Adapting Carol and Brooklyn



For my first assignment for this blog, I’ve taken a look at two pretty gorgeous movies based on novels about New York shop girls in the ‘50s who long for better lives. And I’m pleased to report that screenwriters Phyllis Nagy and Nick Hornby, adapting Carol and Brooklyn, respectively, have not let us down in finding every nugget of gold in these oddly similar stories.

First up, let’s discuss Carol, or The Price of Salt, as novelist Patricia Highsmith called it when she published it under an assumed name in 1952 because the lesbian storyline was considered too risqué for the time period. In Miss Nagy’s very faithful adaptation, she’s stripped away a lot of the B and C stories that frankly weighed the novel down a bit and really honed in on the A story of the love affair between a divorcee named Carol and a young aspiring artist named Therese (in the book, Therese longs to be a theater set designer, but in the movie she’s a photographer.)

Some of these cuts were simply common sense. The book bobs and weaves into long passages that frankly do nothing to move the plot forward, such as a rather pointless section towards the end where Therese is holed up in a boarding house hoping Carol will come to join her, and takes a side job doing the books at a construction site. Why did Miss Highsmith put this into the novel? Who knows. It was almost like no editor wanted to tell the novelist to cut it.

Miss Nagy realized that none of that was important. She wisely focused instead on Carol’s tortured relationship with her soon-to-be ex-husband, played with heartbreaking intensity in the movie by Kyle Chandler, thus fleshing out an element of her struggle that was frankly a bit underdeveloped in the novel. We’ve also gotten some lovely new scenes exploring Carol’s love and commitment to her daughter, the custody of whom is on the line as a result of her new relationship with Therese. In these scenes, Miss Nagy does a great job of raising the stakes for Carol, played with a delicious (if at times a bit hammy) zeal by Cate Blanchett, in a way that never quite felt visceral in the book.

And by changing Therese from a set designer to a photographer, Miss Nagy found a neat way of taking what could have a been an introverted activity—hunching over miniature set reproductions—and instead forcing Therese out into the world with camera in hand, turning her attention to Carol and the new possibilities that abound as a result of her newfound love.

I have to say, however, that certain problems of the novel persisted in the movie, and in fact were even amplified. The biggest issue in both, really, is that we are never given any tangible reason as to why Therese falls so hard for Carol. Sure, there’s a physical attraction, much more powerful than what she has ever felt before. But beyond that, we have two women of different ages and different backgrounds who, let’s face it, have nothing in common. The book alludes to elements of Therese’s background, including abandonment by her mother and a childhood spent in a convent where she formed an attachment to a particular young nun, as potential hints as to why she would feel such a connection to Carol. There’s also a bit towards the end about a portrait that was hanging in the convent which Therese later realizes reminds her of Carol. These are some fairly tenuous connections, but at least they’re something.

In the movie, Miss Nagy decided to 86 all of that. I can’t really say as I blame her. None of it was really doing anything for me when I read the book. But she doesn’t really replace these parts of Therese’s backstory with anything. As Carol says, in both the book and the movie, it’s as though Therese is “flung out of space.” And as played with wide-eyed innocence and set little jaw by Rooney Mara, Therese somehow never feels quite as three-dimensional as we would like.

I couldn’t help but think of another lesbian drama that came out of Cannes recently, Blue Is The Warmest Color. In that film, also about a young woman who realizes she may be gay when she falls for a captivating stranger, the performances are almost seared into the memory with a vital and wrenching vulnerability, a hunger that almost drips off the screen. We never get that in Carol, but largely that is probably due more to the stylizations of director Todd Haynes, who has made a career of painting realistically sketched images of his childhood in the ‘50s, at once lovingly rendered and yet somehow impossible to touch.


On the flipside, we are given one of the most beautiful adaptations I’ve seen in a long time in Nick Hornby’s take on Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. Mr. Hornby, who’s long held a place on my mantle as one of my favorite living writers thanks to books like About a Boy and How To Be Good, cuts through the already taut Irish novel with the precision of surgeon and gives us a series of startling and beautiful tableaus in the life of a young Irish immigrant.

Right away, Mr. Hornby knows he needs to streamline the story in Ireland and get his protagonist to America, probably more for practical reasons than anything else. There’s a lot of story to tell, after all. So what does he keep? We open with the very early morning Sunday mass that Eilis must attend in order to get to her job at the grocery on time. We meet the domineering patroness of the store, a couple quick scenes with the beloved sister and the aging mother, a sad little dance with the beautiful friend where there are no prospects for Eilis, and off to America we go. Mr. Hornby wisely cuts all reference to the older brothers who have moved to London, thus raising the stakes for Eilis and her sister Mary to take care of their mother on their own.

The other cut in the beginning which shocked me at first, but paid off in spades later, was that there was no meeting with Jim Farrell, the man who will later become a potential love interest for Eilis, before going to America. In the book, we meet him at the first dance, but he is dismissive and cold, never asking Eilis to dance. But film is a very different medium, and Mr. Hornby realizes that to meet a character by name in act one means that he will have to pay off in some way by act three (similar to the “if you introduce a gun early on” theory). So Jim will have to wait, else risk tipping the writer’s hat to the future of the story.

And it is in America that the story really shines. A bit of a throwaway scene in the novel in which Eilis serves a Christmas dinner to older Irish immigrants at the church is transformed into a gorgeous sequence where Father Flood reminds us that the bridges and tunnels of New York were built by Irish immigrants who were then discarded by their new society, left destitute and often drunk. The echoes of a Gallic ballad accompany Eilis back to the boarding house, illustrating the stark divide between her current residence and the longing of her heart to go home. Hornby and director John Crowley know that their job is to give us these windows into the mental state of Eilis, played so gorgeously by Saoirse Ronan that we might all have to start learning how to pronounce her name. This is how you do it, folks.

But the real genius of Mr. Hornby’s adaptation comes through at the end. I have only two real points of frustration with Mr. Tóibín’s lovely novel. The first is that he sometimes throws away his best characters, introducing us to vibrant, fun people like Georgina, the woman who guides Eilis through her transcontinental boat journey to America, and then never letting us meet them again. The film fixes this problem, not be excising Georgina, but by bringing the story full circle and allowing Eilis to be the guide to a young Irish naïf heading to Brooklyn at the end. It’s a beautiful reminder that a good story, be it a book or a movie, gives us a fully realized arc for its main character.

And the second issue in the novel is what I am now calling the “Hunger Games syndrome”—a main character who has to choose between two potential love interests, who represent, of course, two different futures, and seems to free fall into the path of least resistance without ever really choosing her heart’s desire. In the book, Eilis (spoiler alert) goes back to Brooklyn to be with her husband Tony. But Mr. Tóibín never gives us the satisfaction of seeing her make that choice, eyes open and heart ready to commit to that life. In the book, it’s almost like she does it because it would be harder to break up with Tony than Jim, since she’s already married Tony in a civil ceremony.

Not content to leave us so uninspired, Mr. Hornby writes us a truly fantastic scene in which Eilis, realizing that the provincial life in Ireland she had been romanticizing has lost too much of its luster, stands and proudly declares, “My name is Eilis Fiorello!” (Seriously, I’ve never been so excited to hear a character state his or her name since Mr. Tibbs.) It’s a decisive moment, perhaps the first where Eilis truly realizes how much she loves her new husband, and commits to the life they’re building together. Not a dry eye in the house, and a movie that becomes an instant classic.

Follow Rebecca Phelps on Twitter: @DownWorldNovel


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