Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings was one of my favorite books I read in 2014, and a random scroll through Tumblr tonight brought me a screenshot of theater actor Corey Cott’s (Jeremy Jordan’s replacement in Newsies, Vanessa Hudgens’ love interest in Gigi) Instagram post promoting his role in something called The Interestings. My mind immediately became churning as I thought of the book, counted the people in the promotional photo, and tried to fathom how this was made without my knowledge. A quick Google search brought me to the show’s Amazon page and a review alluding to major disappointment about the adaptation, giving me both intense interest in and trepidation about this show.
The Interestings is an extremely intricate and internal story, and the book weaves in and out of time within chapters. When I read it the first time, I never felt fully grounded in just one time period. As a result, it’s one of those books that just sweeps you up and keeps such a hold on you that you feel wrong finishing the story and leaving the world of these characters. You’ve seen them grow and become different selves, and it feels unsettling to leave them behind even though, in the case of The Interestings, you’re exposed to practically their entire lives.
The form of this book is so unique that I had to see how it was morphed for the screen. The fact that the first episode was available for free was a bonus, because I don’t think I would’ve bothered if I had to pay for even just the pilot. Within the first few minutes, with ghosts of the sentences I skimmed in that negative review floating in my head, I felt that something was just not right.
When they drop Jules off at camp, her mother (Jessica Hecht with an exaggerated Long Island accent!) and sister are too brash, Jules argues with them outright, their tension is loud and acknowledged. In Wolitzer’s book, the cracks formed by Jules’s father’s death are danced around, and her family comes across as struggling to survive as a unit, because Jules is quietly longing to be different. Looking back, the rushed and almost aggressive tone of this goodbye scene foreshadowed the problem I would have with this episode – there is a need to vocalize what the audience needs to know, while a written story allows for characters to (realistically) avoid these truths in conversation.
The strength of Wolitzer’s book lies in her forays into her characters’ minds. She is an omnipresent narrator, broadening your perception of these people by offering so much that dialogue cannot provide. When adapting this kind of story to the screen, this element is irrelevant. The most powerful bits of a story have to be spoken, so viewers will know exactly what they’re supposed to.
There were so many moments during the Amazon pilot when a character spoke and the delivery felt unnatural and the comment out of place. These bumps in the road make many people seem much different than they are in the book. Jules, who I often saw as a steadfast observer wanting to be as great as Ash but ultimately keeping this desire in check, is vocally desperate in the show. In both the 1985 and 1995 scenes, she frequently looks down upon everyone else’s ordinariness and proclaims how she and her friends are meant to be and do better. This distress feels like a far greater barrier between her and her husband Dennis here than it does in the book, and I didn’t believe the show’s portrayal of her love for him.
In turn, Dennis was not the gentle giant I picture (we’ve talked about my pickiness with adaptation actors; this actor was like a doofy John C. Reilly, while my version of Dennis is a subdued Ray Romano). His mental health was not specifically discussed in the pilot, so perhaps his vulnerability is explored more later on, but Dennis seemed far more bitter than depressed about his life.
Characters seeming off continued with the group’s young selves and the grown Jonah Bay. As opposed to the book where it’s alluded that anyone who goes to Spirit-in-the-Woods is special, the TV show singles out this friend group as the people to be for no explicable reason. As a result, the kids come across as even more obnoxious than the 1970s personas are supposed to be. Adult Jonah, in the very brief moments he appears, also acts more grounded and open than he is in the book, seeming perfectly comfortable with his relationship rather than constantly on alert.
The pilot episode follows the book in that it jumps around time, but meshes together some narratives that actually took place a few years apart. It focuses almost entirely on Jules’ perspective, which makes me wonder if future episodes will highlight one character each. Although it would be interesting to see how the show handles some of the other characters’ stories, I wasn’t impressed enough to continue with the series. Some stories just cannot translate justifiably into films, because their strengths lie in the secrets exchanged between narrator and reader rather than characters. While filmmakers have limited abilities of what to do with these exclusive secrets, they often just can’t convey the message in a way that rings true to the book’s tone.
What about you? Have you seen the TV adaptation of The Interestings?