In 1999, Sofia Coppola adapted Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Virgin Suicides into her debut film. The movie was remarkably faithful—perhaps too faithful—to the book, preserving the languid mood, reverential but impersonal treatment of the doomed Lisbon girls, and unusual, first person plural narrative voice.
Last Friday a very different Eugenides adaptation, The Switch, hit the big screen. Based on a short story called “Baster,” which was originally published in 1996 in The New Yorker, the film stars Jennifer Aniston as Kassie, a 40-year-old single woman who decides to get pregnant using a handsome sperm donor. What she doesn’t know is that Wally, her neurotic best friend (and one-time boyfriend), played by Jason Bateman, has replaced the donor’s sample with his own during the drunken party to celebrate her insemination.
Adapting a short story is a different animal from book-to-movie adaptations, and a challenge I’ve been thinking more about after spending the summer working at Zoetrope: All-Story. Francis Ford Coppola founded the magazine with the idea that short stories are more akin to film (and perhaps better source material) than are novels, as both stories and movies are meant to be consumed in one sitting. Each issue of Zoetrope includes a story that has been adapted to the screen: Steven Millhauser’s “Eisenheim the Illusionist” (The Illusionist, 2006), Alice Munroe’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” (Away from Her, 2006), and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008’s movie of the same name), among many others.
“Baster” is a good opportunity for an adaptation. It’s funny, with a high-concept plot, and it’s not impressionistic or experimental. (Neil Burger, who wrote and directed The Illusionist, called the Millhauser story that was his source “unfilmable.”) The story lays solid groundwork, but its length—only 6 pages—and unresolved ending gives the screenwriter freedom to make it his own. And individual short stories rarely have a large audience, so aside from, uh, people writing on literary websites, there aren’t fans of the original telling the writers/directors how they messed up or didn’t honor the source.
In a June interview with The New Yorker’s Book Bench blog, Eugenides said, “You might say that ‘Baster’ is to The Switch what cello is to cellophane.” Besides pointing out the differences in plot and the like, that comment captures the slide from a rarefied form to something made for mass consumption. The Switch is not an Oscar-bait, “serious” literary movie: directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck made a splash directing the cavemen commercials for Geico, and their first feature film was the Will Ferrell figure skating spoof Blades of Glory.
The movie is less broadly comedic than their resume would indicate. But it’s striking how, on the road to the Hollywood happy ending, the story has been shaved of the barbed edges that make it worth revisiting in the first place.
The plot of “Baster” takes up only the first act of the movie. The story ends just after the baby is born, with Wally’s betrayal undiscovered, still hovering and threatening like an airborne grenade. The screenplay, by Allan Loeb, sends Kassie (renamed from the story, where she’s Tomasina) from New York City home to Minnesota to raise her child, then picks up seven years later, when she moves back to NYC with her neurotic son.
Loeb, who also wrote the Halle Berry/Benicio Del Toro drama Things We Lost in the Fire and the upcoming Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, is currently a hot-shot screenwriter, with 11 scripts in production or development. He is sure-handed in expanding the story, and the best parts of the movie are his own: the tender relationship between Wally and his son; the amusing character of Wally’s friend/mentor/boss, played by Jeff Goldblum; the virtuoso scene in which Wally, on a first date with a younger woman, spins the imaginary tale of the next 20 years of their relationship, ending in depression and resentment.
But overall, the movie feels like those “sequels” to Jane Austen novels. Some curiosity may be satisfied, but the original author’s voice, characterization and specific vision have been distorted. And the deep essentials of “Baster”—the main characters’ chemistry, history, motivations—get lost or softened under rom-com formulas and the golden glow of Aniston’s hair. The biggest example is Tomasina’s past abortions, which are absent in the movie and vivid in the text:
She thought about them, the little children she never had. They were lined at the windows of a ghostly school bus, faces pressed against the glass, huge-eyed, moist-lashed. They looked out, calling, ‘We understand. It wasn’t the right time. We understand. We do.’ … But with three abortions, one official miscarriage, and who knows how many unofficial ones, Tomasina’s school bus was full. When she awoke at night, she saw it slowly pulling away from the curb, and she heard the noise of the children packed in their seats, that cry of children indistinguishable between laughter and scream.
Crucially, one of those children was Wally’s, conceived during their brief, intense fling (which is muted in the movie). Abortion remains more of a taboo in Hollywood than even five young women killing themselves, as in The Virgin Suicides. It’s a shame that the movie just won’t go there. Wally and Tomasina having a child together resonates differently if they’ve aborted one, and their history creates more motivation for the switch—it’s not just Wally passive-aggressively acting out because Kassie doesn’t think he is attractive enough to want his sperm. The story makes the switch an insidious violation, done intentionally and knowingly (though under the influence of alcohol). Wally is spawning the “little heir” that he had “waited ten years to see.” The movie plays the switch as a bumbling drunken accident, and the blacked-out Wally doesn’t even remember his transgression.
In “Baster,” Wally casts relationships and procreation as a Darwinian struggle: “It was becoming clear to me—clearer than ever—what my status was in the state of nature: it was low. It was somewhere around hyena.” And such is often the status of the fiction writer. In the New Yorker interview, Eugenides says, “As a novelist, I pity film directors their lack of autonomy. And I’m sure film directors pity just about everything about novelists.” But while The Switch is a middling dramedy, it’s Eugenides’ story that has the power, sinewy calculation and bite of a wild animal.