Periods, Pregnancy and the Soul of Time: Saint Frances and Sheila Heti’s Motherhood

When the Academy rejected an advertising spot for Frida Mom’s postpartum products during this year’s Oscars ceremony, it felt like a double blow. Just a year on from the Best Short win by Period. End Of Sentence, not only was the Academy accused of snubbing female directors, but now it appeared to censor the depiction of female stories in wider culture too. Frida’s chief executive officer, Chelsea Hirschhorn, told the New York Times the Academy had suggested dropping the realistic advert of a mother struggling to use a peri bottle to clean herself after urinating, for a “kinder, more gentle portrayal of postpartum.” 

But filmmakers like Alex Thompson and Kelly O’Sullivan are not dissuaded by squeamish attitudes towards the female body. Their feature film debut, Saint Frances, depicts the bloody, messy reality of female life, from menstruation and period sex to abortion. Bridget (O’Sullivan) is a single, thirty-something babysitter living in a rented apartment. “I’m not an impressive person,” she confesses. Her life has no direction and time is running out, something that’s underlined by the film’s elliptical storytelling; we only see Bridget when she’s bleeding.

Bridget Saint Frances Kelly O'Sullivan
Kelly O’Sullivan in Saint Frances

“The time span of a woman’s life is about thirty years,” writes author Sheila Heti in her semi-fictitious novel, Motherhood, “Apparently, during these thirty years – fourteen to forty-four – everything must be done. She must find a man, make babies, start and accelerate her career… Thirty years is not enough time to live a whole life!” Like Saint Frances, Heti’s novel progresses to the rhythms of the female body – with chapters titled ‘bleeding’, ‘ovulating’ and ‘PMS’ – in a such a way that the female body seems to become time itself. “I think ‘the soul of time’ is a pretty accurate way of describing PMS,” she writes, “It’s not just a metaphor. It IS the soul of time. That’s why it’s so unpleasant.”

Also in her mid thirties, Heti’s narrator is deciding whether or not to have children; a struggle characterised as ‘Jacob Wrestling the Angel’, an Old Testament story about the conflict between body and soul. For the women in Motherhood and Saint Frances, the desires of the heart and mind are at odds with their biology. Bridget is pregnant but wants an abortion: her biological clock might be ticking but the timing isn’t right. Meanwhile the body of Heti’s narrator wants her to become a mother in spite of her palpable objections. “Why is my body doing this inside me every month?” writes Heti, “How neglected and abandoned is this little animal inside me that is doing its work so diligently and so well – this tiny uterus, these mushy ovaries, these fallopian tubes and my brain. It has no idea I need nothing from it. It just keeps on working. If only I could talk to it and tell it to stop.” 

This idea is exquisitely captured in the anthropomorphic, stop motion wombs of (feminine hygiene company) Bodyform’s new #WombStories advertising campaign. The animation is contrasted with live action scenes that reveal the effect of the wombs on the women they inhabit, bringing the very contrast between body and soul into sharp focus. Women have erupted in support of the short film: the physical inconvenience of menstruation, hinted at in most conventional adverts, is only the tip of the iceberg.

Bodyform’s #WombStories short film

Heti’s narrator, for instance, is in the thrall of PMS, while Bridget’s employer, Maya (Charin Alvarez), sinks beneath the tide of postpartum depression. But how can a women figure out what to do with her life when she can no longer trust her emotions? “I began thinking about the soul of time as having something to do with cocoons,” writes Heti, “I recently learned that what happens in a cocoon is not that a caterpillar grows wings and turns into a butterfly. Rather, the caterpillar turns to mush. It disintegrates, and out of this mush a new creature grows”. But, “Why does no-one talk about the mush?” she asks, “Or about how, for any change to happen, we must for some time be nothing – be mush. That is where you are right now – in a state of mush.” 

Negotiating these transitions is made harder by societal pressures that close off avenues for honest conversation. Pressure from social media and wannabe grandparents haunt the background of Saint Frances where failure to make it as an “impressive person” provokes scorn from even her female peers. While an extreme close up of a woman’s “Unborn Lives Matter” slogan intrudes on Bridget’s point of view, the boyfriend of Heti’s narrator argues that other mothers, “want you to be in the same boat they’re in. They want you to have the same handicap they have… He called it the biggest scam of all time.”

It’s this pressure to become parents that the directionless, thirty-something couple in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young finally surrender to. But by prescribing only one way to grow up, Baumbach’s resolution seems a misstep. By contrast, the protagonists in Motherhood and Saint Frances push against society’s control of their bodies, asserting the freedom of choice.

Naomi Watts While We're Young
Naomi Watts in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young

Indeed, both Heti and O’Sullivan’s characters find solace in talking openly, negotiating the potential scorn of other mothers to find safe spaces with like-minded women. Saint Frances plays like an anthem for female friendship, communication and support while, for Heti, it’s the acceptance of equality between all women – those who choose children and those who don’t – that provides the greatest comfort. 

Today, the harm presented by a screen and advertising culture that advocates a “kinder, more gentle portrayal” of female bodies is becoming clear. Sanitised and censored depictions leave women alone with their experiences. Normal experiences are made abnormal by their very invisibility. Bodyform’s recent survey found that 21% of women feel that society wants them to keep silent about their experiences, while 44% said that doing so negatively affects their mental health. Bridget’s honesty is comforting but it’s also vicarious: an ideal that screen culture is yet to fully embrace. We need more films like Saint Frances, more books like Motherhood and more #WombStories.

Saint Frances trailer from Vertigo Releasing

Saint Frances is in cinemas from 17th July and coming soon to DVD. Motherhood is available now in paperback.

What to Read Next

The Film Version A-Z of Adaptations

What do digital technologies and global audiences mean for adaptation? And what devices can filmmakers use to translate literary stories into cinematic ones? This series explores the most pressing questions in adaptation today, from A-Z.

The Film Version Companion Pieces

Often storytellers make deliberate connections. Sometimes we make our own. We’re reminded of themes, messages and ideas explored elsewhere in other stories, in other art forms. Taken together these stories can communicate something bigger.

If you’re short on time, start with these quick reads. Through images and quotations, each post explores a different film adaptation and the devices used to transform its literary story for the screen.

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Inside the Frame: The Sense of an Ending Film Adaptation

The Sense of An Ending Film Adaptation Ritesh Batra Jim Broadbent

“I remember in no particular order:

– a shiny inner wrist;

– steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;

– gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;

– a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by a half dozen chasing torch beams;

– another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;

– bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door.

The last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”

JULIAN BARNES, The Sense of an Ending

This opening to Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize winning novel seems to borrow from cinema, its memories frozen in time like pictures. These brief snapshots burst into the present day action of Ritesh Batra’s The Sense of an Ending film adaptation. But they are mere fragments of a heavy, nebulous past.

Thoughts and memory might work like visual images, but Batra’s biggest challenge in adapting Barnes’ novel is how to suggest memory’s fallibility – its blurry, faded, half truths – in a medium that presents events as they really are. Barnes’ novel is narrated by Tony, a retiree forced to re-xamine his own life story in the wake of an unexpected legacy from the mother of his difficult first love, Veronica. Over the course of 150 pages, Tony’s willingness to forget past indiscretions frequently collides with their consequences. Barnes novel is a meditation on time, memory and responsibility; a conversation between Tony and the reader. It trades in thought and ideas. So how does Ritesh Batra translate this to sound and images?

In Batra’s hands, The Sense of an Ending becomes an epistolary film. It makes perfect sense that Tony’s cerebral voiceover turns out to be a final letter to old flame Veronica (Charlotte Rampling). Indeed, the letters that fuel the novel’s plot have a constant, almost oppressive presence onscreen. The film even invents a connection between Tony (Jim Broadbent) and the postman (Nick Mohammed) – the epistolary idea working its way into our subconscious through Royal Mail imagery that populates the mise-en-scene.

Flashbacks piece together Tony’s memories of youth and its sexual frustrations. As his thoughts fire, figures from the past appear briefly in his present. Later, as Tony’s surroundings dissolve completely into those of his youth, past and present seem to merge. In this way, Batra depicts Tony stuck in time: his mind consumed with the reconstruction of memory.

Journalist Lili Loofbourow argues, in her analysis for The Week, that Batra encourages us to question Tony’s perception of the past, “by exploiting the differences between the young and old actors.”

“When Tony meets Veronica as an adult, it’s shocking to the viewer: Charlotte Rampling plays Veronica as a woman who has suffered. There is nothing of Freya Mavor’s Young Veronica, a girl whose coolness seems as flirtatious as it is laconic. But Tony sees her differently; he finds her remarkably unchanged. That shows the viewer how distorted Tony’s perceptions really are; where we see a total transformation, he sees the same girl he fell in love with”.

LILI LOOFBOUROW, The Week

In the present – and with the superiority, distance and relief that comes with being an ex-wife – Margaret (Harriet Walter) sees through Tony’s self-delusions and calls him out. Margaret makes plain what is beyond Tony’s own observation, overcoming the limitations of the novel’s unreliable narrator.

“You wanted to hear her say how wonderful you are and how you haven’t changed, how she’s thought of you all these years and looked up at the stars and wondered…

I’m sorry, it’s all a bit pathetic. Do you know what really strikes me is your total inability to see what’s right under your nose. Such as your daughter who happens to be lying next door going out of her mind. ”

MAGARET in The Sense of an Ending film adaptation

The screenplay from Nick Payne expands Tony’s relationship with his pregnant daughter (Michelle Dockery), juxtaposing different life stages. A crude device perhaps, but pregnancy is a recurring theme in Barnes’ novel too. Both its suicidal young men – Robson and Adrian – are “afraid of the pram” after getting their girlfriends pregnant. There’s gentle irony in the film’s title – The Sense of an Ending – projected over a school assembly as Batra points to fate, responsibility and the all too brief nature of life itself. Tony’s desire to get out of the school’s holding pen into adulthood, to feel the passionate and tragic emotions written about in great literature, gradually gives way to a comfortable and enduring love for his own daughter and ex-wife.

“In those days we imagined ourselves as being in a holding pen waiting to be released into our lives…

When you are young, you want your emotions to be like the ones you read about in books. You want them to overturn your life and create a new reality. But as that second hand insists on speeding up and time delivers us all too quickly into middle age and then old age, that’s when you want something a little milder don’t you? You want your emotions to support your life as it has become. You want them to tell that you everything is going to be ok. And is there anything wrong with that?”

TONY, The Sense of an Ending film adaptation

The novel is concerned with this concept of time: our idea of past and future. Barnes draws parallels with our study of history – the corroboration of events through witnesses and documents. Batra weaves in a watch motif.

” We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I’ve never thought I understood it very well. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally it seems to go missing – until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.”

JULIAN BARNES, The Sense of an Ending

“But if we can’t understand time, can’t grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history – even our own small personal, largely undocumented piece of it?”

JULIAN BARNES, The Sense of an Ending

Batra’s film adaptation doesn’t come close to this kind of nuance about our construction of the past. Yet it forms a neat companion to the novel, allowing us to see Tony from outside, in all his complex imperfection, and to feel the weight of his culpability for the tragic events surrounding him.

The Sense of an Ending film adaptation is available to rent and buy on blu-ray and DVD. Julian Barnes’ novel is now available in paperback. It won the Booker prize in 2011.

The Film Version A-Z of Adaptations

What do digital technologies and global audiences mean for adaptation? And what devices can filmmakers use to translate literary stories into cinematic ones? This series explores the most pressing questions in adaptation today, from A-Z.

The Film Version Companion Pieces

Often storytellers make deliberate connections. Sometimes we make our own. We’re reminded of themes, messages and ideas explored elsewhere in other stories, in other art forms. Taken together these stories can communicate something bigger.

If you’re short on time, start with these quick reads. Through images and quotations, each post explores a different film adaptation and the devices used to transform its literary story for the screen.

Join The Writer Loves Movies Community

Sign up to receive updates and exclusive content direct to your inbox

Inside The Frame: Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice Adaptation

Keira Knightley and Brenda Blethyn Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice adaptation 2005

When Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice adaptation arrived in cinemas in 2005, it competed for the hearts and minds of an audience still attached to the iconic BBC television series from Andrew Davies and Simon Langton ten years earlier. Their’s was a comprehensive six hour adaptation; but Wright had just over two. Here are some of the ways Joe Wright makes his film adaptation stand out.

“The two BBC versions are seminal — the second one was the most successful BBC drama ever – but we were intent on making a big-screen version, one that doesn’t conform to the television drama stereotypes of a perfect clean Regency world.”

Pride & Prejudice (2005) Producer PAUL WEBSTER

Film requires grander visual scale than television and Wright turns this to his advantage by shooting entirely on location. Many of the novel’s key scenes take place inside where the stuffy interiors provide the backdrop to its examination of class and manners. But Wright transfers them outdoors, where story is communicated by light and weather instead.

Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen in Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice adaptation 2005

The film opens at dawn. Mist transforms into golden morning light. A new chapter is about to open in Elizabeth’s life: an idea made flesh as she turns the pages of a book. This lighting choice is echoed in the film’s climactic scene, as Lizzy begins a new life with Darcy.

In contrast to this etherial glow, Darcy’s first, unsuccessful, proposal takes place during a cloudburst that’s symbolic of his emotional outpouring and Elizabeth’s impulsive rejection. Heavy rain intensifies the passionate atmosphere and accelerates the pace – Elizabeth arrives at the encounter already drenched and out of breath, her moment of respite abruptly shattered by Darcy’s unwanted intrusion. His romantic ambition doused in cold water, Darcy makes a swift exit.

Keira Knightley in Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice adaptation 2005

By connecting Elizabeth with the natural environment, Joe Wright seems to borrow from the Brontës. Lizzy is Cathy Earnshaw’s kindred spirit, perfectly at one with the elements. In echoes of William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights, she soaks up the views, her coat billowing in the wind.

Lizzy’s spirit cannot be contained.

Keira Knightley Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice adaptation 2005 Stanage Edge Derbyshire
Keira Knightley Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice adaptation 2005 Derbyshire

“Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ankles, dirty stockings and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise.”

JANE AUSTEN, Pride & Prejudice

“To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ankles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! what could she mean by it? It seems to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country town indifference to decorum.”

JANE AUSTEN, Pride & Prejudice

“My goodness, did you see her hem? Six inches deep in mud. She looked positively medieval.”

JOE WRIGHT’S Pride & Prejudice adaptation
Keira Knightley Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice adaptation 2005
Matthew MacFadyen and Kelly Reilly Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice adaptation 2005

When Lizzy arrives at neighbouring Netherfield manner for the first time, she brings the outside in. Her relaxed appearance makes stark contrast with the formality of the reception offered by Darcy and Caroline Bingley. Joe Wright takes this connection between Lizzie and nature and suffuses it throughout his entire Pride and Prejudice adaptation.

“I wanted a sense of the elements, of mud and rain. It occurred to me that love is an elemental force, and I wanted to set it in the context of the other elements. It seemed to me that if Elizabeth had a very earthbound existence, then her aspiration for romantic love would be all the more heroic. She’s got her feet in the mud, and she’s reaching for the stars. I think it’s a heroic story.”

JOE WRIGHT speaking to Indiewire

But some Austen fans thought the film’s muddy aesthetic was excessive. Cows, pigs and chickens populate the grounds of the Bennet’s family home. In the opening moments, the camera moves through their chaotic environment. The physical disarray reflects the messy impropriety of Lizzy’s mother and sisters and brings the stiff, museum-like architecture of the aristocratic classes into sharp relief.

Keira Knightley Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice adaptation 2005 Mud
Keira Knightley Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice adaptation 2005 Mud
Keira Knightley Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice adaptation 2005 Mud
Keira Knightley Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice adaptation 2005 Mud

Joe Wright beats down the formality of the novel and its traditional adaptations. The Bennets are warm and relatable, their emotions barely masked.

“”I believe that when people do period films they are reliant on paintings from the period, because there is no photography. But in a painting, everything is formally composed; it’s not real life. Then they do wide shots to show off the period detail of the sets. I think that the detail is in the small things, like crumbs on a table, or flowers in a vase.”

JOE WRIGHT, speaking to Focus Features

“”We’re proud to say there was absolutely no make-up used on Pride & Prejudice. We would cover any obvious blemishes but otherwise we literally pinched their cheeks and off they went. It was a decision between the director, Joe Wright, and I that make-up should not be seen on camera. I banned hairspray on Pride & Prejudice because it wasn’t invented yet. We got all the girls to grow their eyebrows and nobody wore mascara except for Kelly Reilly, to show the contrast between London’s high society and our country bumpkins.”

Make-up artist FAE HAMMOND speaking to Stylist

“That’s why there are so many closeups. Jane Austen observes people very carefully and closely: so that was the cinematic equivalent of her prose. I like closeups very much indeed. I think studying the human face on that kind of scale is one of the enduring pleasures of film.”

JOW WRIGHT speaking to Indiewire

Vulnerability is the film’s modus operandi. There’s a youthful girlishness to Keira Knightely’s performance that connects her with sillier sisters, Lydia and Kitty, and reveals the emotional consequences of her impulsivity. At times, Lizzie hardly seems to know herself and she is evidently rattled by Darcy’s slights.

The film’s soft light is appropriate for an adaptation that smooths away the characters’ hard edges. Darcy’s transformation is less metamorphosis than blossoming: a gradual loosening of a tightly wound disposition. Matthew MacFadyen plays down Darcy’s snobbery and reveals, through softly spoken dialogue, a general unease in his own skin. The relaxation of his nerves, the calming of his social anxiety, is signalled through a loosening of his wardrobe – a literal unbuttoning that’s reminiscent of Colin Firth’s own iconic wet shirt almost twenty-five years ago.

Matthew MacFadyen in Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice adaptation 2005 Ending Mist

What did you think of Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice adaptation? Let me know in the comments….

Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice is available to rent digitally and to buy on DVD and Blu-Ray. Find out more at Focus Features.

What to read next…

The Film Version A-Z of Adaptations

What do digital technologies and global audiences mean for adaptation? And what devices can filmmakers use to translate literary stories into cinematic ones? This series explores the most pressing questions in adaptation today, from A-Z.

The Film Version Companion Pieces

Often storytellers make deliberate connections. Sometimes we make our own. We’re reminded of themes, messages and ideas explored elsewhere in other stories, in other art forms. Taken together these stories can communicate something bigger.

If you’re short on time, try these quick reads. Through images and quotations, each post explores a different film adaptation and the devices used to transform its literary story for the screen.

Film Adaptation Interview with Sarah Thomas Storyteller

“What do you think are the most crucial ingredients for a successful film adaptation?”

“And how much allegiance do you think an adaptation owes to its source material?”

“What’s the boldest or most off the wall adaptation you’ve seen and do you think they pulled it off?”

I’ve been interviewed by the wonderful screenwriter and copywriter, Sarah Thomas. You can find all of my answers to these questions (and more) on her website Sarah Thomas Storyteller. And don’t forget to drop your answers in the comments below, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

London Film Festival: Earthquake Bird & Nocturnal #LFF2019

Nocturnal Cosmo Jarvis

More first look film reviews from this year’s BFI London Film Festival #LFF

Earthquake Bird Alicia Vikander Riley Keough Naoki Kobayashi

EARTHQUAKE BIRD

Writer-director Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice) adapts Susanna Jones’ lightweight crime novel about a female translator accused of murder in Japan. Lucy Fly (Alicia Vikander) has lived in Tokyo for five years. She’s composed, capable and taciturn. The victim is a hopeless newcomer, a flirty, wide-eyed American blonde (Riley Keough). Their uneasy friendship, complicated by Lucy’s mysterious boyfriend Teiji (Naoki Kobayashi), is the source of the film’s rising tension. It plays out in flashback from the police interrogation room.  

Westmoreland borrows this difficult structure from the novel. Yet, while Lucy’s memories feel like interruptions on the page (the desire to return to the interrogation always pressing) Westmoreland’s immersive storytelling drags us deep into the past. He neatly swerves the novel’s half-remembered, dreamy sexual encounters to provide a more grounded depiction of sexual obsession and jealousy. 

Alicia Vikander serves the material well with a performance that’s tantalisingly remote. She smoothes out Lucy’s hard edges – only occasionally is she piercing and indelicate – which opens up a chasm of ambiguity and doubt. Reserved, awkward body language reveals her vulnerability in sharp contrast with the physical ease and confidence of Keough’s Lily.

With a few structural tweaks, Westmoreland shifts the film towards a meditation on guilt and culpability. The classic ‘confession’ scene is used to land, not on who killed Lily, but on the genesis of Lucy’s current state of mind. 

As he attempts to move into more sophisticated territory, Westmoreland continues to nod to the classic crime genre. Lucy is translating a detective show; song lyrics allude to death and killing. Yet for all his thematic efforts, it is surprising that Westmoreland (who has a track record of female led projects including Still Alice and Colette) allows the novel’s emphasis on female oppression to languish in the background.           

With Earthquake Bird Westmoreland offers up a moody and superbly performed crime drama. His reimagining of this urban space is suitably atmospheric and he proves himself more than capable of building to a tension filled, climactic finale. Yet there remains a whiff of unfulfilled potential in the project which lacks the necessary substance to really take flight.     

Earthquake Bird is in selected cinemas from 8th November and on Netflix from 15th November 2019.

Nocturnal Cosmo Jarvis Lauren Coe

NOCTURNAL

This slow-burn debut reveals a striking new talent in writer-director Nathalie Biancheri. Her emotional drama, Nocturnal, traces an ambiguous relationship between a 16 year-old girl and an older man, Pete, played with intensity and sensitivity by rising star Cosmo Jarvis. 

Jarvis, who appeared in the 2016 film Lady Macbeth opposite a fierce Florence Pugh, has been compared to Matthias Schoenaerts of Rust and Bone and Bullhead. Watching Nocturnal, it’s easy to see why. His bulky, rugged physical presence masks a fragile self-image and a deep undercurrent of feeling that seeps out in practiced conversations and gentle tears.

Before long, teenage Laurie (Lauren Coe) is infatuated but Pete’s motivations remain mysterious. Biancheri’s near square aspect ratio (reminiscent of Andrea Arnold) pushes us into greater intimacy with the characters and Nocturnal quickly becomes a heady, emotionally fraught experience.     

Biancheri and co-writer Olivia Waring (Flora & Fauna) offer an interesting and original exploration of youthful indiscretions and their consequences; of love, family and intimacy. Both Laurie and Pete feel trapped in their lacklustre seaside town. In teasing out these threads Biancheri creates a compelling sense of place and a subtext that taps into modern concerns about social mobility and exclusion. 

You can find more coverage of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival here.

For The Love Of Lovecraft: Richard Stanley’s Color Out Of Space Adaptation

In H.P. Lovecraft’s weird tale, The Color Out Of Space, a meteor crashes into a remote farm. In the days that follow, the land becomes tainted by a strange colour, taste and smell. The family inhabiting it begin to go mad. Richard Stanley’s vivid and freakish adaptation of this eerie story screens at the 2019 BFI London Film Festival. 

Lovecraft’s story about the peculiar effects of a meteor crash is bursting with visual description, textures and sounds. At first glance, it’s a rich candidate for film adaptation. You can almost hear the ‘most detestably sticky noise’ infecting the land; almost see and feel the ‘brittleness and hollowness’ of the ‘glossy’ meteor. But Lovecraft’s vivid descriptions offer only comparison and similitudes for disturbing effects that exist entirely outside our frame of reference. ‘The colour which resembled some bands in the meteor’s strange spectrum, was almost impossible to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all,’ writes Lovecraft. His stylistic choices highlight the limits of human knowledge and experience; the limits of our senses and language. Try imagining a new, undiscovered colour and you will appreciate the underlying challenges facing the filmmaker: how to physically present what can barely be imagined; how to make us see and hear what we are physically unable to perceive. Can visual reality ever live up to the terrifying ambiguity of Lovecraft’s figurative language? Could adapting his story be a doomed task? 

The challenge of turning imagination into reality – of manifesting fear which arises, ‘not because of anything that can be seen or heard or handled, but because of something that is imagined’ – would dissuade many filmmakers. But writer-director Richard Stanley (Hardware, Dust Devil) seizes the opportunity. Stanley’s Color Out Of Space is Lovecraft on acid: everything is amplified, stretched, exploded.

Lovecraft writes that ‘no sane wholesome colours were anywhere to be seen except in the green grass and leafage; but everywhere were those hectic and prismatic variants of some diseased, underlying primary tone without a place among the known tints of the earth’. Stanley’s inspired response is to suffuse the screen with an intense purple hue and a vibrating, kaleidoscopic iridescence. By the chaotic climax, this pigment pervades everything and, as the visuals blur and warp, the beautiful becomes nightmarish. 

One glance at the electric pink opening of Stanley’s debut – the now cult cyberpunk film about a genocidal robot and a post apocalyptic New York, Hardware (1990) – reveals he had the creative vision to take on Lovecraft all along. The saturated colours, atmospheric skies and disquieting, electronic score take the artistry in Hardware to the next level. Colin Stetson, the composer behind Hereditary, echoes the elongated, synthetic sound of Hardware while low, vibrating rumbles also embody the spirit of Lovecraft’s descriptions: ‘Things moved and changed and fluttered, and ears tingled to impulses which were not wholly sounds’. The film’s sound design is relentlessly unnerving. High pitched noises suggest the screaming of the meteor’s victims. Throaty animal sounds evoke something twisted and malformed.

While Lovecraft avoids labelling the menacing presence as ‘alien’, always maintaining an air of mystery, Stanley accepts that his audio-visual medium will inevitably show too much and opts for shock value instead. His film is weird in the extreme, overpowering in its sheer strangeness. The loss of Lovecraft’s creepy, past tense storytelling will likely be too much for some viewers, but the trade-off is extraordinary as Stanley sucks us into the rapid, cataclysmic present tense. Eerie recollections are replaced with nutty and repulsive body horror. The film’s slimy, squirming imagery is reminiscent of Eraserhead: mind-bending and introspective. While the plot leans rather too heavily into familiar horror beats, the atmosphere is so baffling it’s almost magnetic.     

Stanley adds to Lovecraft’s simple story a kooky sensibility. He updates the nineteenth century setting to the present day where it takes on the quality of a satire, poking fun at the middle classes who seek mindfulness in the rural landscape. How better to dramatise our essential fear of the outside (so prevalent in Lovecraft’s original story), than with affluent, low-key America whose idyllic existence is punctured and assaulted? Nicholas Cage is delightful as the unfulfilled patriarch of this picture-perfect family. His obsession with a herd of alpacas – the ‘animal of the future’ that was acquired at an exorbitant cost – provides a searing comic highlight. And, as the laughs add-up, Color Out Of Space begins to feel frenzied, jerking between tonal extremes.

Stanley’s interpretation of the material might be outlandish but a love of Lovecraft runs deeply through his picture. References to Hardware – ‘no flesh shall be spared’ is pasted on the teenage boy’s bedroom wall’ – go hand in hand with references to Lovecraft’s worlds. One character is seen reading Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows – a major influence on the author – while the book of black magic that appears in so many Lovecraft stories, the ‘Necronomicon’, plays a vital role in the film’s plot. Stanley infuses Color Out Of Space with witchcraft and pagan imagery, muddling it somewhat, but offering a deeply affectionate homage.

Color out of Space is that perfect blend of author and auteur. An unmistakable entry in the Stanley catalogue, it demands to be watched on the big screen. Even in its quietest moments, the film operates on a different wavelength to most in its genre. Those who let go and follow Stanley down his rabbit hole will enjoy Color Out Of Space immensely. The rest will be left asking, what on earth was that?

Color Out Of Space screens at the BFI London Film Festival on Monday 7th and Tuesday 8th October. See the full festival programme here.

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10 Film Adaptations to Watch at the BFI London Film Festival 2019 (LFF)

The 63rd BFI London Film Festival (LFF) features highly anticipated films from Noah Baumbach, Michael Winterbottom, Céline Sciamma, Robert Eggers and Marielle Heller (to name a few). It’s set to be a great year for original screenplays but there are some innovative and surprising adaptations lined up too: from Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield to Václav Marhoul’s 35mm, black and white war drama, The Painted Bird. To help you find your way through this epic programme here’s my guide to the film adaptations screening at the festival between 2nd and 13th October and the novels that inspired them. If you’re waiting in long festival queues or grabbing a coffee between screenings, these are the books you need to have in your bag!

David Coperfield Film adaptation Dev Patel LFF

The Personal History of David Copperfield

Armando Iannucci’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ immensely detailed novel is LFF’s opening night gala. Famed for his political satires (The Death of Stalin, In The Loop) and writing once again with long-time collaborator Simon Blackwell (Veep, The Thick Of It), Iannucci’s David Copperfield promises to be no ordinary costume drama. Dev Patel is cast as the titular hero in a refreshing move that flouts the conservative traditions of the genre. Speaking to Indiewire last year, Iannucci said: 

“I want it to feel real and present, even though it’s set in 1840 in London. I want it to feel immediate and current. And therefore I want the cast to be much more representative of what London looks like now, and I want a lot of the behaviour in the film to feel current and contemporary.”

 Worth a watch before the festival is Armando’s Tale of Charles Dickens, a one hour documentary made for the BBC in 2012. Here Iannucci explores the relevance of Dickens’ complex world, his humour and his darkness, in modern Britain. 

Waiting for Barbarians Johnny Depp Mark Rylance film adaptation LFF

Waiting for the Barbarians

This adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s novel, Waiting For The Barbarians has one of the strongest casts at this year’s LFF. Starring Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson, the film explores oppression in a fictional regime. Yet its story is increasingly relevant. Producer Andrea Iervolino told The Observer that Rylance, as The Magistrate, “plays someone who realises that the government was trying to scare the population by saying that ‘the barbarians are coming, bad people are coming, the invasion is coming’. Actually, the government was only instilling fear.” 

The screenplay is the first written by Coetzee himself and is directed by Ciro Guerra (Embrace Of The Serpent). 

Colour of outer space film adaptation

Color Out of Space

HP. Lovecraft’s short story about a strange meteor crash, The Colour Out of Space, has already been brought to the screen three times: in Daniel Haller’s Die, Monster, Die! (1965), Ivan Zuccon’s Colour From the Dark (2008) and Huan Vu’s German language film Die Farbe (2010). Now, Richard Stanley (Hardware, Dust Devil) revisits the story in what the LFF programmer Michael Blyth describes as “a thrilling combination of absorbing family drama and outré sci-fi madness”. According to Blyth its a “slick, stylish and suitably perverse interpretation of Lovecraft’s notoriously ‘unfilmable’ cosmic philosophies”. 

A trailer is not available yet but screenshots from the film are suffused with a swirling purple mist; a hypnotising, otherworldly, psychedelic glow. If you liked Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation or the 2018 film adaptation from Alex Garland, you should definitely give Color Out Of Space a look.

The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão film adaptation LFF

The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão

Eurídice is an unfulfilled housewife in 1940s Rio de Janeiro. When her sister returns after a failed elopement, the women try to escape their mundane lives. The adaptation of this debut novel from Martha Batalha won the Prix Un Certain Regard award at Cannes earlier this year. And the film’s critical acclaim onscreen seems set to eclipse the novel itself. Variety called it “high emotion articulated with utmost sincerity and heady stylistic excess,” while The Hollywood Reporter describes it as “a haunting drama that quietly celebrates the resilience of women even as they endure beaten-down existences”. 

Jojo Rabbit Taika Waititi film adaptation LFF

Jojo Rabbit

Taika Waititi’s controversial comedy-drama Jojo Rabbit has headline billing at the LFF. It’s based on the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens and follows a boy recruited into Hitler’s Youth. The novel has been celebrated for its emotional complexity but can Waititi, with his unique brand of zany comedy (What We Do In The Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople), pull this off? We’ll have to wait and see. What we do know, is that Waititi has added the character of Hitler, who he plays as a figure in the boy’s imagination. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, Waititi said: 

“To me, this movie feels like a cautionary tale… It’s not about something that happened all these years ago. It’s right on our doorstep now and we’re minutes away from this same [garbage] happening all over again.”

Jojo Rabbit promises to be the kind of radical adaptation that asks even more questions of its audience. Earlier this month it was reported that Disney, who acquired the film through the purchase of Fox Searchlight, could be worried that the film is “too edgy” and might “alienate Disney fans”. They just made it a must see.

The Painted Bird Film Adaptation LFF

The Painted Bird

Another tale about the Nazi occupation, The Painted Bird sees a young boy abandoned and alone wandering through Eastern Europe. The tonal opposite of Jojo Rabbit, director of festivals for the BFI, Tricia Tuttle describes the film adaptation as:

“rarely an easy watch, with scenes some will find distressing. A terrifying and highly relevant exploration of what humanity looks like when there is only vicious survival, with little space for compassion.”

 Written by Jerzy Kosinski in 1965, The Painted Bird was well received on its release but became mired in controversy in the 1980s when it was revealed that the literary account was not autobiographical (as had been believed) but fictional. Kosinski’s novel, Being There, had also been cribbed from another writer. Nevertheless, Kosinski’s work has a strong pedigree on screen. Being There took home an Oscar nomination and a win in 1980. “Shot in starkly beautiful 35mm black and white by Kolya cinematographer Vladimír Smutný,” says Tuttle, “The Painted Bird’s textures recall both the crispness of The Bicycle Thief and squalor of Aleksei German’s Hard to be a God.” The innovative trailer radiates horror, set almost entirely to the sound of heavy, rapid breathing. 

Earthquake Bird film adaptation LFF

Earthquake Bird

This murder mystery thriller starring Alicia Vikander is set to hit Netflix in November. LFF offers a rare opportunity to catch it on the big screen. 

Vikander plays Lucy Fly, an English woman in Tokyo accused of murder. In their review of the novel, The Telegraph says, with much relish, that Lucy “displays a self-sufficiency, a disregard for whether or not she is being amiable, which is death by a hundred snubs”. It will be interesting to see how the adaptation handles this strong first person narrator. Festival programmer, Kate Taylor, bills it as “a moody and intriguing update on 1980s psycho-sexual thrillers, shifting the emphasis onto the psychology of the female protagonist”. The film comes from Wash Westmoreland, the writer-director behind the female driven films Still Alice and Colette.

Piranhas film adaptation LFF

Piranhas

Gomorrah, a startling account of the Neoplitan mafia and the first book from investigative journalist Roberto Saviano, was adapted into an award winning film in 2008 and a television series in 2014. Now The Piranhas, Saviano’s novel about child gangs in Naples, comes to LFF. It’s directed by Claudio Giovannesi (Fiore, Alì Blue Eyes) with a screenplay written in collaboration with Maurizio Braucci (Gomorrah) and Saviano himself. 

Piranhas took home the Silver Bear for best screenplay at Berlinale where it also received a best film nomination for the Golden Bear. At LFF, it’s billed as “a teenage Scarface meets Romeo and Juliet”. And if that doesn’t make you want to see it, I don’t know what will.  

Martin Eden film adaptation LFF

Martin Eden

American writer Jack London is most famous for his novel The Call of the Wild. But Martin Eden, written just three years later in 1909, is said to be his most autobiographical. Martin struggles to rise out of poverty, through the class system, to be recognised as a member of the literary establishment. 

This is the first time Martin Eden has been adapted for the big screen and the action is transplanted to Naples in this Italian production (it’s the second film written by Piranhas’ Maurizio Braucci screening at the festival). 

Chief executive of Film London, Adam Wootton describes how the adaptation, “mixes drama with archive footage to create a unique fable that demonstrates the imaginative vision and creative skill of director Pietro Marcello”. Marcello’s 2015 film Lost and Beautiful featured in Indiewire’s critic poll of the top ten best undistributed films.  

The Bears' Famous Invasion film adaptation LFF

The Bears’ Famous Invasion

This animation, based on the Italian children’s book The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily by Dino Buzzati, comes from the producers of The Red Turtle (2016). It’s directed by Italian illustrator Lorenzo Mattotti whose bright, clean 2D animation has a trace of nostalgia that befits the 1945 classic book.

Back then, Buzzati told a story of starving bears battling with humans before adopting human traits themselves. No surprise then, that it’s been likened to George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Retold in 2019 however, it could be the kind of film that sparks fierce debate. For instance, Jay Weissberg for Variety has already argued that: “The revised storyline… about how bears and humans clash, make amends, and then realize they’re too different to live together, can lead to unfortunate and inadvertent interpretations neither Mattotti nor the original author Dino Buzzati intended”.

Days of the Bagnold Summer film adaptation LFF

Also Screening…

Adaptations of the graphic novel Days of the Bagnold Summer (starring Rob Brydon and Tamsin Grieg) and the play Luce (starring Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer and Tim Roth) are also screening at this year’s LFF. Foreign language adaptations of Laurence Olivier’s novel Ghost Town Anthology, Colin Niel’s Only The Animals and Anna Woltz’s My Extraordinary Summer With Tess should be on your radar too. Unfortunately, however, these novels aren’t currently available in English translations. And finally, this year’s closing night gala is Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman adapted from Charles Brandt’s true-crime biography I Heard You Paint Houses. The film has already set Twitter on fire with news of its three-and-a-half hour run time.

*The full LFF 2019 programme is available here.

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Audiences: Money, Mass-Markets & Film Adaptation

Jane Eyre Film Adaptation carey Fukanaga Mia Wasiakowska

Ever wondered if readers and film audiences are really so different? Does the film industry’s profit motive mean pandering to mass audiences? And does the need to make big bucks affect the type of film adaptations that are made? Or even influence their content? In the first instalment of a two part feature I look at the demographics of readers and film audiences and explore how the mass-market influences the type of adaptations in production.

PART ONE: THE PROFIT MOTIVE

In the early 1970s George Bluestone’s seminal book Novels Into Film effectively kicked off film adaptation theory. ‘Big business has always treated the film as a commodity,’ he declared, ‘While a novel can sell 20,000 volumes and make substantial profit, the film must reach millions’.

Novel sales are not guaranteed, but authors’ advances are the result of carefully calculated projections and manufacturing costs are relatively predictable. By comparison, movie making continues to be an expensive business. In 2017 the average (median) budget for co-production films in the UK was £3.5 million. For inward investment features (ie. those features funded by international sources such as the US), this figure rises to £11 million. Even adaptations that appear relatively low-key – like Can You Ever Forgive Me and If Beale Street Could Talk – come with sizeable production budgets.

Exacerbating the film industry’s profit motive is the relatively short window in which movies can make back their costs. In 2017, research by the BFI revealed that while ‘television remained the most popular platform in the UK for watching film’, it is cinema-going that remains ‘the largest single revenue source for the film industry’. Novels can gain traction over a number of weeks and months, but a film’s financial success is largely determined by its opening weekend. Films that perform badly are quickly removed from multiplex timetables.

‘It is hard to conceive a more risky business than trying to produce a profitable film,’ says Dean Keith Simonton in his book Great Flicks. ‘It is telling,’ he says, ‘that Donald Trump… had originally planned to become a movie producer but eventually switched to the real estate business when he realised that it would be much more reliably profitable’.

Now a 2018 report for the Publishers Association claims that basing films on novels can help to reduce this risk in three main ways: by demonstrating the story has potential mass-market appeal; by helping to attract quality talent; and by providing a positive contribution to the marketing campaign. ‘Adapted material is concentrated among high-grossing films,’ claims the report, receiving ‘on average, higher critical acclaim’. But how is the profit motive driving the industry’s choice of projects? 

Who’s Watching? Film Adaptation Audiences

Let’s get technical for a moment. Statistics relating specifically to audiences of film adaptations are sparse, largely because these films cross-cut so many different genres and target groups. What we do know is that cinema-going audiences as a whole are skewed towards the younger, male population. In 2017, 28% of UK cinema audiences were aged 15-24 and 54% of these were male. Although this group continues to ‘outweigh those aged 55 or over by a factor of almost 3 to 1,’ says the British Film Institute in its 2018 Yearbook, cinema attendance amongst older audiences is growing. The over 45s now make up more than 20% of cinema audiences. And, in this group, women are much more evenly represented.

‘It is hard to pinpoint the reasons for this’ growth, says the report. But ‘we might have expected the audience profile in 2017 to have shown an increase in the proportion of 55+ cinema-goers… given the growth in both accessible and ‘silver’ screenings and the number of films released during the year with appeal to this demographic’. Indeed, the ‘silver screen’ or ‘grey pound’ genre began to gain serious traction at the turn of 2011/2012 with the release of Jane Eyre, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel claims the BFI. All are adaptions of novels. Could film adaptations actually be fuelling growth in this market? If so, demand for adaptations that reflect their particular preferences (for historical novels and dramatic features) is likely to increase as the ‘baby boomer’ generation reaches retirement.  

The Relationship Between Reading & Watching

Indeed, when we look at the 2018 films where the audience contained a higher than average proportion of people aged over 55, almost half were based on novels (see the results by clicking on the image below). A further three were based on non-fiction books. This shouldn’t surprise us. Statistics from Kantar Media found that those describing themselves as heavy readers (reading more than ten books a year) were 26% more likely to be over 65. By comparison, those aged 15-24 were 32% less likely to identify themselves in this way.

It follows that just one of the top ten 2017 films with a higher than average proportion of 15-24’s in their audience was based on a novel: Stephen King’s It. King is amongst a number of ‘go-to’ authors whose work comes with a near guarantee of box-office success. 

film audience and film adaptation audience demographics

As readers, 15-24s are almost twice as likely to choose fantasy and adventure novels and 59% more likely to choose sci-fi. The film industry recognises the preferences of its primary market and this is reflected in its spending. In 2018, while 46% of film adaptations (of novels or short stories) were dramas, only two – Fifty Shades Freed and 12 Strong – ranked in the top twenty for production budgets. They cost significantly less (at $55 million and $35 million respectively) than action adaptations of The Meg ($178 million), Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom ($170 million) and adventure Ready Player One ($150 million). It comes as no surprise then, that these genres brought home a bigger share of the worldwide box office (34% and 31% respectively) than the 11% share of drama.

Film adaptation box office earnings by genre

The action, adventure and thriller genres play to cinema’s strengths; to the unique selling point of cinema as an experience. It is perhaps unsurprising then, that it was blockbuster films with big budget special effects and a star cast that 49% of participants in the BFI’s Opening Our Eyes survey stated that they watched ‘most often’. ‘The spectacular visual and audio experience’ was an important factor in deciding whether to watch a film at the cinema for 39% of people, a preference that was strongest among younger audiences.

This no doubt contributes to the reimagining of classic literary characters in genres favoured by the youth market. In the last ten years, Sherlock Holmes, for instance, has respawned in an action franchise starring Robert Downey Jr and a comedy starring Will Ferrell. Adaptations that can be sold as 3D, 4DX or IMAX present studios with another opportunity to entice young audiences into the multiplex. Why wait for a film to become available online if this means missing out on one of its key draws?

The Importance of Story

Readers and cinema-goers are a diverse bunch, but there is much correlation between what individuals read and what they watch. Perhaps most importantly, readers and film-goers share a common interest in the arts. ‘A strong interest in film correlates with a stronger than average interest in many other forms of leisure and cultural pursuit,’ says the Opening Our Eyes report, ‘This seems to place film enthusiasts amongst the group in society most culturally and socially engaged’. 

Story, of course, is the lifeblood of both film and literature. Indeed, it is cinema’s biggest attraction. 56% of the survey’s participants said ‘story’ played an important part in their decision to visit. This makes film adaptations of the novel an extremely attractive proposition for producers. The Publishing Association uses academic research to claim that ‘films adapted from books tend to have a richer more fully-developed story to draw on, thus increasing the probability that the plot of the film is captivating for audiences’.

Whether or not you agree with their conclusions, the ability to capitalise on an existing fan-base can only be a boon for the film industry. In Part Two we explore both how the novel is used in film marketing to ‘bait’ audiences and how the desire for mass-market appeal can impact upon the content of adaptations themselves.

* Budgets and box office statistics from The Numbers

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