We come to find out as viewers, whether we believe in Leda’s self-governing comportment at the beginning or not, that this task of motherhood is never-ending; each work demonstrates to us in different ways that motherhood is a task of continuous negotiation between the new experiences that come to define oneself and the abiding, dominating role of mother, and in such a way suggests that for a mother an independent comprehensive redefinition of identity is impossible. The way in which this idea is captured in the text and on-screen is to my mind the greatest accomplishment of both works.
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Maggie Gyllenhaal’s cinematic rendering of Ferrante’s novel is an adaptation about adaptation, adapting to motherhood, that is. When I think of Ferrante’s fiction, one of the first qualities that comes to mind is honesty. She leans into a female protagonist’s stream of consciousness with as much courage as she can muster. Her protagonists face the vulgarities they encounter not with disgust or presumptions of superiority but with a quiet admiration. It is this quality of Ferrante’s writing that penetrates Leda’s voice in The Lost Daughter and makes the violent underpinnings of motherhood something to be explored with a curious admiration rather than fear. I cannot overstate how exciting it was to see an authentic experience of motherhood portrayed on-screen. Olivia Colman’s performance reminded me in part of Vanessa Kirby’s in Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman. In both films, the actresses are required to convey how one copes with the “shattering,” as Ferrante would say, consequences of motherhood. The main distinguishing factor of these two performances is that Colman’s is far more about grieving her character’s loss of self rather than the loss of both a child and a relationship. In The Lost Daughter, Leda’s search for herself becomes a radical study of female desire that recalls Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman.1
So, what makes for a good adaptation? What is the process of analysis by which I can classify and rank The Lost Daughter as a film that falls into the genre of adaptation? Surely both Ferrante’s novel and Gyllenhaal’s film are separate works with varying aesthetic aims and should be valued as such. In her recent book Theorizing Adaptation, Kamilla Elliot references film scholar Andrew Dudley’s prevailing position on studying novel-to-film adaptations. In his analysis of adaptations, Dudley groups the overarching types of adaptation into three categories: borrowing, intersecting, and transforming.2 His adaptation of choice is the intersectional adaptation: a work that presents the otherness and distinctiveness of the original text, initiating a dialectical interplay between the aesthetic forms of the novel and the cinematic forms of the film.3 Following this line of thought, I am most interested in discussing The Lost Daughter as an intersectional adaptation, and focusing not on how Gyllenhaal’s film constructed the narrative better nor the aspects of Ferrante’s descriptions that the screen could not properly conceive of, but rather the extraordinary ways that Ferrante’s language and Gyllenhaal’s audiovisual interpretation of it can inform one another and their audiences about the powerful meanings vested deep within this authentic narrative. That is to say, how both aesthetic presentations of this narrative of maternal conflict complement one another.
I mentioned above that I love the honesty of Ferrante’s writing. This quality can be observed in a scene of the novel during which Leda watches Nina’s daughter Elena playing with her doll. She writes:
“She spoke to it, but not as to a mangy-looking doll, with a half-blond, half-bald head. Who knows what character she imagined for her. Nani, she said, Nanuccia, Nanicchia, Nennella. It was an affectionate game. She kissed her hard on the face, so hard that the plastic almost seemed to inflate as her mouth exhaled her gassy, vibrant love, all the loving she was capable of. She kissed her on her bare breast, on her back, on her stomach, everywhere, with her mouth open as if to eat her. . . .”4
The film captures the moments of Nina and Elena’s shared intimacy with the doll in a haptic manner that makes the mother-daughter bond we imagine in our mind’s eye while reading Ferrante’s novel now available to the full spectrum of our senses: touch and taste, sound and scent. In the narrative’s water pail scene, in which Elena pours seawater from a pail onto her mother and the doll, in an effort to cool them from the hot sun, the poetics of Ferrante’s language – “The sprinkling of her body and the doll’s went on for a long time. . . . She became shiny with water, the luminous needles sprayed by the watering can wet her hair, too, which stuck to her head and forehead”5 – incites our memory of such sensory experience in a cerebral way; the film’s images incite this sensory experience in a corporeal manner. In the film, the camera shamelessly zooms into the glistening droplets from the “luminous needles” of the seawater on Nina’s skin, her belly, her breasts, and aligning with Ferrante’s narrative intent, reveals a nuanced component of the sensual bond a mother has with her child. In the novel, Nina “mews with pleasure” here and does so too in the film. This nuanced framing of the mother-daughter bond is one in which the mother is just as hungry for the pleasure she derives from her child as she is for giving it to the child, the latter being the conventional trope we often see on-screen: a mother receiving pleasure merely from the act of giving it.
In both novel and film, the soft conflict that drives the narrative is Leda’s secretive seizing of the child’s doll. It is not a deliberate act of malice on Leda’s part initially, as she finds the doll in her beach bag, but something keeps her from returning it to Nina. Leda holds the doll hostage in her seaside villa, obsessing over it. It is during the scenes that Leda observes Nina and her daughter playing with this doll that Leda is the most unstable. The novel and the film practically beg us to answer the question, what is it that the doll symbolizes?
Ferrante’s novel arrays Leda’s perception of the doll as an object of play onto which mother and daughter, Nina and Elena, project an illusion of a shared identity, a perfect mother-daughter unity:
Now they gave her words in turn, now together, superimposing the adult’s fake-child voice and the child’s fake-adult voice. They imagined it was the same, single voice coming from the same throat of a thing in reality mute. . . . I felt a growing repulsion for that double voice. . . . I felt an unease as if faced with a thing done badly, as if part of me were insisting, absurdly, that they should make up their minds, give the doll a stable, constant voice, either that of the mother or that of the daughter, and stop pretending that they were the same.6
The narrative of The Lost Daughter uses an anachronistic time sequence that explores Leda’s assembling identity. Her consciousness flip-flops between the present, her vacation on the Italian coast, and her past memories, those of raising her daughters predominating. The memories of her younger self with her daughters that are triggered by the appearance of Nina and Elena on the beach constantly work to divide Leda from the new identity she tries to assume when we meet her at the beginning of the film, peacefully driving along to her vacation home: a middle-aged professional woman with grown daughters, one who has already completed the onerous labors of child-rearing. Nina remarks to Leda later on in the novel, “You have such self-confidence, you’re not afraid of anything.”7 We come to find out as viewers, whether we believe in Leda’s self-governing comportment at the beginning or not, that this task of motherhood is never-ending; each work demonstrates to us in different ways that motherhood is a task of continuous negotiation between the new experiences that come to define oneself and the abiding, dominating role of mother, and in such a way suggests that for a mother an independent comprehensive redefinition of identity is impossible. The way in which this idea is captured in the text and on-screen is to my mind the greatest accomplishment of both works.
The film delivers the growing sense of Leda’s split self by means of its powerful and effective use of montage and the dolly zoom. In the scene when Elena gets lost on the beach, Leda goes looking for her. The ensuing montage pieces together fragments of Leda of the present and Leda of the past fiercely looking for her own lost daughter, Bianca, and is edited in such a way as to suggest that these discrete searches, both seemingly happening at once, are equally important experiences that together constitute Leda’s current identity. Through this dialectic, the montage creates an alternative visual reality that offers a transcendent perspective of the erection of identity over time, specifically a mother’s identity.
There is a dizziness that pervades the film; tilt and flip shots function to disrupt the stability of Leda’s internal world. At one point Leda is in an island toy store where she is shopping for doll clothes when Nina and her charming yet brassy sister-in-law Rosaria enter the store. Naturally Leda is caught off guard because she is shopping to clothe the doll that she has stolen from them. Nina greets Leda and solicits parenting advice. At this same moment in the novel, Leda confesses to the pair that she abandoned her daughters for three years to focus solely on her academic career; in the film, no such confession is made; instead, when Nina asks for advice, Leda trips over her diction and a dolly zoom frames her stumbling into a glass case of china. Rosaria, looking on at Leda, quips: “She can get spacy.” The camera movement and coinciding dialogue establishes a disoriented mood that provides a bountiful filmic substitute for Leda’s emotive description of deserting her daughters in the novel.
Similarly, several scenes after this event in the toy shop, Nina and Leda encounter one another again. This time each is alone; it is the first instance in both novel and film that we observe the two together without bystanders. The tension between the two women culminates with Nina’s anguished query to Leda: “So it passes? . . . The turmoil.” Ferrante writes that Nina here “made a gesture to indicate a vertigo but also a feeling of nausea.”8 This particular description of Nina’s gesture strikes me as one that can articulate with distinction one aesthetic operation that the novel is performing differently from the film. In the filmic scene that matches this meeting between the two women, Nina makes some flippant gesture that corresponds with the one described in the book. Nina’s gesture in the film is important; it communicates a significant emotion, a confusion; and yet it cannot perfectly visually execute the duality of the emotion. Alternately, Ferrante’s description itemizes the double nature of the mixed emotion that triggers Nina’s signaling. In the novel, the emotional ranges of the characters are taxonomized by means of deliberate description; in the film, the emotional lives of the characters are left far more open to interpretation. Each approach to the aesthetic delivery of Nina’s gesture, one narrow and the other discursive, adds dimension to the precise feeling that impels Nina’s movement.
Young, uptight Leda has a knack for peeling oranges in one fell swoop, the resulting peel resembling a snake. Leda’s daughter, Bianca, in an effort to emulate her mother, attempts to peel an orange in the same way as Leda, and in doing so, pricks her finger, which begins to bleed. Ferrante writes: “For long minutes I refused to kiss her wound, the kiss that makes the pain go away.”9 Gyllenhaal’s film treats this event with a long take that magnifies the cruel potency of Leda’s refusal to relieve Bianca’s pain, showing Bianca requesting her mother’s kiss several times as Leda rustles about the kitchen looking for first aid. The long take here supplements the scene of the novel by displaying visually a phenomenon filmmaker Michael Haneke, known for his strenuous and routine use of the continuous take, has referred to as “the despair after the tears.” In this instance, the film manages to communicate the wide-reaching consequences on a mother-daughter relationship that result from an exhausted mother’s single arbitrary choice. While the novel’s language informs the reader of Leda’s perception of her selfish mode of discipline, the film’s visual framing of the scene releases the audience from Leda’s frame of reference, enabling them to examine this complicated moment of maternal discipline from a more universal perspective.
Considering Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter as an intersectional adaptation is a useful exercise in understanding the multiplicity of meanings that comprise this narrative of maternal experience. Aesthetic forms are tools that storytellers use to organize units of meaning, meanings they pull down and construct from the greater, transcendent narrative truth that no singular aesthetic structure can convey. The success of a director and filmmaking team in adapting a work of fiction for the screen rests heavily on their ability to effectively translate narrative units from the linguistic to the cinematic domain. Gyllenhaal’s techniques of such translation in The Lost Daughter are stimulating and provocative; the film is a unique cinematic interpretation of what it means to be a mother.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the Netlix film.
- Akerman, Chantal, director. Jeanne Dielman: 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. [↩]
- Elliot, Kamilla. Theorizing Adaptation. Oxford University Press, 2020: 41. [↩]
- Andrew, Dudley. “Adaptation.” Concepts in Film Theory, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1984. [↩]
- Ferrante, Elena. The Lost Daughter. Europa Ed., 2016: 35. [↩]
- Ferrante, 18. [↩]
- Ferrante, 18. [↩]
- Ferrante, 110. [↩]
- Ferrante, 113. [↩]
- Ferrante, 59. [↩]