Book to Screen

How I Live Now:  the movie

I’m probably the kind of movie-goer that film makers detest. Original script?  I’m putty in your hands.  Based on a novel? Not so much.  While I theoretically understand that films have different conventions and possibilities than novels I’m so loyal to the books I love that I approach their film incarnations with my shoulders weighed down by chips.  Therefore I went to see How I Live Now (Oct. 2013, UK, Saoirse Ronan from Atonement) with trepidation. The novel by Meg Rosoff is one of those books that I would give a minor limb to have written.   But director Kevin Macdonald won me over in about two minutes. The movie is smart, searing, tightly plotted, thoughtful, and paced for the non-hyper viewer. It trusts its story. The acting is convincing, with Anna Chancellor in the small role of Aunt Penn being particularly spot-on.

It got me thinking, though, about taboos in fiction and in film.  Three elements from the novel are omitted in the film, only, as far as I can figure, because they are controversial.

The first is that Edmond, a fourteen year old English schoolboy, and unlikely male romantic lead, smokes.  Narrator Daisy tells us this detail in a hilarious run-on sentence on p. 3 of the novel. She’s shocked by it but she also finds it a bit cool.

Second difference is that in the novel Daisy and Edmond are real cousins.  The film goes out of its way to assure us the relationship is that their mothers were close friends, not sisters.  Why does this matter?  Daisy and Edmond fall in love and have sex.  Is this regarded as incestuous? Marriage between cousins is legal in Britain (and indeed Canada) but not in many American states.

The third detail I noticed is that in the novel Aunt Penn leaves her family of four (eldest sixteen years old) alone for a few days while she goes on a work trip.  Aunt Penn assures Daisy that the “children” will take good care of her.  It’s all very easygoing.  In the movie a character called Sally is introduced, as someone who is going to come and babysit.  (Sally never turns up.)

The final difference works the other way.  In both novel and movie Daisy has a gun.  In the novel she fires one shot, to put a wounded animal out of its misery.  In the movie she uses it in self-defense to kill an attacker.

My conclusions?

In movies it is not okay to show smoking, sex between cousins or a parent who leaves her children unattended overnight.  But in movies it’s okay to show a child killing someone with a gun.

On a lighter note, it is also not okay in movies to have a male lead who looks, and I quote Daisy’s description in the novel, like he cut his hair himself “with a hatchet in the dead of night,” has arms as thick as a dog’s leg and generally resembles “some kind of mutt.”  My Edmond doesn’t look like George MacKay, but that’s probably just me.\

And Happy Boxing Day.





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2 responses to “Book to Screen

  1. Fascinating, Sarah. And why am I not surprised about the gun insight? I, too, loved this book. Given your review, I will plan to see the movie when it arrives in Montpelier (which I hope it does).

    There was a good bit of discussion in the blogosphere about the cousin issue, as I’m sure you know.

  2. Martine Leavitt

    Hahaha! Another glimpse into the world view of Sarah Ellis. It’s that way of seeing the world that makes your books so wonderful!

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