Movies // White Oleander

Based on White Oleander by Janet Fitch
Directed by Peter Kosminsky
Starring Alison Lohman, Michelle Pfeiffer, Renée Zellweger, Robin Wright Penn, Billy Connolly, Patrick Fugit

Where does a mother end and a daughter begin?

The film adaptation of White Oleander is how film adaptations should be. A tool to capture the feel of a book, not just the story. Creating a visual companion to the story the reader is already in love with. Peter Kosminsky did a beautiful job bringing the book to life.

While the film does differ from the book quite a bit, a fan of the book won’t find themselves yelling at the screen about what parts were left out or skimmed over. The most significant change is the number of years and number of placements Astrid goes through. The book takes place over six years, from the summer Astrid is 12 until she turns 18 and can leave the foster care system. Within these six years Astrid goes through six different placements; Starr, Marvel (& Olivia), Amelia, Claire, MAC, and ending with Rena. In the film they cut it down to three placements in three years; Starr, Claire, & Rena. They don’t count MAC as a placement though Astrid is placed there twice. Initially I was a bit annoyed by this. In the book, each placement teaches Astrid a new lesson. Each placement builds up to the final confrontation with her mother. Giving Astrid a new tool to use against her, to pry herself away from her and to eventually show her mother that she is a person and not just her daughter.

However, the way that Kosminsky sets up the story, picking and choosing the most significant lessons, it allows for the story to still be told but in a more visually pleasing and understandable manner. Astrid begins her journey by being placed with Starr. While Starr’s does seem to rush by at lightening speed (Astrid & Roy’s relationship is more hinted at than stated. If you didn’t read the book you’d be left wondering what the hell just happened. There are a few scenes of the two making eyes at each other, Astrid goes to the construction site, asks if everyone is gone, then Starr is running into Astrid’s room with a gun. It’s a bit sudden) you get the gist that Astrid is lost and is searching for something that her mother cannot give her, their tapestry is beginning to unravel. Astrid is placed in MAC with the explanation that there are just too many kids and Astrid needs special care due to the gun shot wound. MAC sets up Astrid & Paul’s relationship. There is a wonderful scene added in where Astrid and Paul sneak away from a group while they are out. It is here where the comic book store is introduced and the two have a brief discussion on art vs cartoons/comics (By the way, I don’t know if it’s just because he’s in my head, but the clerk at the comic book store reminded me a little too much of Noah Antwiler aka Spoony One. Again, I have no idea why, he doesn’t even look that much like him.) which cuts to the two sitting on a pier drawing people that are nearby. It shows their relationship growing and that Astrid is learning how to trust again. Then Astrid is placed at Claire’s. Again, Claire’s seems to go by a bit faster than expected, but I don’t think you would really notice this unless you had read the book. However, like with Starr, you get the gist: Astrid discovers what it means to be cared for then her mother takes this away. Astrid is sent back to MAC where she avoids everyone, even Paul. Paul leaves for New York and Astrid chooses to be placed with Rena. While, again, Rena’s is rushed over (Astrid’s relationship with Yvonne is non-existent and Sergei is never even mentioned) you get the gist: Astrid has been hardened and is now ready to face her mother head on. Then comes the final show down between Astrid and Ingrid. The entire conversation is a paraphrased version of what is in the book, and it is perfect, Lohman and Pfeiffer did a phenomenal job. You can feel the tension between the two. The film comes to a close at the trial, Paul and Astrid are waiting for them to call her in to testify. Court lets out and Astrid is told that her mother asked her lawyer to leave Astrid alone. The film ends with Astrid’s suitcases and a voice over about how her mother was denied the appeal but still received fame for her artwork and Astrid’s connection to her mother now that Ingrid has let her go.

Throughout the film, the only change that really bothered me was the decision to make Claire a blond. While they did try to circumvent this by making her more of a dirty blond with subtle brown streaks, it still doesn’t make much sense to me. Not so much that I will bitch and complain through out the entire film, just enough to tell you guys about it ;). In my mind, Claire’s being a brunette set up the foil to Ingrid perfectly. Claire was soft, sweet, & timid. Her brown hair makes her average. Beautiful, but average. Whereas, Ingrid is hard, critical & sharp-tongued. She is described as the most beautiful woman most people have ever seen. Ingrid’s appearance alone is striking & unique, where as Claire takes something that everyone has and makes it beautiful.

However, there were two subtle changes that I actually really liked. One was the decision to make Ingrid an artist rather than a writer. The reason for this was that it would be more visually interesting to see Ingrid painting or creating an art piece rather than writing. While at first I wasn’t happy with this decision, really, Ingrid is shown actually working so little that it doesn’t make much of a difference. Plus it brought about one of my favorite lines; as Ingrid is brushing Astrid’s hair and showing Astrid her latest work, Astrid says that she likes the piece, Ingrid asks her why she likes it and Astrid can’t say, to which Ingrid says to her, “You can’t be an artist if you don’t see. Why do you like it?” For some reason this line has resonated with me and every time I find myself in front of a piece of art I stop and ask myself why I like it.

The other was the fact that Paul gets a chance. In the book Astrid stays with him more because he is broken like she is. It almost sounds like she doesn’t really love him as much as just wants someone around to keep her humble or to keep her from forgetting what she’s been through. Whereas in the film, she loves Paul. When she goes back to the comic book store and finds that he has been writing her all along, you can see the glow on her face. She is relieved that he remembered her. Again, when he comes back to help her through the trial she is so happy to see him. She watches excitedly as the bus pulls up and the shot holds on the door of the bus as you wait to see him walk out. You can feel her anticipation to see him again. It’s a great scene and I wish that love was presented more in the book.

In the end, I obviously think the book was better, but not by much. The film, though missing a lot, took what it needed in order to tell the story and translate the feeling that you get while reading the book. This was my first introduction to Alison Lohman and Patrick Fugit, who have both burrowed a soft spot in my heart. I adore Lohman’s voice and you get to hear it at it’s best in White Oleander with a monologue in both the beginning and the end. Michelle Pfeiffer is spectacular as Ingrid, I can’t imagine anyone else playing her. Though I have a feeling that some might not like Renée Zellweger’s role, she does it magnificently, flawlessly pulling off the softness and anxiety of Claire. The score is hauntingly beautiful, reminding me of a music box. Most of all, I appreciate Kosminsky’s choice to film from Astrid’s perspective. Most of the shots are from over Astrid’s shoulder or following behind her as she moves down the hall. It feels organic and like you’re there witnessing her story. Which is the feeling that the book creates; it is Astrid’s story from her point of view. To be told any other way would be a betrayal to the book.

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