Irritatingly 'Hollywood' adaptation of an incredible book
17 October 2017
Warning: Spoilers
I read the book last week so it was fresh in my mind when I went to see the film, and I know this will sound like another book lover whining "the book was better" but this is absolutely the case. If you haven't read Walls' memoir, it is a beautifully written, honest account of a childhood with parents who were selfish and neglectful to an absurd degree. One of the best things about it is that Walls writes without any self pity and focuses the story on how she and her siblings survived thanks to their resourcefulness despite the ridiculous things her parents did. It is emotional because the reader is left to make their own judgement rather than the author telling us to pity her for how awful it was.

What blows my mind is how the Hollywood misogyny machine managed to make the entire film about the father. Yes the father is a huge part of the story, and the author had a closer relationship with him than some of her siblings, but the film made him out to be some kind of anti-hero. We are directed to see how flawed and imperfect he is in a "yeah he did some bad things but really he was great" kind of way with the result that you come away feeling like he really tried his best and nothing was really his fault. All of this is at the expense of the mother being a developed character - in the film she is a 'battered wife' stereotype, whereas in real life she was just as selfish and neglectful, and as accountable as the father. The memoir gives a variety of instances such as when the children had not eaten for days and found the mother eating from her hoard of chocolate bars; or when the kids found a diamond ring and the mother refused to sell it to pay for food because it could replace the engagement ring the father never got her and her self-esteem was more important!

The resolution of the film was the part that made me the most angry. Brie Larson tearfully tells her husband she's leaving the restaurant (of course she really means leave the marriage), removes her heels and starts running down the road to get to her dying father - what the hell?! Followed by an emotional deathbed reconciliation with the father and the final Thanksgiving scene where Larson sobs "I feel so lucky" before the family toast to the father as if all is forgiven - it was so saccharine it made me want to vomit.

Ultimately the whole film relied on stereotypes - the tortured alcoholic father, the weak mother, Larson as a cold career woman who ultimately decides her dysfunctional-yet-lovable family are more important than money and success. All of this dumbed it down just enough to be just another story of a man doing whatever the hell he wants and ultimately being forgiven in the end because deep down he had a good heart and wiped out all of the parts of the original memoir that made it such a riveting, unforgettable read.

My final gripe is the choice to switch from the child to adult actors during some of the later childhood scenes. Of course this is common and does involve some suspension of disbelief, however it was particularly uncomfortable during the scene in the bar with Robbie. Now then, it's pretty bad that Rex pretty much gives Robbie permission to take his daughter upstairs and do whatever he wants because she can take care of herself. In the film, we're invited to feel sympathetic towards Rex (again) because he's just found out his beloved Mountain Goat is planning to leave him. He's hurt, he's betrayed, so why should he come to her defence right? So she goes upstairs with Robbie, he tries to rape her but she gets away by showing him her "ugly scars". She's played by Larson at this point and she's about to move to NYC, so how old would we imagine she is, late teens? Well folks, here's a revelation for you - SHE WAS THIRTEEN. In real life that wasn't an ill-judged incident brought on by Rex's grief for his abusive mother, no, he deliberately took his 13-year-old daughter to the bar with the express purpose of using her to charm older men so that he win their money. He then does nothing to stop said older men taking his 13-year-old daughter upstairs and it's only at that point that the film and the book line up. But let's remember she was THIRTEEN. What angers me is the fact that the filmmakers decided they wanted to put that scene in (presumably for some kind of shock value) but decided that it was a little too shocking, so we'll water it down by having an adult actor and throwing in more emotional context that makes the father slightly less of an asshole and puts more responsibility on his adult daughter to look after herself. Because if the real story had been shown, we might be a bit too angry with the father to be OK with the nice little deathbed reconciliation. See my problem?

What I will say, is that this film was very well acted, particularly by Larson and Harrelson. I still found myself drawn in and welling up in some of the more emotional scenes, so perhaps if you haven't got the book to compare it to, you may like it. It's only that that makes it a 5 rather than a 2 for me; though I'm still irritated that most of the elements that made the book so good have been cut to satisfy Hollywood's apparently insatiable appetite for stories about middle-aged white men.
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