Joyce Maynard talks about her novel, appraises the film version
Posted: January 31, 2014 at 1:57 a.m.
“People tell me, don’t you care what they’ve done to your book? I tell them, they haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf. They paid me and that’s the end of it.” - James M. Cain
“I am not Adele,” Joyce Maynard asserts, talking about the character Kate Winslet plays in Jason Reitman’s film version of Maynard’s 2009 novel Labor Day, which is opening in theaters across the country today.
Yet she acknowledges that there is more than a bit of her in the character, a depressed single mother with a 13-year-old son who, over the course of a long Labor Day weekend, develops a relationship with Frank, an escaped convict she harbors in her home. Maynard was once a single mother too,and one imagines that she might have suffered from the same sort of love deprivation as Adele does in her story. A milder case, most certainly, but if you write a novel about how love’s absence hollows you out and wears you down, and about how even the promise of love can be restorative, then maybe you should be prepared for people to project.
To a point. What we ought to deal with early on - what Maynard must constantly deal with - is that she is best known for having been involved with J.D. Salinger for a while when she was a teenager and he was 53. Maynard has written about that period in her life extensively, and she even appears in the 2013 documentary Salinger (which she calls “that terrible Salinger movie”). While it might be possible to read her novel’s plot as a kind of veiled retelling of her history with Salinger (Adele is a victim of Stockholm Syndrome; Frank holds a coercive power over her), there are more interesting things going on.
Besides, the publicist who set up our interview asked me not to ask about Salinger, and while I didn’t agree to that stipulation, I hadn’t planned on being rude. On the phone, Maynard comes across as open and intelligent and willing to be honest. She understands the transactional nature of our moment, just as she understands the author’s place in Hollywood: To accept the check, to show up on the first day of shooting and maybe the last, to make soothing noises about how a film is a completely different thing from a book, to vouchsafe the director’s prerogatives.
If they ask, maybe you can provide some guidance. You can show Josh Brolin how to make a peach pie, for instance, or point out to director Reitman that only people from California valorize their highways with an initial “the” - as in “the 401.” In New England, they call the north-south route that bisects the region “91,” not “the 91.”
And if they ask, maybe you can promote the movie.
Labor Day is a movie that may need some promoting - it was originally scheduled for Christmas release but was pushed back after a lukewarm reception at the Toronto International Film Festival. It marks a departure for Reitman, his first straight dramatic venture after three well-received comedies, and some critics haven’t much cared for it. It hasn’t gathered much award season buzz. (Winslet was nominated for a Best Actress in a Drama Golden Globe but didn’t win.) If the movie doesn’t make much of an impression this weekend, it might simply disappear without having left a mark on the collective consciousness.
And that would be a shame, for Labor Day is a movie with subtle performances, nice textures, and a rooted sense of place. Maynard says she had only a couple of requests of the filmmakers, chief among them that they film the New Hampshire-set story somewhere in New England.
“They actually shot in Massachusetts, but that’s understandable - when there’s a big difference in [tax] incentive, they have to go where they can get them,” Maynard says.
That filmmakers have no absolute duty to a movie’s source material ought to be obvious. Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt bears little resemblance to the Louis Begley novel of the same title. Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is so compromised by the director’s fetish for glamour and excess that it completely misses the point of Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. And let’s not even consider Roland Joffe’s The Scarlet Letter (which Demi Moore later defended by noting “not many people” had actually read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s original).
Labor Day, the novel, is a curious love story/thriller that could be presented onscreen in a variety of ways. You could make a horror story of it, or a soft-core porno like 9 1/2 Weeks, or even a young adult coming-of-age tale. Yet despite the various opportunities for divergence the novel offers, Reitman offers a film that is remarkably faithful. The specific details line up, and much if not most of the dialogue is pulled directly from the novel. More interesting are the subtle differences.
A book requires a more active engagement, and since the story is told from the perspective of Adele’s son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), our perceptions are filtered through the semi-reliable narrator’s observations. A live action film is necessarily less subjective than a book - the action occurs in three dimensions and the sensibilities of actors and the director triangulate the story. In the novel, Henry is remembering the story, selecting details and omitting others. Henry isn’t omniscient, and we shouldn’t take his memories for truth.
In the film, we are the witnesses. And so we might become suspicious of the stranger before Henry does - where he sees a potential helper for his lonely mother, we see a man with dangerous potential. We see Adele slip the knife into her apron; Henry misses it. We understand the trepidation she must feel - in the novel, Henry is largely oblivious, and the story feels more allegorical than pinned to a specific incident.
Maynard does a remarkable job of capturing the no man’s land of fresh adolescence - Henry is just old enough to understand how inadequate he is as a surrogate husband. He is a sensitive child, on the cusp of greater knowledge, being pulled into adolescence by hormonal forces he can’t quite understand.
While Maynard says she drew on her experience of raising two boys on her own, “Henry isn’t based on my sons,” she says. “Though one of them did once give me a ‘husband-for-a-day’ card.”
While she wouldn’t be doing this interview if she felt otherwise, Maynard is happy with the version that has made it to the screen.
“I’ve been lucky with Hollywood,” she says, “I’ve had two books made into movies, and I’ve had two good experiences.” (Gus Van Sant made a black comedy of To Die For, Maynard’s novel that was based on the real-life Pamela Smart murder case.)
Reitman abridged her novel, cut out a lot of the back story, but remained true to the spirit of Maynard’s creation. She loves the analog textures, the quiet of the world before cell phones and the Internet (Labor Day is set in the 1980s).
Mostly she appreciates the attention that Reitman and the actors have paid to her work. She appreciates the way Winslet and Brolin communicate in glances and gestures, the way he tenderly thumbs her bare heel as he prepares to tie her up. (So when the police inevitably arrive she can truthfully say he restrained her.)
But in the book, Frank ties her up with silk scarves he scrounges from her bedroom (before she descended into her depression, Adele was the sort of woman who had a lot of silk scarves). In the movie he uses a soft cotton rope. She asks which version I prefer.
The scarves, I say, because they are specific to Adele, they are hers, they allude to a life she used to know. They’re something she’d put up and packed away, with no expectation that she’d ever use them again.
But then I understand why Reitman didn’t use them. On screen it may have seemed that the scarves were too flimsy to be effective. It might have seemed like a showy gesture. She considers this.
“I know,” she sighs. “But I really liked the scarves.”
MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 01/31/2014