Writer-director Campbell Scott’s forthcoming adaptation of Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer – and today’s news that Christina Hendricks has signed on to play the novel’s lost soul protagonist – is a potentially ground-breaking undertaking fraught with peril and excitement.
Didion’s books have always been resistant to big screen translation. This has mostly to do with the fact that any screenwriter charged with adapting her work must stare down the prospect of reducing the modern master of understatement’s deathless prose into a visual language animated by unambiguous characterizations and a series of events that fit within three tidy acts.
It’s no accident that it’s been over forty years since Play it as it Lays, her one book to reach the big screen, was adapted into an Altman-esque meditation on Hollywood’s soul-incinerating bonfire of vanities and the collateral damage inflicted on a well-meaning wannabe played by Tuesday Weld.
But the rules of the game have changed a lot since 1972, when filmmakers were encouraged to experiment with abstract ideas and characters resistant to fulfilling familiar types. So the big challenge for Scott will involve capturing the novel’s nuanced portrait of Charlotte Douglas, a wealthy American who travels to a remote and violent corner of South America in search of her daughter, a political dissident who disappears after joining a revolutionary group that hijacks a plane. Charlotte is a classic Didion character, full of quixotic dreams and delusions that lead to her demise. Charlotte’s willful obliviousness is counterbalanced by the novel’s narrator, the astringently clear-eyed Grace Strasser-Mendana, an anthropologist, who observes Charlotte’s self-deception with the same detached remove that has always hindered her ability to empathize with and understand the native people she had come to study.
Though the constant threat of death, deception and delusion courses through the book's narrative; there are no grand epiphanies or revelations and the characters remain stubbornly resistant to change. So it’ll be interesting to see how Scott dramatizes material that is essentially about the moral degradation of contemporary American society and the various numbing mechanisms we've developed to cope with a growing sense of isolation and alienation.
Heady stuff, to be sure. Hendricks, who has proven herself adept at flightiness and hard-won wisdom as Joan on TV’s “Mad Men,” has all the makings for a convincing Charlotte. But much will depend on who lands in the role of Grace. Our first choice would be Judy Davis, who projects a brittle intelligence that recalls Didion herself.
Whatever happens, we commend Scott’s mettle for tackling such challenging material. And we can only hope that this opens the door to more Didion-based adaptations. Which of her works seems most camera-ready? We’re pulling for “Miami” or “The Year of Magical Thinking.”