Thursday, July 2, 2009

My Sister's Keeper (the movie)

Last week I saw My Sister's Keeper, starring Abigail Breslin, Cameron Diaz, Sofia Vassilieva, Jason Patric, and Alec Baldwin. The movie is based on the book of the same title by Jodi Picoult; it is considered by many to be her best work. I was slightly reluctant to see the movie, in part because I wasn't sure that the book's alternating first-person narration would translate well to the screen, and in part because I have been known to cry so hard during sad movies that I've given myself a migraine. (That actually happened to me when I saw Regarding Henry about a million years ago.)

Fortunately, I didn't quite give myself a migraine this time, although I did cry during this movie. A lot. The quick and dirty version is that a teenaged girl named Kate Fitzgerald is dying from a somewhat rare form of leukemia. Back when Kate was diagnosed as a little girl, the doctor suggested that her parents conceive a child specifically selected to be a perfect donor match for Kate. Hence Anna is born, and her cord blood and eventually her bone marrow help improve Kate's condition. Now, however, Kate has relapsed and has gone into kidney failure. Since Anna obviously has the perfect kidney for Kate, Kate's mother Sara assumes it's a done deal, until she is served with legal papers stating that Anna, at age thirteen (eleven in the movie), is suing her parents for the medical rights to her own body.

[Spoilers for both book and movie below.]

To go back to the source material, this was the first book by Jodi Picoult that I ever read. Although I don't normally read much mainstream fiction or "women's novels" (if that's an accurate description), I was so involved in the story that I stayed up until about three a.m. the first time I read it. I was also impressed by Picoult's skillful use of multiple first-person points of view. Every character except Kate speaks about how Kate's illness affects the entire family, and this technique allows the reader to seriously consider every angle of this very controversial subject. It was beautifully done.

However, the book also pulled a one-two punch in terms of the ending. The first whammy was that the real reason Anna instigated the lawsuit was because Kate had asked her to. Kate was ready to die, yet she knew her mother would never stop trying to force the doctors to take increasingly extraordinary measures to keep her alive, no matter how little quality of life remained, and no matter how it impacted Anna. I was floored when I read this, and moved by both Kate and Anna's bravery.

The second whammy was that Anna wins the case, the court grants her lawyer Campbell medical guardianship only Anna until she's a bit older, and then, on the way home from the trial (I cringe even to type that, because I know how ludicrous it sounds), they're in a car accident. Anna is declared brain dead, and Kate gets that kidney after all. Many readers were infuriated by this ending, which they saw as unrealistic and manipulative. I was shocked, and maybe a bit annoyed, but the ten-years-later epilogue, in which we hear Kate's voice for the first time, blew me away. Kate is an adult, miraculously in remission again but still deeply mourning Anna's death, and Anna turns out to be the sister whose death defines the family.

So for me, on the way in to see the movie, my questions were:

  • How well will this translate to the screen?
  • Will they change the ending?
  • Do I want them to change the ending?
I realized pretty quickly that I probably didn't want them to change the ending. Whether people liked it or not, it was what it was. So back to the first question: how well did this book translate to the screen? Unfortunately, in spite of terrific acting by just about everyone -- and Joan Cusack needs a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role as the judge, by the way -- the movie just doesn't quite gel. It isn't terrible, and is in fact quite moving, but the alternating voice-over narration seems contrived rather than clever; each character's name is even flashed up on the screen the first time that character "talks", which is reminiscent of the book's chapter headings but just plain silly in this medium. The spoken narration also drives home how unrealistically deep and poetic each person's thoughts are, something that is much easier to overlook in the printed form.

Another issue is that Kate herself narrates large portions of the movie, taking away the book's brilliant construction, which showed how Kate's illness defines the family even when Kate herself is temporarily taken out of the equation. And finally, the movie has a confusing welter of lengthy flashbacks, including several clunky ones that literally happen mid-scene while the character gazes off into space, "thinking back." I almost expected the screen to go all wavy, like the TV sitcom cliché.

Before I go further, though, there are some things I think the movie does right. It wisely eliminates two of the book's subplots that would have overcrowded the film. Kate and Anna's brother Jesse, while still troubled and neglected, is no longer a serial arsonist. Campbell's love interest in the book, an old flame assigned by the court as an advocate for Anna, is completely absent from the movie, although Campbell's epilectic condition and his service dog remain. And I have to say, I think the casting was pretty inspired -- and I had been unsure about Cameron Diaz.

But. But but but but. For me, there is more wrong than right with this film, some of which has to do with the ending and some of which doesn't. I'm not without sympathy for the filmmakers, because that was quite a decision they had to make. Even if half of Picoult's readers loved the book's double-whammy ending, the other half probably hated it -- and any viewers who hadn't read the book probably would have stomped right out of the theater in disgust. So it doesn't surprise me at all that the filmmakers felt they had to change it. In the movie, then, Kate just dies, Anna then receives the now-moot winning verdict, and the whole family picks up and moves on. To be fair, it is revealed that Kate wanted Anna to bring the lawsuit, which is probably why the mother sorta kinda learns to let go, but in my opinion the revelation is clumsily handled and doesn't receive enough attention.

However, while the filmmakers' choice was not unexpected, it does surprise me that Picoult, according to her website, didn't have any control over it. I know perfectly well that 99 out of 100 authors have no hope of retaining any control over content when they sell the film rights to their work. But although I never would want to become a diva author, I know that if I had written that book, which was a bestseller, I sure as heck would have tried to retain some level of approval, because I would have known full well that any filmmakers would want to monkey with the ending. And since Picoult is a bestseller, she's got a lot better chance of calling the shots than do most writers. I'm dying to know if Picoult and her agent even tried, but of course that's their business, not mine.

In any case, what bothers me far more than the changed ending is the changed focus. This is not a movie about the rights of a child whom the parents have conceived for a particular purpose -- a purpose that might be physically and mentally detrimental to that child. Instead, it is a movie about a teenage girl dying from cancer, period. As such, it breaks no new ground. In fact, the review in People magazine states that "the movie wanders off track early, devoting too much time to an unlikely story line about the youngest child (Breslin) suing her parents for 'medical emancipation.'"

However unlikely that story line may be, it was the book's raison d'ĂȘtre. Which means that what I saw onscreen was not necessarily a bad movie, but it wasn't My Sister's Keeper.

1 comment:

Dina Roberts said...

The book sounds good. I read your spoilers. I'm not sure how I feel about the ending. In one way, it seems like a cheap cop-out. If you don't know what to do with your characters, put them in a car accident.

On the other hand though, it goes into the whole idea of the girl (forgot her name) being brought into existence to save her sister. Is this the whole reason for being there? Once she refuses to help her sister, the universe kills her off.

Although since her sister didn't want to be saved.....

But maybe Kate was MEANT to survive and the other sister was meant to be there just to save her.

It could be all about fate. Do some of us exist just to sacrifice ourselves for someone else?

It's such a complicated topic.