall all over one another like a passel of puppies with love and jokes and interrupted sentences. Scenes that, it turns out, were very carefully scripted and rehearsed.  

S: YES! Robert Altman is smiling proudly down from his perch in whatever cinematically-enabled afterlife he’s gone onto. It’s very hard to pull off that trick of screenwriting and acting and directing, and I have this vivid sense memory of watching it and feeling so seen and loved. It was very moving! I also love the way the camera both documents the March family dynamic and invites the viewer into it, as well. It’s so seductive.  

M: One of the reviews I read spoke about how, in the family scenes, the camera feels like a fifth March sister given the way it dances among and between them. It’s such a sound observation. I also feel like this communicative closeness and a commitment to making each March sister distinct and equally important are something that Gerwig realized was missing from previous adaptations and set out specifically to include.

S: I am so looking forward to rewatching this film specifically with a view towards paying more attention to the two sisters whose choices & stories I love the least (sorry, Meg and Beth! I know you deserve more!). 

M: While I, as someone who always knew in her heart she was a bit of an Amy, was so delighted to finally see an adaptation that loved her. I think this choice represents one of the essential requirements for a great adaptation. You need to have a clear, compelling answer for why your version of the story needs to exist and what you hope it will say.

S: Yeah, I mean, this is a little crass, but an adaptation has to justify its existence beyond the economic incentive to tap into an existing market. This one does so amply, on both artistic and philosophical grounds.

M: Another thing Gerwig’s movie does brilliantly is fearlessly alter the original material so that the adaptation works the way it ought to in the medium — and time — in which she’s rendering it. We have all sat through adaptations that feel lifeless-- just a visual CliffNotes of something that, on the page, was extremely special. The first two Harry Potter movies, for example, and — tragically — the recent TV adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books. Gerwig does not make that mistake. No one could fairly accuse her of paying insufficient attention to her source material — she built an exact replica of Louisa May Alcott’s home so they could film in appropriately authentic environment, for heaven’s sake. But she does not make all the same mistakes Louisa May Alcott did simply because Alcott came first. So, for example, she opens the movie in media res, choosing to foreground the lives each sister ends up with, and the loves they pick for themselves in the end. This allows you, as the viewer, to become attached to who the March sisters become, thereby easing the shock when expected outcomes are upended in the middle of the story.    

M: However, liberties of that kind are so much easier to take when you’re dealing with a work that’s canonical, like Little Women. It is harder to recontextualize a story when you cannot take for granted your audience’s familiarity with it. Which brings me to another literary adaptation we both love and desperately wanted to discuss: Barry Jenkins’s remarkable 2018 adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk, a novel by James Baldwin that (I fear) neither of us has read.

S: Your fear is justified, sadly.

M: Our ignorance, despite being highly-educated people who would generally be considered quite well-read, highlights the difficulty Jenkins faced in adapting Baldwin’s novel. While Gerwig can count on our preexisting knowledge of Alcott’s work and use the tension between our expectations and her choices to create fresh insights, Jenkins needs to simultaneously introduce us to Baldwin’s work and, subtly, artfully make his own mark upon it. 

S: I just rewatched the Beale Street trailer and flat-out sobbed at how exquisite it is. Everything about it is made with such care and skill that I am now half-convinced that the phrase “finely wrought” was invented solely to describe this movie, and it’s painfully baffling to me that it didn’t net more award nominations and wins last year. Barry Jenkins is working at levels of craftsmanship, artistry, insightfulness, and humane-ness that most filmmakers will never attain, and I hope his tv adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad will yield stronger recognition from his colleagues (I won’t call them peers, because most of them just aren’t). 

M: I think this is the other cost of adapting a lesser-known work: in addition to not having familiarity to play off artistically, Jenkins could not count on it to give the project either a commercial draw or canonical significance. Even though we were both borderline indifferent to Little Women and skeptical that any new adaptation of it was necessary, we knew we would attend. Even if it had not been a director we admire so much, there would have been a curiosity about how it was approached and a sense that being able to discuss the work would serve us well as cultural commentators — particularly given our peer group of bookish women and their reverent attitude to the text. Baldwin, despite being one of the greatest literary geniuses to which America can lay claim, does not have the same status of cultural touchstone. Because of (what!) structural racism!

S:  In the run-up to the release of If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins had the advantage of having recently won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, and his studio’s marketing rollout was easily the equal of what they did for Moonlight. They certainly considered it awards-bait, saving it for a prestige-y Christmas release. I think there was a strong expectation that it would be both as critically acclaimed and as popular as Moonlight (itself an adaptation) and then it really wasn’t, in spite of being even better than Moonlight, in my not remotely humble opinion! I think a particularly insidious form of racism plays a huge role in the reason why: As sad as Beale Street is, at base it’s a movie about a very loving and supportive Black family. The pain in Moonlight threatens to overwhelm its deep tenderness and romance, and I think that there’s a stronger appetite for that type of story among proud upper middlebrow-type filmgoers. 

M: Like, it’s both a lack of canonical significance (because we do not give black artists that power) and a failing of imagination on the part of white audiences (who do not know how to recognize the artistic significance of art about loving black families, only ones of black suffering)? In multiple high-profile reviews, the visual beauty of Jenkins film and the pure directness of the love between Tish and Fonny is cited as a weakness when, in fact, it’s the core of the argument that Jenkins is making with the film. He is showing, vividly, the love and connection that can blossom between young black people, and the racist society determined to wipe it out. You cannot communicate the second half of that nearly as effectively if you do not render painstakingly the first.

S: I definitely missed those reviews at the time and am now going on the classic journey of shocked to disappointed and disgusted. What a total misreading of this movie and a misguided, gross devaluing of things that are beautiful, broadly. I do continue to hope that the strength and quality of Jenkins’s adaptation will boost Beale Street’s canonicity, as well as reflect it. I’d be interested to see a national survey of high school English syllabi in 5 or 10 years to see if the film has yielded an increase in young Baldwin readers. 

M: Or even (comparatively) OLD Baldwin readers. Writing about the film this way has really renewed my commitment to reading the book, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it has a similar impact on Dames Nation. 

S: That would be a really wonderful outcome, and I invite Dames Nationals who’ve gone back to read If Beale Street Could Talk (or any original text of a movie or even TV adaptation) to tell us about it! Adapting a popular text is a good economic argument for the practice, but cross-media interest-sparking can & does flow in multiple directions, and I’m very in favor of one work of art making other works of art accessible and interesting to new audiences. 

Further Reading & Listening

Further Literary Adaptations We Love!

Just in case you need a little more book-to-movie magic

  • Adaptation (adapted from Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, our lone nonfiction pick here, and featuring another memorable performance by the great Chris Cooper, perhaps the most underrated highly celebrated American actor)

  • Anne With An E (both Your Dames have mixed feelings about this one, but Dame Sophie’s beloved teen Nell is obsessed with it, which we think counts for more than anything we think.) 

  • A Cock and Bull Story (a weird postmodern adaptation of the formally daring 18th century novel Tristram Shandy, by Steve Coogan, a weird postmodernish comedian, actor, and writer. If, while watching the linked preview, your reaction to seeing Coogan in character as Shandy — trapped in a larger-than-life-sized fabricated uterus — was to experience a full-body laugh, this is the movie for you)

  • Dickinson (what if the life, times, and love life of Emily Dickinson, but with contemporary slang, cussing, same-sex banging, and Wiz Khalifa as Death? Trust us on this one and if you can’t, just listen to this episode of Appointment Television, featuring series creator & writer Alena Smith)

  • Fantastic Mr. Fox (For Dame Sophie’s money, this is Wes Anderson’s best movie. If all it had given us was this description of whack-bat and this dead useful Meryl Streep gif, it would have been enough, but his most symmetrical and fussy visual tendencies are balanced out by the emotional messiness of his zillionth father-son story)

  • The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith re-situates the story from Victorian England to 1930s Korea during the Japanese occupation and the results are riveting, funny, sexy, twisted, dread-inducing: a flat-out must-see.) 

  • High Fidelity — both the movie (which we will probably always love in spite of how poorly many parts of it have aged) and, now, the new TV show (which we are very excited to see recontextualize Rob Fleming as a woman of color).

  • A Little Princess (1995) and The Secret Garden (1993) (Touchstones of Dame Margaret’s youth and her earliest exposure to the genius of Alfonso Cuarón.)

  • Mansfield Park and Kate Hamil’s dynamic, boisterous theatrical adaptations of Jane Austen’s books, the newest of which — Emma — has its world premiere this spring

  • Paddington & Paddington 2 (More family movies like these perfect treasures, please. While we’re issuing eminently reasonable demands, we’d also like to insist upon more calypso in movie soundtracks. We appreciate music supervisors’ timely & swift attention to this matter.)

  • Stardust (It’s 3 times better than the book, do NOT @ us.)

  • To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (It’s so rare to find an adaptation of a YA novel — particularly one that’s such a straight-ahead rom com — with real visual style and an animating impulse beyond “getting more money from teens.” This one is perfect. We are awaiting the release of its sequel with giddiest anticipation.)

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