Where are you going Bernadette and what are they going to do to you? Or, when a beloved book goes Hollywood.

As an article of faith I assume that there are people (perhaps many), somewhere (perhaps all around), who receive the news that a favorite book is being adapted into a movie or miniseries with unconditional enthusiasm.

I know that there are many people who react to the same news with the approximate response “I wonder how they’re going to screw it up” in a tone suggesting an emotional state falling somewhere between “resigned defeat” and “visible contempt”. In the pie chart representing typical reactions to this type of announcement, this piece would resemble Pac-Man .

It’s easy to understand why. Hollywood has a long tradition of exsanguinating beloved, worthy books. If it’s a book we personally love, we carry the memory of that botched adaptation around like a scorned lover. We may stop actively resenting it, but we never forget it.

bernadette

This week brought the announcement that Richard Linklater is in talks to direct the movie version of Where’d You Go, Bernadette, one of my favorite reads of the last few years. Judging by the responses of every one of the many, many people to whom I’ve recommended or given Bernadette, they share my adoration for Maria Semple’s heartfelt comic gem.

While this was the first I’d heard of Bernadette being adapted for the screen, the news of Linklater’s involvement was encouraging. His filmography exhibits all the right tools to capture what makes Bernadette special—Dazed & Confused: adolescence and the humor within the high stakes of low drama; School of Rock: high-energy, antic set pieces; the Before trilogy: nuanced and difficult emotional truths and sharp dialogue.

Linklater seems like a perfect choice to make a Bernadette adaptation worthy of the source material, one that accurately transmutes the blend of wits, smarts and heart in Semple’s written work into light and sound.

There are good reasons why movies are rarely as good as the books from which they’re adapted. My feelings toward adaptation announcements are typically captured in the Pac-Man slice of the aforementioned pie chart. But I suppose the right creative team or talent attached can slide me into the much narrower slice of “open-minded anticipation”. That’s how I feel about Bernadette the movie based on this week’s news.

It goes the other way, too. A bad adaptation can be a thief that steals our fond memories or an unwanted guest that forever intrudes upon an otherwise beloved family picture. Aside from very rare exceptions, the best case scenario for the movie is to capture the correct tone, hit the right emotional notes (regardless of how much it deviates from the book’s various plot points) and become a reflection of the affection we feel for the book.

Don’t mess it up, Linklater. We’ll remember and likely hold it against you.

***

mosquitolandNext Tuesday the most “Bernadette” book I’ve read since reading Bernadette nearly three years ago hits the shelves. Mosquitoland, by David Arnold, is the story of Mary Iris “Mim” Malone, a teenager abruptly pulled from her home life in northern Ohio and relocated with her father and new stepmother to the “wastelands” of Mississippi, aka “Mosquitoland”.  When the regular letters from her mother back in Ohio stop coming, Mim decides to get back home and find out the truth about what’s going on with her mom and her family’s sudden split. With her step mother’s secret emergency fund purloined and in Mim’s backpack with a hastily assembled collection of belongings, Mim sets off cross country to get home.

Mim’s adventures on the road are harrowing (maybe even too harrowing for some YA readers), humorous, tense and tender. After a rollicking road adventure, Arnold brings the story to a satisfying, if not entirely plausible, end.

While Mosquitoland is a YA novel, I found it very similar in tone and wit and emotional payoff to Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Both are whip-smart, emotionally true and feature irresistibly charming narrators. In Mim Malone, David Arnold has created one of the most fully-realized teenage protagonists I’ve read. Sharp as a shard of glass and just as messy and dangerous to herself because of her limited experience, Mim is all set jaw, raised eyebrow and fidgety fingers.  Arnold’s heroine is the perfect exemplar of the fear-tinged bravado and disaffected posture of the teenager hungering to find their people, those who truly understand them.

Don’t be scared off by the YA label:  Mosquitoland is for anyone of any age who’s ever felt this hunger.

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One Response to Where are you going Bernadette and what are they going to do to you? Or, when a beloved book goes Hollywood.

  1. Kat says:

    Oh, we will NEVER forgive you if you botch Bernadette, Linklater!! *shakes fist menacingly*

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