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Jewish Journal

How Hollywood’s Hunt ‘Found’ Elinor Lipman’s novel

by Anita K. Kantrowitz

April 24, 2008 | 6:00 pm

Elinor Lipman

Elinor Lipman, writer of smart and often hilarious modern-day social satire, considers herself "the luckiest writer." Her first novel, "Then She Found Me," well-received when it was published in 1990 and selling steadily ever since, has inspired the film of the same name -- starring, co-written and directed by Helen Hunt -- that opens in theaters this Friday.

But fans of Lipman's novel should be forewarned: Don't judge the movie by its book. Hunt spent nearly 10 years nurturing this project and in the process changed many of the novel's particulars -- adding and deleting characters and sub-plots, altering motivations. Yet the film is faithful to the heart of the story and retains Lipman's signature balance of wit and pathos.

In the novel, 36-year-old, never-married high school Latin teacher April Epner, adopted daughter of Holocaust survivors Trude and Julius, is a no-nonsense, plain-Jane kind of gal -- but one with a sure, quiet sense of self and a quick wit. Out of the blue, shortly after Trude dies (and less than two years after Julius' death), a mysterious stranger appears with a message from April's birth mother, employing stealth and melodrama to tell her, "I represent someone from your past ... would that be welcome news?"

Thus begin the misadventures of the shy schoolteacher and her overbearing, confessional-talk-show-host birth mother, Bernice Graves. In Lipman's novel, April struggles for self-definition -- and compassion -- in the face of Bernice's glaringly different personality. Her turmoil is buffered by a blossoming love she shares with the equally retiring yet charmingly wry school librarian, Dwight Willamee.

Lipman, though neither adopted nor an adopter of children herself (she and her husband have one son), had nevertheless long been intrigued by the emotional conflict and drama inherent in birth-parent/adoptive-child reunions. When a friend found his birth mother when he was in his 40s, Lipman decided to further explore the subject and make it the focal point of her novel.

In Hunt's film version, Bernice (Bette Midler, delivering some of the film's funniest lines) and April (Hunt) similarly navigate the minefield of their budding mother-daughter relationship, but there's no shy librarian in sight. Instead, April marries, then is summarily dumped by, her man-child fellow teacher (Matthew Broderick) and subsequently falls in love with the also recently dumped, nurturing father (Colin Firth) of one of her kindergarten students. The film's April, nearing 40, desperately wants a child; this becomes a central theme in the movie.

Hunt explained that she was drawn to the originality of the novel and to "the way Elinor surprised me in the story." She initially tried to acquire the film rights in the early 1990s, but the book had already been optioned -- before it had even hit bookstores -- by Sigourney Weaver's production company, which rebuffed Hunt's overtures for involvement.

Several years later, after Hunt had won four Emmys for her role in the NBC hit comedy series, "Mad About You," and the 1997 Best Actress Oscar for her performance opposite Jack Nicholson in "As Good As It Gets," she was finally able to secure the rights to Lipman's book.

Meanwhile, not surprisingly, Lipman had been wondering if the film would ever be made.

"I got a call from Helen Hunt's manager on the day my mother died [in 1998]," Lipman said; the call "was like a little ray of sunshine in an otherwise sad time."

Despite Hunt's fondness for the novel ("the novel is perfect," she said), she wrestled with the screenplay for nearly five years, trying to translate what she considered a "subtle, internal" story into an external, visible story that would work on screen.

One solution was to have April want a baby; Hunt felt that would externalize a longing that remains inchoate in the novel. It was also a deeply personal addition for Hunt, who said she "wanted a baby very much during the time I was working on the script." She now has a 3 1/2-year-old daughter with television producer and writer Matthew Carnahan.

When Hunt read an essay on betrayal by Jungian psychologist James Hillman, she finally "found her north star about what she wanted to explore in the film," Lipman said.

The central theme of the film became, "You can't really love until you've made peace with betrayal," Hunt said.

So, in the film, April becomes both a victim and perpetrator of betrayal, who at times feels betrayed by God.

Hunt, whose paternal grandmother was Jewish, also made April more of a religously observant Jew, in order to give her protagonist "a deep sense of tradition [and] a specific version of faith that doesn't back away from the difficult questions," she said.


The trailer


Despite the seriousness of her theme, Hunt believed that by using Lipman's novel as a springboard, she could create "a funny movie about betrayal."

Lipman read Hunt's screenplay, and after a brief moment of confusion ("Where's Dwight?") fell in love with it. "Within three or four pages, I was hooked ... it was smart, funny, touching; I laughed, I cried," she said. "The changes that were made came straight from [Hunt's] heart and soul."

"I think there's a lot of wit in the movie, and it is very subtle, in the best possible way," said Lipman, who has now seen the film four times. Since she considers herself a poor judge of what will be funny, even in her own writing, she especially enjoys seeing "a line that seemed ordinary get a big laugh, all because of the acting and directing."

The prolific Lipman, whose 10th novel, "The Chaperone," is due out in 2009, will soon have more chances to find out what makes audiences laugh. Although "Found" is the first of her novels adapted for film, others are in the works. Her story about a socially maladjusted surgeon and her odd love life, "The Pursuit of Alice Thrift" (2003), is being produced by Paul and Chris Weitz, who directed and wrote the screenplay for "About a Boy." And Robert Benton ("Kramer vs. Kramer") has written the screenplay for "The Ladies' Man" (1999), Lipman's tale of a spinster reunited with the man who jilted her at the altar 30 years earlier; Benton will also direct.

Lipman said she never expects a film to be a literal translation of her -- or anyone else's -- novels. "Of course there will be changes. It's interesting to take characters off the shelf, reanimate them and see what they do."

"Then She Found Me" opens Friday at the ArcLight and other theaters throughout Los Angeles.

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