Book vs. Movie: We Don't Live Here Anymore

By Kim Hollis

September 7, 2004

Scaramouche, scaramouche, will you do the fandango?

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If movies like Freddy vs. Jason, Godzilla vs. Megalon, Alien vs. Predator, Godzilla vs. Mothra, Kramer vs. Kramer, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, Ecks vs. Sever, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla and King Kong vs. Godzilla have taught us nothing else, it's that everything is somehow better in battle format. We here at BOP recognize this fact, but at the same time realize that our breed of super-smart readers sometimes yearns for a touch of the intellectual at the same time. And since Hollywood has a certain obsession with turning literature of all types into big screen features, we're afforded the perfect opportunity to set up grudge matches galore.

And so, whenever the Tinsel Town hotshots decide that it's a great idea to turn the little-known Herman Melville classic Redburn into a theatrical event film, we'll be there. Whether the results are triumphant (see: The Lord of the Rings trilogy) or tragic (i.e. The Scarlett Letter), we'll take it upon ourselves to give you the verdict and spark the discussion.

We Don't Live Here Anymore

Directed by John Curran from a screenplay by Larry Gross, We Don't Live Here Anymore is based on two separate novellas by Andre Dubus, who also wrote the short stories that were the inspiration for In the Bedroom. Published at various times, the two have now been published in one single volume, along with a third story that relates to the same characters and inspired some of the direction that the film took in its denouement. The movie draws almost directly from the novella We Don't Live Here Anymore for the bulk of its plot, using the shorter story Adultery to glean some character development and background information that is crucial to the story.

The Book

Although these novellas aren't appearing precisely as they are published, this compilation flows quite naturally. The first story, We Don't Live Here Anymore, is a treatise on love, marriage and infidelity. The narrator of the tale, Jack Linden, is married with two children. He and his wife, Terry, were wed after she discovered she was pregnant. Since that time, the couple has been getting by as best they can. Jack is a professor at a small East Coast college, and Terry is a stay-at-home mom who deplores housework to the point that she avoids it overtly.

Jack and Terry and close friends with Hank and Edith Evans. Hank is also a professor at Jack's school, and Edith is a homemaker. They, too, were married after Edith became pregnant while both were attending graduate school. Along with being a professor, Hank is also a writer; in fact, he defines himself by his writing. Meanwhile, Edith keeps a spotless house and puts forward a happy image to friends and neighbors.

Jack and Edith are having an affair.

The symptoms of troubled marriage go much deeper than that, though. For Jack's part, he is frustrated and unhappy with Terry because, as she notes, he loves what she does rather than who she is. And since she is incapable of keeping her home spotless - she's too prone to distraction, too constantly chasing ghosts - he is angry and resentful. As far as Terry's feelings, she just desperately desires to be loved.

Hank and Edith's problems are considerably different. Hank is a man who does not believe in monogamy, but instead lives by the creed, "love the one you're with". As a result, he's capable of loving many separate people in totally unique ways. He adores Edith as his wife and the mother of his child. He has a deep, heartfelt kinship and platonic love for the men whom he befriends. He possesses the strong, overwhelming love that a father has for his daughter. And he loves women, moving from one affair to another in an effort to stay satisfied. Primarily, the ladies he pursues are significantly younger than he is. Edith eventually comprehends that he is having a fling, which ultimately leads to her pursuit of Jack. Left almost as outsiders in their own relationships, Hank and Terry finally cannot help but develop feelings for each other as well.

The two novellas that follow We Don't Live Here Anymore, Adultery and Finding a Girl in America, basically cover what happens in the two relationships in the aftermath of the affairs and deception. Where the primary focus is on Jack and Terry in the first story, the other tales center more around Hank and Edith and the way their relationship evolves.

The book's strongest success is its remarkable character development. These are people who could easily live next door with a life that looks perfect on the outside, but there is a darkness that exists that is only visible to those who really know them. Another impressive aspect of Dubus' writing is the fact that he is clearly well-read. He knows the classics particularly well, and as a result, the book is a reader's delight. Though the three stories were not originally published simultaneously, it feels like they should have been. The themes and ideas flow extremely well from one to another. Looking at the state of marriage in America today - especially in light of the fact that homosexual unions are such a crucial issue politically - the novellas do feel as topical today as they might have 30 years ago.

The Movie

Director Curran's film unfolds almost theatrically, by which I mean that the movie frequently feels like a stage play. This conceit allows the performances of the excellent actors who have the four lead roles in the film to really shine through. Primary amongst them is Mark Ruffalo as Jack, who is able to convincingly portray a man who has become jaded and disconnected after years of being married to a woman who simply does not fit into his mental ideal. The bulk of the scenery-chewing, though, comes from Laura Dern, whose work as Terry in this film has generally been critically acclaimed as the highlight. I found her rather distracting, and frankly wished the film would have spent more time with Edith, who is a much more interesting character in the first place. Naomi Watts does her typical good work with the character, but unfortunately is relegated to supporting actress instead of being allowed to shimmer in the forefront. Finally, Peter Krause (who already has my undying love thanks to his portrayal of Casey McCall on Sports Night) is simply terrific as Hank. This character, who really defines himself by his creative writing despite the fact that he's probably not very good at it, had to be the most difficult to portray. Krause embraces both the light and the darkness as he understands that Hank exists much more in the shades of grey than a typical movie character might.

Of course, that's really the case for all of the characters in the film. None of them are perfect, and frankly, none of them are what could be called true protagonists. They are simply human, and what that means is that they exist with all of the foibles and positive aspects that make people real.

In the end, the movie is somewhat difficult to watch due to this straightforward honesty. Curran isn't afraid to be bleak, but there are snippets of real-life that are so engaging that it's impossible not to be captivated for the bulk of the story. We Don't Live Here Anymore is not a perfect film by any means, but it is a very good one that I feel comfortable recommending.

The Verdict

While the three novellas easily stand on their own as outstanding literature and worthwhile reads, I do believe that the movie probably works better if the viewer is familiar with Dubus' work. Since only one of the stories is truly adapted for the screen (We Don't Live Here Anymore), the follow-ups Adultery and Finding a Woman in America were used primarily as material to determine where the characters would go after the movie's climax. Those second two stories add so much more to the characters and their development that the movie unfortunately feels a little empty and incomplete in comparison. Honestly, even if I hadn't read the books I think I might have felt that the movie had that same deficiency. It does end very abruptly, leaving the audience to wonder what happened and why.

So even though I believe both book and film stand well on their own merits, my recommendation is to read the new release with the three novellas about the couples in the movie before viewing it. Doing so enables the viewer to have a much more rewarding, complete experience with regards to character, story and even thematic elements. On the other hand, if you'd rather just read the book without seeing the stories played out onstage, the novellas are definitely very compelling reads.


     


 
 

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