The Best Leading Ladies Come From Books

Screenplays based on books feature complex women the likes of which would never appear in other scripts.

Cards on the table: I like John Green. Readers have been divided by his books and the way they wade through metaphor and philosophising. Green’s readership, once a substantial but unmistakably niche fandom, rapidly expanded into the mainstream upon the unexpected smash success of his fourth book, The Fault in our Stars. The author swore he wouldn’t sign a film deal. Then he was presented with a very good film deal, and he signed it, “making me look appropriately like a sell-out.”

Movies like TFioS, movies with female leads based on books, are increasing in number and are performing increasingly well as blockbusters. The Hunger Games film franchise is the 15th highest grossing franchise so far. The Twilight movies, love them or hate them, drew in a huge audience. Is there a reason for this?

The most obvious answer is that female-led movies aren’t as numerous as they ought to be. Ghostbusters can be pointed to as a notable exception, but as a general rule, when a movie about a woman manages to wriggle through the net and escape into theatres, female movie-goers – who make up the majority – will reward them.

Obviously, it’s not as if there are no roles for women. There are just a lot of bad roles for women. This is key to the origins of Reese Witherspoon’s Pacific Standard, a production company with a record of making Oscar-winning productions out of bestsellers. Many of these bestsellers are about women, most notably Gone Girl.

Witherspoon told The Wall Street Journal in April that these books featured complex women the likes of which would never appear in the scripts that landed on her desk. Those parts were defined as wives and girlfriends. For an actress interested in character work, they were all dead ends.

Many books contrast this trend in movies. Green’s work, for example, is adamantly against the reduction of women to girlfriends. He once remarked that if there was one oversimplified moral to his entire body of work, it was to imagine people complexly. This is most obviously shown in Paper Towns, which is largely given over to a male protagonist gradually realising that the girl he’s crushing on is a normal person with her own life. When the book was adapted to the screen, the different context made it feel like an elbow in the ribs to the film industry.

Hollywood has been widely criticised for its lack of roles for women. One of the most well-known controversies around this is Marvel Studios’ decision to not make a movie for Scarlett Johannsson’s character, Black Widow, despite huge fan demand and an unprecedented density of films for little-known characters. This controversy, while arguably trivial, reflects a regressive idea common in the film industry, especially in genre blockbusters: women don’t make money.

None of this is to say that the publishing industry is squeaky-clean. Books written by and about women receive few prestigious literary awards, and huge gender imbalances in shortlists are a common sight. But according to Lee & Low Books, the publishing industry is 78% female, and this is reflected in the sort of stories that make it to print. Sexism may be alive and well in publishing, but stacked against film, the difference is clear.

Some production companies have copped that franchise movies led by women can do well. But in some cases, it seems they’ve taken the wrong lesson from this. It’s heartening to see a novel as harsh and astonishing as Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen land a major movie deal, but it’s frustrating to see it clumsily labelled ‘the next Gone Girl’ essentially because it’s in the same category of ‘female-led book adaptation’. Attempts to keep the adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s Room in a neat box failed, and the movie found success at the Academy Awards on its own merits. Squashing all women’s stories into one marketing template betrays how fresh and new many of these stories are.

There’s no cryptic secret to representing all this richness of women. It just has to be done more often and in different ways. This will not come to pass unless the industry changes the way that it operates so that there are more women both in front of and behind the camera. Until that fairy-tale day, if you’re hankering for a good story about a woman, your best bet is a bookstore.

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