short film reviews, criticism, and occasional musing.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Little Children (2006, USA)

I’ll admit up front that I’m going to be entirely unfair to Little Children, because I read the book just a few weeks ago, and loved it. Movie reviews shouldn’t necessarily focus on the shortfalls of book to film translations, but in this case I just can’t help myself. Oh, and there are massive spoilers here for those of you who haven’t read/watched either version.

And they are two entirely different versions, or at least it feels that way when the movie comes to an end. The denouement of the novel is a nice summing-up – it brings four of the principal characters together in a way that feels entirely unexpected, and serves an interesting comment on the nature of community. In the movie, writer-director Todd Field and writer-novelist Tom Perrotta pull the characters apart, creating insular realizations (with one exception) that diminishe the impact of what has come before.

There’s also the problem of what to do with Ronnie. I’m not entirely sure why Field and Perrotta decided to change Ronnie’s fate in such a massive way, but I do know that I don’t like it. The end of the book has Ronnie admitting to a crime that isn’t even mentioned in the movie – he does this because his mother, the last person who cared for him, is gone, and he knows that without her influence he cannot keep himself from hurting others. Going back to jail is the safest choice for everyone, and the most heroic thing he could have done given the extraordinary circumstances. But the movie has Ronnie finding "redemption" in a much uglier way – he realizes all of those castration wishes that the other characters have been voicing by performing the surgery himself. It’s not clear if Ronnie survives, but with this reduction of his character, does it really matter?

I was also bothered by the resolution of the Sarah-Brad/Todd romance plot. Brad/Todd’s wife has a much more active role in the novel – here, she merely calls in reinforcements in the form of her mother, and then retreats into the background. Sure, fine – some character reductions have to be made in the transition from the book to the screen, but this was massively unsatisfying, and doesn’t speak at all to why Brad/Todd would choose to stay in a relationship with his wife. In the book, his decision not to show up at the playground to run away with Sarah leaves her in the lurch. The movie has Sarah making her own decision, as her panicked realization that Lucy has wandered off reprioritizes her emotional spectrum (there is also a great deal left out about her failing marriage, which colors things differently yet again). As the details of movie-Sarah's character are fuzzy, perhaps this makes a bit more sense than it does in the book, but it lacks the emotional impact of the central character's closing realizations about love and identity.

The movie's not all bad, though – the photography is beautiful, and the Thomas Newman score is lovely, if a bit heavy-handed at times. The performances are strong all around, even for those actors, like Jennifer Connelly and Phyllis Sommerville, who have very little to do. The voice-over has the ironic effect of making the characters and setting seem like something of a zoo or a nature program, which is brilliant when not, again, heavy-handed. Had Field and Perrotta decided to keep the original ending, they would have built a much more complex, more richly satisfying film, but there are still good things to be had in Little Children.


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