The Wife

I was on the plane a few months ago and watched on that tiny screen some movies, the best of which was The Wife, starring Glenn Close. It wasn’t a great movie, but it was OK, the acting was good, and my main thought was: This seems like a much better story for a book than for a movie—it really wasn’t a “cinematic” story at all—and this led me to want to read the original book. Then awhile later I was at the bookstore and I picked it up: The Wife, by Meg Wolitzer. And I loved it, absolutely loved it from the first page on. Now I want to read everything that Wolitzer’s ever written.

Just as a taste, here’s one amusing passage:

“That she’d only spent a few months in that igloo . . .”: I love that. And it’s a deft touch (as the critics would say) how Wolitzer is making fun, not of Qaanaaq but of the people who are jealous of Qaanaaq.

Anyway, that was just one bit I happen to have recalled. The book is hilarious all the way through, with the humor built into the structure, not just painted on.

The humor seemed very American. I say that only because I’ve read a lot of funny British novels, and there’s just something different about the two styles. A funny British novel will have the main character dumped on and humiliated over and over—think Jonathan Coe, or David Szalay—whereas the American approach is a bit more exuberant. It’s hard for me to describe this exactly, but there’s a difference.

Anyway, the movie wasn’t as funny as the book. Actually, it wasn’t funny at all. Instead, the dramatic aspects of the story were emphasized. This may have been a smart choice. The book was funny not because funny things happened in it, but because it was narrated by a writer with a fine literary sense of humor. To carry this off in a movie you’d need to either open up the story and add a lot more conversation—so that the funny lines would appear as dialogue—or else do lots of voiceover, Annie Hall style. And I guess the screenwriters didn’t want to do either of these.

Also, the acting in the movie was excellent but it changed the story. Again, maybe by necessity. The acting is key in this sort of movie that focuses on interpersonal relationships, and arguably it’s a better choice to change the story to suit the acting, rather than the other way around.

The acting changed the story in two major ways. First, the main character’s husband, the famous writer, has much more of a presence in the movie than in the book. In the book, you hear him talk on occasion but the entire story is narrated by Joan, the wife, in her authorial voice. In the movie, Joan and Joe are nearly equal characters, both played by strong actors. This both changes the balance of the story—it’s now a story of a marriage, rather than the story of a person and her marriage. Second, the movie version makes Joe a more sympathetic character. If you read the book carefully, you can see Joe’s positive aspects—Joan is in some respects an unreliable narrator—but it’s much more clear in the movie when you see him as Jonathan Pryce.

Then there were minor changes. An amusing running gag in the book was that Joe was receiving the Helsinki prize, which was some sort of Finnish knock-off of the Nobel. So even while getting this award, Joe remained aware that his status was still insecure. I guess the screenwriters removed this bit as a step in de-emphasizing the comedy in the story. On the plus side, I think the movie made a good choice in reducing the number of children and bringing them into the story rather than keeping them offstage. Also I preferred the movie’s treatment of the rebellious son: in the book he has serious mental illness and represents the uncontrollability of life, whereas in the movie it’s a more conventional story of a son wanting the affection and respect of his father. I think that worked better in the context of the story.

Finally, to return to the loss of comedy: both Close and Pryce played it straight: no comedy, and not much wit. Both performances were excellent for what they were, but again I think something was lost in the change of focus, compared to the original presentation.

In the book, Joan is a writer, she’s always turning phrases around in her head, playing around with the interaction between the Idea and the Word, making every story her own by deciding how to tell it. That is, the structure of Wolizer’s novel mirrors its theme.

In contrast, in the movie, yes we are told that Joan is a writer, but I didn’t see Close playing her as a writer. Her being a writer was something Joan did, she was a writer in the same way that the hero of Strangers on a Train was a tennis player—it fit in with the narrative logic of the story, but it wasn’t an essential part of her character, not something that came out in her every sentence, as it did in the book. If anything, I felt that Joan was being portrayed in the movie as a sort of actress.

So, again, as well acted as the movie was, I think it lost something, as it became the story of a marriage, not the story of a writer. Fine on its own terms, but not the same, and not as special.

P.S. I discussed this with a friend who argued, convincingly to me, that Joan’s decision to stick with the fraud for so many years was not well motivated. So the book’s not perfect. That’s fine. A book can be not perfect but still great. Just, then we can want to adjust the story to make the narrative logic work out. As with The Martian.