10 January 2019

Wildlife by Richard Ford


As soon as I heard that Paul Dano was making his directorial debut with an adapted screenplay co-written by long-time girlfriend Zoe Kazan I placed an Indigo order. Dano and Kazan are my favourite celebrity couple and I knew that whatever book they were interested in I would be interested in too. So I ordered Richard Ford's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Wildlife and read it in ~three days.

I was devastated when the Toronto International Film Festival schedule was released and this movie wasn't playing until Monday. We always go to the film festival the first weekend and I fly home late Sunday night, so knowing I wouldn't get to see it was very disappointing. Either way, I still got to read the book and it was an enjoyable, short read (177 pages). I just recently saw the movie but unfortunately it wasn't in the theatre.

Ford's 1990 novel is set in Montana and is from the perspective of a young boy who watches his parents' marriage fall apart. It starts with his father losing his job and then leaving to go fight the forest fires outside of town. The book takes place over less than a week in their lives, but the damage is pretty swift.

The most interesting character in the book is the mother (Jeanette Brinson) who is played by Carey Mulligan. She is almost erratic in her behaviour, and at times I feel bad for what her son has to deal with. She is very blunt with him and never tries to shelter him from what's going on between her and his dad (played by Jake Gyllenhaal).

Carey Mulligan as Jeanette Brinson and Jake Gyllenhaal as Jerry Brinson in the film adaptation by the same name
There's a scene in the book where her son shyly brings up his father and she immediately snaps back asking if he thinks his father will ever come back from fighting the fires. She goes on to say that they "haven't been intimate" in a long time and that he probably "has a woman out there."

But what Ford tries to point out is how impressionable you are at this age and how knowing the intricacies of your parents' marriage can affect you in so many ways. My favourite passage was from their son Joe, who talks about having such an open window into this time in their lives:

But to shield yourself - as I didn't do - seems to be an even greater error, since what's lost is the truth of your parents' life and what you should think about it, and beyond that, how you should estimate the world you are about to live in."

I love how Ford simply shows how much of our own lives are navigated through the knowledge we took from our parents' relationship with each other. It's interesting to think about the type of relationships you grew up watching, whether they be broken or not, and how they will impact your choices as you grow older.

my fave celebrity couple: Paul Dano (director) and Zoe Kazan (who co-wrote the script)
I've also always been weirdly obsessed with forest fires because Joan Didion writes about them so often (being from California and all). There is a lot of forest fire scenery in this book, including the beautiful cover photo of the edition I have. Montana is such a strange state to me and I have absolutely no experience travelling there. Dano's film really captures those massive plains and the raging fires in the background - the film overall looked incredibly beautiful.

That there was something good about them, that they replenished where they burned, and that for humans, my mother said, it was sometimes a good thing to be near a thing so uncontrollable and out of all scale that you felt reduced and knew your position in the world."

This book is pretty depressing to read but I still really enjoyed it. My favourite subject material is always "dysfunctional marriage," and I was happy to read that Paul Dano said his Wildlife adaptation would be the first of many films he hopes to do concerning family dysfunction. I think the book was so depressing to me because it makes me so sad to see children trying to process things that are over their heads. Jeanette is so blunt and straightforward with her son that you often wish she would just keep it to herself... I know I would never be capable of it, but still.

a scene from the film Wildlife
There's a scene where Jeanette takes Joe out for supper and she tells him:

And what there is to learn from almost any human experience is that your own interests usually do not come first where other people are concerned - even the people who love you - and that is all right. It can be lived with."

This is certainly true and I believe it completely, but would I think about telling my preteen son? I don't know if I'll ever find out.

I am glad I read this book because I like to alternate between fiction and non-fiction. I feel like it is so easy to get caught up in memoirs nowadays, but fiction is so important and I love keeping up on it. I'm also always so excited by any book that won the Pulitzer for fiction because then I'm positive it will be worth reading.

As for the film, I thought Dano and Kazan wrote a beautiful script together and I loved reading/listening to interviews where they discussed that writing process. The book and film diverge near the end but both endings are respectful to Ford's work. I will always wish I got to see this at TIFF.

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