Thursday, January 23, 2014

still lost

Quietly haunted by Stephen Frears' affecting new film, "Philomena," I felt compelled to seek out the source material of scenarists Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope's Oscar nominated screenplay - "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee" by British journalist Martin Sixsmith, a book that, to the best of my knowledge, had never been reviewed or even printed in the United States since its publication in England in 2009 by Macmillian Publishing Limited.

In the film, Judi Dench turns in an indelible performance as an Irish Catholic woman who, as a teenager, became pregnant out of wedlock and was exiled by her family to a convent run by unforgiving nuns who sold her little boy, named Anthony, to an American doctor and his wife who renamed the child Michael.  The movie is all about Philomena Lee's wrenching search for her son  - which includes an extended trek to the United States - with the help of Sixsmith, played by Coogan himself.

It's a story that's difficult to shake, but it's not even remotely close to what Sixsmith originally wrote, which is much more powerful.  Actually, after reading "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee," I wondered why Frears and company didn't bother to film it.  As the title of Sixsmith's book makes clear, his story is all about the son; Philomena's story merely bookends it.

The movie, on the other hand, is the mother's story, a good portion of it fictionalized.  In fact, Philomena's trip to America - the primary story arc that drives the film - never happened.  She never traveled to America.  And in Sixsmith's book, the author serves as narrator, not as a major character as Coogan, in a strange form of vanity, has cast him.  The major thrust of Anthony/Michael's sad life has been reduced to a few expository facts that Coogan and Pope sprinkle throughout the dialogue shared by Philomena and Sixsmith during the film's made-up road trip.

So exactly who decided to take this approach - Frears or Coogan?  And why?  Independently, "Philomena" remains a wonderful film, but there's little denying that the son's story is much more provocative and tragic than the mother's. And did the Academy voters who opted to nominate the film in the Best Adapted Screenplay category even bother to read the book?

I ask because it really isn't an adaptation at all.

Note in Passing: For its Penguin Books tie-in with the movie's release, Sixsmith's book has been retitled "Philomena: A Mother, Her Son and a Fifty-Year Search."


Neil said...

The deepest gratitude. I'll have to check out the book.

Michael Henne said...

I gasped when I read this. Film the book, for heaven's sake! Seems to me it would have been a stronger movie, not just a sweet, sentimental one.