Little Movies Everywhere

As our New Normal continues, I sat down to watch a miniseries recently added to the online streaming service, Hulu, starring Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon. Having read the best-selling novel two years ago, I was looking forward to seeing this film adaptation featuring an affluent dysfunctional family. After all, nothing is more entertaining than reading about a rich family falling down a dark rabbit hole.   

The story opens with the torching of the Richardson’s home. (No spoiler alert here, this major event literally happens on the first page of the novel.) Refreshingly, with five of eight episodes now online, the miniseries remains loyal to the novel’s storyline and subplots.

I  have a rule when it comes to watching film adaptations. If I have any plans of reading the novel, it must be done prior to seeing the movie. There are two reasons why the order of this is important…

  • Movies are based on books, not the other way around – I’m sure there has been a successful novel based on a movie, but I can’t think of one. There’s a reason why the book comes first, and I’m not going to mess with the natural order of storytelling.  
  • When reading a book, it is important to draw my own visuals based on the author’s narrative – I don’t want to picture Reese Witherspoon as I sit alongside the main character while she watches her daughter walk into the school, wondering why her daughter isn’t following the metaphorical map she so carefully laid out for her. As I get lost within the pages of a novel, I am able to “see” the mother as she sits in her car, in full makeup even though it’s 6:30 in the morning. I am able to visualize this because of the author’s rich narrative, not because I’m envisioning Witherspoon’s interpretation.

While many movies fail to rekindle the fire of the novels they’re based on (I’m talking to you, “The Glass Castle.”), there is the occasional surprise film that eclipses the written word. “The Bridges of Madison County” film adaptation brought a simple story to life with strong performances by Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, while being directed by Eastwood. But this is an exception to the rule.

And rules are made to be broken. Many years ago, after being captivated by the raw performances by Barbra Streisand and Nick Nolte in a 1991 drama based on a best-selling novel, I sat down with the book, “The Prince of Tides,” and fell in love with the Pat Conroy story for a second time.

So, how do I feel about the “Little Fires Everywhere” miniseries after five episodes? I am hooked on following the sad lives of those two families from Shaker Heights, Ohio all over again.

Placing a Red Bow on Downton Abbey

Why Some Stories Don’t Need a Reboot

“So,” I said, turning to my friend as the credits rolled up the movie screen. “Did you like it?”

Lady Mary cThe “it” I was referring to, was the movie adaptation of Downton Abbey, the British TV series broadcast as part of PBS Masterpiece Theatre. The series ran for six years, following the lives of an aristocratic family and their domestic servants. It was standard Masterpiece fare, character-driven and rich in visuals and dialogue along with being a guilty pleasure. Think, The Crown meets The Young & the Restless.

My friend’s reply was typical Lady Mary. “It wasn’t great, but good enough. It felt like a longer version of one more episode.” My friend and I were a good dichotomy for the typical target audience for Downton Abbey. While she was a loyal royal watcher from the beginning, I came along late in the game, with a hard-binge of six seasons on Amazon Prime. Knowing its audience, the movie trailer didn’t pretend to market itself as a vehicle for anyone who wasn’t already a fan of the TV series.

But should Good enough be an acceptable review? Why is it that movies seldom capture the essence of that unique story that catches fire with readers and viewers? Too often, the magic of a carefully drawn-out story just doesn’t lend itself to the 2-hour adaptation on the movie screen.

Let’s look at another story that caught fire several years ago, when journalist, Jeanette Walls wrote of her life, in the memoir, The Glass Castle. This book spent over 260 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list, and it’s hard to find a book club that didn’t devour this classic, or a reader who didn’t bond with the story on some level. Yet, when the movie version of The Glass Castle finally debuted, starring a strong cast consisting of Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts, the story fell flat, perhaps suffering from having to leave too much heart on the editing floor.

Sometimes, we should leave the best stories in their original packaging. It is a rare instance when the written word transfers so eloquently to the movie screen. To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind. But more often, the result resembles my feelings when turning off the TV after viewing El Camino on Netflix, a movie picking up immediately after the last scene in the incredibly rewarding last episode of Breaking Bad. While it was nice to see Jessie, our anti-hero again, did we need to revisit what was already the best ending ever for any TV series?

And yet, it can certainly be argued that the best movies come from successful screenplays. Local author, Bonnie Jo Campbell has been touring the country as the film adaptation of her novel, Once Upon a River makes an appearance at many film festivals. We can only hope it pays a visit soon to our area.

Here’s a thought… maybe some endings are best left alone, even if it was nice catching up with the Crawleys and the downstairs staff in Downton Abbey. I wonder what the gang from Mad Men has been up to?

Heidi McCrary is a writer and a regular contributor to Women’s LifeStyle.
Look for her debut novel, Chasing North Star in September 2020. Follow Heidi at https://heidimccrary.net/ and https://www.facebook.com/HeidiMcCraryAuthor

The Glass Castle Review

The_Glass_Castle_(film).pngAnd what the movie got wrong.

When I look at the Jackson Pollock painting, Autumn Rythm, I see a frantic chorus of dancing energy. Some fans of his work see a darker tone in the brushstrokes, while others call B.S., seeing his creative effort as gimmicky and without merit. No one viewpoint is right or wrong. It’s all in how you look at it, and what you draw from it.

The same can be said for the film adaptation of The Glass Castle. This bestselling novel by Jeanette Walls served as a popular read for many book clubs, and resonated with many readers who grew up in dysfunctional families. Film adaptations of popular books are often met with mixed reviews. While a book can delve deep into a story, the movie version must choose between what is essential and what elements can be left out without affecting the essence of the story.

In Walls’ memoir, she takes readers on a crazy ride that was her childhood. Along the way, we get to meet and understand her parents—a father who is an alcoholic and a mother suffering from mental illness. They both are fighting their individual demons, leaving the children to raise themselves. It can be safely said that neither should have had children, and together they make a toxic pair.

However, in the film adaptation, the decision was made to make Walls’ mother a secondary character—focusing instead on Jeannette and her rocky relationship with her father, portrayed in the film by Woody Harrelson who superbly expresses the angst of a man fighting his addiction.

What did the film get wrong? By erasing the mother’s struggle with mental illness, Naomi Watts as Jeannette’s mother, Rose Mary, is left portraying a character that lacks the depth and bite found in the novel, leaving a character that transcends into little more than wallpaper. It’s time for mental illness to be a front-burner story, and the film adaptation of the memoir misses on this point.

Like a Jackson Pollock painting, The Glass Castle movie will probably generate applause from some and the shaking of heads from others.

60 Second Movie Review

Heidi McCrary