Thursday, September 12, 2019
Rulebook Casefile: A Small Thematic Detail in “Lady Bird”
The book, of course, is about a road trip from hell: The Joads are victims of the dust bowl in Oklahoma, but handbills lure them to California, promising a life of ease (“You can just reach out and pick fruit off the trees.”) They arrive to find that California is not nurturing after all, but rather brutally inhospitable. The daughter’s newborn baby dies, but she finds a man starving to death and offers him the only succor he’ll find in California: the grown man suckles her breast milk.
Just enough of the audiobook plays in the movie that, if you’ve read the book, you’ll be reminded of that ending, but if you haven’t you wouldn’t know what was going on. Any meaning the audience gets from that detail is dependent on the knowledge of the book we bring with us. But if you do know the book, the thematic meaning is rich.
Lady Bird is with her own un-nurturing mother, roaming California backroads looking for a place that will take them in, but she lacks high enough grades to impress them (She ain’t got the do-re-mi) and she concludes over the course of her road trip that California is not a state where she’ll feel nurtured. She wants to live through something. She is rejecting the breast violently when she jumps out of the car.
The main role the audiobook plays in the film is just to indicate that they’ve been at peace for 21 hours of driving, enjoying something smart together, but tensions are just waiting to explode as soon as the pacifying agent is turned off. But Gerwig had a choice to make: Which book? Writing involves dozens of such choices (and directing involves hundreds of such choices), and each is a chance to pack the story with more meaning, even if it will only be meaningful for a subset of your audience. Make meaningful choices every time you get the opportunity.