NOTE: Just a heads up - the following "Page to Screen" column was written prior to my screening Todd Field's film last week. A review of the completed product will follow in the coming weeks. Stay tuned for that.
Tom Perrotta’s “Election” changed the careers of filmmakers Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor when they adapted the novel to critical acclaim in 1999. Tapping into a deep-seeded introspection of sorts that was vibrantly captured on screen, Perrotta’s singular voice could be sensed even through Payne and Taylor’s already developing heavy dosage of intellectual panache.
Taking the reins of a Perrotta adaptation this year is “In the Bedroom” helmer Todd Field. Leaving the brooding sensibilities of Andre Dubus III behind for the less plot-concerned Perrotta, and providing for what should be an intriguing character study above all else, Field seems, even with one film behind him, to be the right sort of filmmaker to take a crack at this novel.
“Little Children” is the sort of book that can astonish the reader far too frequently for its own good, at once announcing universal truths in ways never before considered relatable, and boiling the essence of such things down to a tangible collection of words and sentences. It is most assuredly one of the easiest novels to read through, surprisingly, given the depth of its intentions and the merits of its characterizations. Though somewhat anti-climactic as a tale with a beginning middle and end, the words on the page pretty much command something more promising than the greatest of yarns. I’ve never read anything else of Perrotta’s to completion, but now I cannot wait to read everything in the author’s portfolio.
The 355-page novel tells the story of various adults discontented with their lives in one way or another. In many ways, that central dynamic of not accepting, or not being happy with, one’s defined place in the world – in this case less out of bravado than out of defiance – is a thread that will find its way into a number of filmmaking endeavors this year. From Allen Coulter’s “Hollywoodland” to Marc Forster’s “Stranger Than Fiction,” even Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center,” to a lesser degree (dealing with men unaware that their day-to-day existences are what can keep them alive in their most desperate hour), lack of acceptance might prove to be one of the year in film’s more subterranean themes.
But I digress.
In “Little Children,” the reader is met with a host of characters, all terribly unique from one another yet sharing the common bond of being themselves to a “T,” sometimes unbearably so. However, what Perrotta does so brilliantly as a writer is not weaving these separate characterizations with such painstaking authority – though he does so quite capably – but instead, presenting them in a manner that almost dictates understanding and compassion every step of the way. The feeling “Little Children” conjures – like some mysterious sorcerer – is empathy, more so than anything else.
To make your audience care so much and understand so fully the flaws and dreams of such a diversity of characters is the mark of a level of human compassion rarely achieved, and certainly not often captured artistically. That accomplishment alone puts Perrotta head and shoulders above a number of his contemporaries.
The story’s core characters will be portrayed by Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly, Jackie Earle Haley, Noah Emmerich and Gregg Edelman in Field’s film version. Perhaps boasting the most potential for elevating their characters off the page more than the rest would be Winslet, Haley and Emmerich, but any number of things can happen regarding character and depiction when translating a book to the screen.
Perrotta has worked on the adaptation himself with Field, so it is a certainty that his voice will once again scream clearly through the haze of adaptation. At the end of the day, however, the film will hopefully celebrate that sense of compassion and understanding that seems to lie at the core of the otherwise aimless story, one that ends in no fashion of glorious revelation, not even on the simplistic, literarily customary note of resolution. The words just stop and the book remains what it was meant to be, a cross-section of a flawed world, a world that can be nothing else, and to the point of dedication, will never be anything else.