If you pick-up the St. Martin's Griffin edition of Tom Perrotta's novel "Little Children", you'll find that the very last page contains a "Reading Group Guide." The very first suggested discussion topic reads as follows:
Is Little Children an appropriate or deceptive title for this novel? Can you think of the different ways the phrase is employed within the book? To which characters does it best apply? In the end, is the title simply descriptive, or does it work on multiple levels?"
The page contains seven other topics or sets of questions relating to other elements of the stories and characters Perrotta (who also wrote the novel upon which Alexander Payne's great film Election) created and wove together in entertaining, dramatic, humorous and thoughtful fashion in his book. Upon reflection, it seems that when Perrotta got together with filmmaker Todd Field to adapt his book into a screenplay (the novelist shares screenwriting credit), the tow of them forgot to move beyond that one topic. In some ways, this isn't a terrible problem: the resulting film -- which premiered recently at the Toronto Film Festival, played the 44th New York Film Festival this past weekend, and opens nationwide on Friday -- is a fantastic example of decent filmmaking. A story somewhat well-told, thoroughly identifiable (at least for certain age groups and segments of the population) and, on the surface at least, competently made. But once one gets beyond the appealing cast, the straightforward plot elements and the easy answers to that first discussion topic, the flaws begin to appear, and if one goes a step further to actually examine the source material, it's not hard to see how, as a literary adaptation, Little Children, this film, is just short of a total failure, done in by an apparent misunderstanding of the necessary synchronizing of story and character without making one subservient to the other.
Field's film shouldn't come as a surprise. It possesses many of the same problems that existed in his breakthrough picture, the also-good but wildly overpraised In the Bedroom. But maybe Field should work on adapting more short stories before he moves on to the longer form of the novel. What to leave out is a difficult enough part of editing a film that comes from a simple 100-120 page screenplay. Choosing what to omit from a 350 page novel with multiple storylines and at least seven main characters in order to even get that 120 page script is far more difficult. In Little Children. Field again is serviced by an excellent assemblage of actors led by Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson, but he and Perrotta fail them by stripping away too many of the layers that make these characters who they are. The actors valiantly do their best to instill life into these people -- some to greater effect than others. But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. Let's take a step back, shall we?
It's quite easy to compare a book to a film. Most people find they're disappointed in the film versions of books they like, and I've discussed this topic several times in this space. It's a natural reaction as the reader creates a little movie in his or her head while reading a book yet is participating in somebody else's interpretation while watching a film. Inevitably, some moment you loved as the reader will be missing completely, other scenes will appear differently than you imagined and that handsome, tall, built blond former football player now still has ripped abs, but darker hair and a less All-American quality than you envisioned.
Of course, if you haven't read the book, none of this matters, and when I sat down to watch Little Children, I hadn't even heard of the novel. The press notes for the film go one step further. They contain a page with the heading "Approach" which states, "While Little Children is based on an acclaimed novel, Todd Field and Tom Perrotta wanted to create a film that stood on its own, independent of the book." OK, they don't really get credit for that. Every film should stand on its own regardless of its originality. The key to a good adaptation is a film which would enable a viewer to get the essence and central themes from the source material while still being its own entity. That's why the term "faithful" is so often interchanged -- incorrectly, I may add -- and misused when what should be said is "literal." But OK ... I hadn't read the book, so how does Little Children stand on its own? Kind of like one of those teeter-tottering, blow-up, wobble punching doll things. It's a little shaky, but it stands up most of the time, and every time it takes a hit, it bounces back.
The key to both Perrotta's novel and Field's film does, in fact, lie in the answers to those first discussion topic questions. They're not necessarily subtle, but that's OK. The children in Little Children are all the adults, virtually every single one of which has to go through a transformation and grow-up during the course of the story. There's Sarah (Kate Winslet), a young, dissatisfied mother looking for some sort of life to live; Brad (Patrick Wilson), a stay-at-home-dad while he studies for the third, and last, time to take the bar, that is when he doesn't simply sit and watch skateboarders for hours on end; and Larry (Noah Emmerich), an ex-cop who has taken it upon himself to protect the neighborhood from Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), a convicted pedophile who has moved back in with his elderly mother now that he's out of prison. There's also Brad's wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) and Sarah's husband Richard (Gregg Edelman), but really, they're just props. Oh, and then there are some other neighbors and neighborhood mothers who are, well, smaller but still important props.
The story focuses on the relationship and affair that develops between Sarah and Brad while also keeping an eye on Larry's harassment of Ronnie. Throughout the film, each character is forced to make choices that when distilled down to their most basic elements really become the choice between being responsible adults who have to consider their actions effects on the world and people around them and acting with the carefree and selfish attitudes of a little child, dependent on others and not considering consequences. Ultimately, each of these people come face-to-face with their own actions, receiving their own personal wake-up calls that will hopefully be turning points in their lives. And the message of the film is a positive one: that it's never too late to experience that turning point. That history is just that, and the day that one decides to look forward and act a certain way is far more important than what one did the day before.
Essentially, Field's film (and Perrotta's book) wants to be a chronicle of what has happened to Generation X; that group of people who came of age in the '80s and '90s with the supposed slacker attitudes and lack of direction, but suddenly found themselves as adults living lives they never anticipated and maybe didn't want. They're suddenly responsible for marriages, house and car payments, and children, and they still haven't even figured out how they want to live their lives or what careers they want to pursue. Brad has no interest in being a lawyer, but what else is he going to do. Sarah hates the suburbs and considers herself too literary and intelligent to be a housewife and stay-at-home mom, but pursuing anything else takes too much work.
Field and Perrotta get these points across, and at least for me, they resonated simply because although I'm not married nor do I have any children, I can relate and identify to much of what I saw going on in both Brad and Sarah. But what we ultimately find in this film is a lot of story, the pointed realization of a few themes, and then some relatively thin characters who might be simple enough to identify with but are quite difficult to like or feel any real empathy for. The storytelling is fine: Field manages to interweave the various plot points well enough. It's certainly never confusing, but the lack of character background and depth leaves plenty of unanswered questions, especially of the "why?" variety.
Field's filmmaking isn't too complicated. Just as he did in In the Bedroom, this somber, bucolic mood extends throughout the entire picture, even moments that are tinged with bits of humor. The one moment in the film that Field handles with some interesting visual aplomb is not even an original one, although I did get a kick out of it. It's the middle of summer and the public pool is filled with screaming children splashing and having fun when Ronnie walks in, puts on some fins, a mask and a snorkle and starts swimming around. Slowly but surely, parents start to notice, and as Ronnie swims around in a fish- or -- wait for it ... shark- -- like motion, hysteria starts to spread. Parents start screaming for their kids to get out of the pool. People screaming, water splashing, chaos ensuing -- this whole sequence is a well-done quote of Steven Speilberg's Jaws (minus any blood), and it's effective and funny. Looking at the novel, this is one instance where Field did something interesting with a specific description by Perrotta who writes that Ronnie had "cleared the pool as effectively as if he'd been a shark."
Another choice Field and Perrotta made in the script is the use of an unseen narrator who repeatedly describes much of the internal thought process of most of the characters. Voice-over narration is a tricky thing in films: it is too often used as a screenwriting cop-out, a purely expository form of writing when the author and/or director can't figure out how to show instead of say. Personally, I enjoyed the narrator of Little Children for the first half of the film, before he utterly disappears for about 25-30 minutes. The voice (the notes don't mention who it is) reminded me of Bill Kurtis, the host and producer of all those True Crime shows on A&E like American Justice and Investigative Reports. His tone and timber creates a strange mood, one almost like that of a fairy tale that could go very very wrong. Kind yet authoritative, the presents the evidence, and if his presence had been better utilized and more consistent, it might have worked, even if it wasn't completely necessary.
Still, the average filmgoer who hasn't read Perrotta's novel will likely enjoy Little Children as I did. And as long as you stay away from the novel, you won't become more disillusioned and disappointed. There are a few elements that Field and Perrotta actually improve upon -- the actual events at the end, especially involving Ronnie, are somewhat different and more satisfying, and in fact, Ronnie's entire character is far more interesting in the film, which is in large part thanks to Jackie Earle Haley's performance. (I will also take this moment to note that I was the only person among the group I spoke with after my screening who recognized him as Kelly Leak from the original Bad News Bears.)
But everything else about this adaptation is heavily flawed. Sure, you can't keep every little bit of a 350 page novel in a film if you want it to come in at a reasonable running time, but what's lost from "Little Children" the novel is a tremendous blow. The Larry in the film is not simply unlikable but incredibly annoying, and Field and Perrotta try to manipulate the audience by not revealing a major element of his history until the final third of the film. In the book, Perrotta reveals this vital, character-defining event early on, which helps explain every other action he undertakes.
The most criminally neglected characters are the spouses, particularly Jennifer Connelly's Kathy. It looks like more time was spent considering Connelly's awful haircut than giving her more than a surface personality. The Kathy in the book is a driven woman who underneath is as conflicted and selfish as her husband -- who, by the way, in the book is named Todd. (Will someone please explain to me why character names are sometime arbitrarily changed for no reason whatsoever? Is changing this one character name the way Perrotta and Field decided to make the film its own independent entity? Am I missing something about Brad vs. Todd?) Todd and Kathy are also a couple struggling with their finances, trying to survive primarily on the little money she makes as a documentary filmmaker. Kathy believes that when Todd becomes a lawyer, everything will be OK, and maybe she can even stay at home with their son. Todd feels immense pressure not just to pass the bar exam but to be a provider and get his family out of this suburban townhouse into their own home. This is what drives him into rebellion from his own responsibility -- but that never makes it into the film.
Sarah's husband Richard has his own issues in the novel, and an entire subplot that is all but eliminated from the film. On its own, it's not such an interesting subplot, but ultimately it plays a major part in Sarah making her own decisions. Additionally, the fact that Richard is much older, has two daughters from a previous marriage and essentially rescued Sarah from a job at Starbucks because they got along and she couldn't decide what to do with herself is completely missing. So is the fact that Sarah had never had a fulfilling relationship, except during a brief lesbian experiment during college.
The list of omissions that explain so much and add necessary depth to both the characters and the overall story seems virtually endless. All the supporting characters suffer, particularly Ronnie's mother who in the film is nothing more than a doting parent who suffers to see her traumatized son even though he has done some pretty bad things, but in the book is further developed as a truly lonely woman who needs her son as much as he needs her.
Little Children isn't a complete mess (like another recent adaptation that I will also be writing about this week and bears a striking number of similar flaws, although all much, much worse), but it is a damn shame. It's an example of what makes successful book-to-film adaptation such a difficult art form unto itself. It comes damn close to getting things right, but it seems to stop short at every point along the way. Maybe if Field and Perrotta had convened a reading group and gotten through more of the book's provided questions, we'd all be better off.