A Daughter Dead by Adaptation
Aggiornamento: 18 apr
Skirmishes over making novels into movies are as old as the ‘septième art’. Grievances of novel lovers have been heard off-stage at least from 1915 when D. W. Giffith made ‘The Birth of a Nation’. It was originally entitled ‘The Clansman’ because it was based on a 1905 novel by Thomas F. Dixon Jr. called ’The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan’. Dixon Junior’s fans said Griffith had underplayed the KKK’s heroism. Ire at the gulf between scripts and source material never stopped. In 1939, Hollywood gave us ‘The Wizard of Oz’. L. Frank Baum’s novel, ‘The Wonderful World of Oz’ dated from 1900. Its aficionados were affronted by Judy Garland’s high-notes that they never heard when read to by their mother at bedtime.
And on to Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel ‘La figlia oscura’ (‘The Lost Daughter’ in translation, 2008). Ferrante’s work has been one of the rare appearances of current Italian culture on the international scene. Her excellent novels, all based on her native Naples, have had worldwide success. The movie, ‘The Lost Daughter’ 2021, a collaboration Greece, UK, Israel and the USA wipes away Italy, Naples and consequently Ferrante’s deepest experience from her story.
The cinema was quick to find model forms that simplify human drama so that it could be understood everywhere and exploit every national market. But humanity’s ways are not at all simple. They are varied. A quiet dream has persisted in the shadow of the juggernaut of cultural dominance that people from places President Trump called the “shithole countries” would be able to view themselves on film pretty much as they were. They too could have an existence on celluloid. Maggie Gyllenhaal, the Hollywood personality who wrote and directed ‘The Lost Daughter’ would come up with a public-relations sigh of sympathy for this dream, but in fact she has tried to rub it out.
Let’s look at how Gyllenhaal adapted ‘The Lost Daughter’ to death.
First, what did Ferrante say in her novel and how did she say it? Everything we learn comes from Leda’s reflections to herself. “The hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves can’t understand“, she concludes. The novel is one long account of what she understands and does not understand of events. While she mulls over them, she looks back over her forty-eight years of life. She was born in Naples to a family of modest means. There was tension with her mother who, though caring, upset her daughter by empty threats to desert her. Leda now sees that this was only another sign of her mother’s unhappiness. In her childhood and youth Leda grew bitter with her Neapolitan milieu. She found it crude and violent. The language it spoke—its dialect—was distasteful to her. At eighteen she managed to leave it behind and study in Florence. She saw the move as permanent.
Leda’s change of residence is fundamental to her story. Neapolitan life is a weathered civilization that stands apart from other regions of Italy. In many ways it’s another country. Animosities exist between it and the rest of Italy. Leda had exchanged loyalties. She continued her studies and hoped to become a university teacher and married a man who had similar ambitions. They had two children, girls. Leda found that progress in her career was stymied. Her husband was not unhelpful or uncooperative. It was simply that society’s structure and the couple’s different abilities to react to it crushed her and not him. He moved ahead.
Leda reflects on motherhood as she has known it. This takes us beyond the story of a young woman juggling babies, household and career. Leda lived motherhood as a problem even when her daughters got through adolescence and were far way and in their early twenties. Her emotional exchanges with them, the difference of temperaments and her very empathy for them were painful. For someone like Leda, motherhood, along with its moments of joy, was an undertaking fraught with anxiety.
When a chance opportunity occurs, Leda is able to attend a conference abroad. Her research, which she felt floundering, is much appreciated. She falls in love with an important foreign academic figure. Returning home, she tells her husband she no longer loves him and that she is leaving the children with him. Turmoil results but passes and Leda leads an independent and successful life for three years. Then she takes up the responsibility for the two toddlers again. Her husband goes his way amiably enough and their union is over.
The abandoning of her children is a key incident in her story and Leda will tell us what it meant to her. She left them, she says, because she felt she couldn’t be herself fully in her domestic situation looking after them. She returned to them, not out of any spirit of sacrifice but because she felt it was in her interest, more rewarding for her. She had come to believe that anything she could accomplish without her children was less important than seeing through her creation of them by raising them. Of course, her career was now launched.
In her account to herself, Leda then enters into the present. She lives alone and takes her vacation alone on the seaside in Neapolitan country. On the beach she’s surprised to feel the years falling away and and her childhood attitude toward Naples returning. She turns into an observer. People are rough and vulgar, their dialect crude. Men are overbearing, families tools of brutal restraint. She becomes absorbed in a pretty mother of twenty-three and her girl of three. Playing, the two have a complex relationship with the girl’s doll. In one of those things Leda “can’t understand”, she identifies with them, mixing in herself and her own daughters as toddlers but also as young women in their early twenties. Her absorption, in some ways a regression, will involve her in a strange drama that again she cannot understand. But what she does grasp shatters her. These are her people. She never got away.
Gyllenhaal’s adaptation relieves Leda of that burden and the novel of its point. She is the product of a very particular culture and she spends much of the novel realising the fact. That’s why replacing the Naples coast by the Greek island Spetses won’t do even though it may have international renown because Leonard Cohen hung out there. Nor does it help to make the beach crowd loud-mouthed Italo-Americans from the Borough of Queens, NYC. By giving the role of Leda, a native of Naples resettled in Florence, to Olivia Colman, dubbed a British academic, we lose a whole level of subtlety. Leda tells us how in her conversations on the beach the Neapolitans use dialect alternating with Italian to express a gamut of feeling that brings her painfully back to her youth. And one can’t help but laugh when Colman goes on about her mother in the language of the novel. She’s the picture of a Neapolitan termagant-mama while Colman’s mother would be a blue-rinsed whispering tea drinker. More critically, Gyllenhaal doesn’t solve an adapter’s main problem, which is to transpose Leda’s inner monolog into dialogue. Colman is an excellent actor but too often the script leaves her screwing up her face to show she is thoughtfully taking in the scene. The other way to transpose an inner voice is by flashbacks but in Gyllenhaal’s hands these don’t lead to clarity.
Casting faux-pas are many. Nina, the young Neapolitan mother is twenty-three. The movie gives the role to thirtyish Dakota Johnson who sexes it up. Nina’s sister-in-law Rosaria, who is enormously pregnant, is particularly repellent to Leda. The movie brightens her and makes this family-enforcer harmless. One reason Leda feels for Nina is that she’s in a family-arranged marriage with an older man, an authority figure who sports a distasteful belly. Ferrante insinuates without pronouncing the word that he’s a Camorra boss, Gyllenhaal choses a slim actor displaying a frown. Insinuations, like the Ferrante novel are beyond her.