Thursday, July 16, 2009

My Sister's Keeper

I read the book version of My Sister’s Keeper about a year and a half ago, and found my newest Favorite Writer. I’ve since read three more novels by Jodi Picoult (pronounced pee-ko), and loved them all to varying degrees, but none so much as My Sister’s Keeper. What I loved best about that book was not that each character was a fully realized person (which was great), but that the story had a completeness to it, such that you saw the entire picture only when you had read the last page.

Anna Fitzgerald is thirteen years old, and to the surprise of her family, she is seeking medical emancipation from her parents, the reason being that she was genetically engineered before birth to be a perfect bone marrow match from her sister Kate, who has leukemia. She has undergone countless medical procedures, all without being asked, in service to her sister. The ramifications of such a decision will be unpredictable, for Anna’s family and for Anna herself.

Book-to-movie adaptations are a tried and true convention of film, but some books are just begging to have movies made out of them. My Sister’s Keeper was kinda like that. After a small battle over rights and money, we have a Hollywood version of this movie, complete with an Oscar darling playing the lead role. But don’t break out the champagne just yet. The movie is pretty good, but takes some rather alarming departures from the book.

To start with, the movie had beautiful lighting and sets, and the directing made it flow rather nicely. Props go to Nick Cassavettes for having a pretty steady hand when it came to directing. The acting, however, left a little to be desired. Nobody in it was particularly bad, but I got the sense from most of the actors that this wasn’t a movie they were very invested in. Abigail Breslin is an exception; she portrayed Anna’s combination of spunk and timidity very well, and I could tell she was putting out her best effort. Cameron Diaz was also very well-cast, and was as good as she can be (which, granted, isn’t saying much). Alec Baldwin, however, completely phoned in his role and checked out of the movie. This is a real shame, because his character (Campbell Alexander, the lawyer representing Anna) was one of my favorite parts of the book, especially his numerous “he’s a service dog” jokes. He’s not given his due screen time in the movie, and is tragically underused. Though with Baldwin’s I’ll-be-in-my-trailer attitude about this role, it’s not all that surprising that he got cast aside.

Sofia Vassilieva puts in a very rote and cliché performance as Kate, cancer girl extraordinaire. Her reactions to everything are exactly what a 15-year-old girl’s would be, but that’s a credit to both the screenwriters and Picoult. She plays them just right, but in a way that doesn’t surprise the viewer at all. Evan Ellingson is given a somewhat large part and doesn’t really know what to do with it. The only other thing I’ve seen him in was a few episodes of 24 where he played Jack Bauer’s nephew, and was pretty bad. Joan Cusack plays a judge with a daughter who passed away, which scores points for plot resonation, yet Cusack turns in a mediocre performance.


The thing that made this movie not nearly as great as it could have been was the change in ending. In the book, Kate survives because Anna dies in a car accident and posthumously donates both her kidneys, saving Kate’s life. In the movie, Kate dies in a completely ordinary manner, one you expect from the very beginning of the film, and Anna and the rest of her family move on to lead relatively normal lives. This switch in the movie transports the very meaning of the story to a totally different place than where it is in the book.

Now, given the moviemakers have the author’s approval (or the changes are thoughtful and make sense if the author is dead or otherwise unavailable), departures from original source material are acceptable. After all, Lord of the Rings strayed very far in the details from Tolkien’s original story, but by-and-large they were good and intelligent choices. So the differences from book to movie in My Sister’s Keeper don’t upset me all that much. It’s just that most of the choices the moviemakers made took away what made the story so wildly original, and thus popular. The story went from new, edgy and intriguing to kind of ordinary and unremarkable. Kate dying of cancer and Anna living a normal life afterwards are just so… well, ordinary. I have a feeling Picoult was involved in the changes that were made, though her approval is uncertain to me. Some of the changes have a novelist’s touch, but the switch to a more ordinary ending seems like a very un-Picoult move to make.

All in all, the movie wasn’t bad. I know that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, but it was an emotionally wrenching and tear-inducing way to spend two hours, if you’re into that kind of thing. What’s great about this movie is that, if you’re a guy, you can cry at this movie and not feel like a panty-waist. It’s complicated and real enough that it feels like a tragedy that actually happened, rather than a contrived Hollywood tissue-fest.

In short, if you’re a breathing human being, you need to read this book. If there’s nothing better at the video store, you should see this movie.

Iconic lines (or exchanges):

Judge (the dog): BARK BARK BARK!!!

Judge De Salvo: Mr. Alexander, control your dog or he will be removed from the courtroom!

Campbell: Quiet, Judge!

Judge De Salvo: Excuse me?!?

Campbell: Not you, the dog.

Anna: Can I pet him?

Campbell: Judge is a service dog.

Anna: What’s he for?

Campbell: I have an iron lung. Judge keeps me away from metal detectors.

22 Rating: 8

Particle Man


Mike said...

That was one of the kinder reviews of this I've read. Most of them called this emotional pornography.

PM, doesn't the basic premise of the story bother you? The idea of parents having a child specifically to act as a donor to another, sick child is pretty monstrous to me. I can't get past that.

Particle Man said...

i agree, YRF. it IS monstrous. it IS wrong. that's part of the point. that's part of why the novel was written in the first place. it holds that idea (and the fact that it actually happens) up and says "this is wrong," and then carries it to one conclusion, and in the process tells a great story. you should really read it.

Emily said...

I found this book to be wonderfully written. It had fully developed characters and went through the whole idea of having a child for that purpose. I think it showed both sides and then let you think for yourself, not having the author force her view on you. This book is epic.