Joyce Maynard's labor in Labor Day
by Bruce Rodgers
Joyce Maynard is a romantic. As a writer and novelist, she reveals, and even celebrates romance by draping the mystery of its evolvement in the ordinary and in surprise. I know this only by reading one novel of hers, Labor Day, published in 2009.
Maynard came to Kansas City at the end of January not to promote this novel but rather the film of the same name, directed by Jason Reitman, who also wrote the screenplay. His previous films such as Up in the Air (2009), staring George Clooney and Vera Farmiga, and Juno (2007), staring Ellen Page and Michael Cera, brought acclaim to Reitman.
Maynard was thrilled when Reitman called to express his wish to put her novel to film. “He said it made him cry,” said Maynard.
Maynard conducted a Q&A with the audience at the initial screening of the film and later an interview with Dan Lybarger for The Kansas City Star and then sat down with five other reviewers (including myself) for a roundtable interview a few days after the screening. She said it was her first time in Kansas City; truthfully or not, she said she liked the city.
Joyce Maynard (photo by Dan Lybarger)
From my cynical view, what else would she say. She was here to promote the film, a film that had flaws her novel did not and magnified the flaws it did. Still, the story on the page reigns superior to Reitman’s presentation on the screen. Ever polite, Maynard had only praise for Reitman’s adaptation.
I had never heard of Maynard prior to receiving an email inviting me to the screening and roundtable interview. It was a humbling admission that she was unknown to me. Maynard is a major American writer.
In my ignorance, I may have passed on the screening and roundtable interview invitations except for one stipulation in the email. Reviewers were not to ask any questions concerning Maynard’s relationship with famed writer and recluse J.D. Salinger.
My fascination with Salinger ended with my teenage reading of his seminal novel Catcher in the Rye, published in 1951 and likely read by almost every baby-boomer male in America, a book that continues to sell and define a curious, self-conscious alienated young male bewildered and frightened of being identified as an adult. The impact of Catcher on me receded like the slow onset of male pattern baldness but its influence remained enough — maybe much like the memory of a fuller head of hair — that I gave a copy of the book to my son when he was in high school. Whether he read it or not, I don’t know. By not asking could be that I knew whatever angst he had wasn’t of the post-World War II type.
Maynard’s writing career was getting established prior to her relationship with Salinger. She was 19 and already being noticed for her writing talent. He was 53 and holed up in a house in the New Hampshire town of Cornish. And even after he ended their nine-month affair, Maynard, though devastated by Salinger’s rejection, went on to establish herself further with her first novel Looking Back and regular contributions to The New York Times, Mademoiselle, Harrowsmith mostly writing about domestic affairs, marriage and parenthood. Topics and media outlets I did not gravitate to at the time as a reader, which could explain my not knowing of Maynard.
In 1999, Maynard published a memoir At Home in the World about her relationship with Salinger. The same year she put letters from Salinger up for auction for financial reasons, of which she is roundly criticized. One has to wonder if a male writer had revealed a torrid affair with a female literary great would the same criticism — if any — been leveled. I think not.
Here’s what Jules Siegel from the Huffington Post wrote in January 2010 of Maynard’s work in At Home in the World:
“This is a book that reads as if spoken. The writing is clear, eloquent and unpretentious, like Shaker furniture rendered in words. She avoids poetic effects. In this sense, Salinger's influence is very obvious, but she actually surpasses him in depth of feeling, especially at the end, when she strips off the last of her psychological bandages and walks around in raw grief, anger and overwhelmingly touching self-acceptance. She writes, ‘If I tell what I do, nobody else can expose me.’”
Maynard’s want — even demand — to define herself led to more criticism concerning her failed marriages and the giving up of two adopted girls. Emblematic of artists, both great or not, Maynard continues to reveal and “expose” herself in her work, no less in Labor Day, the novel.
Granted, it’s difficult to transpose the essence of a 250-page novel into a 111-minute film. Reitman was aware of that difficultly, to the extend of keeping the story’s point of view with a 13-year-old pre-teen and even lifting some of the film’s dialogue straight from the book. Reitman doesn’t deviate from the story, using most of the elements from the book and only adding small flourishes to the story line.
Reitman also uses the capable talents of Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin as the lovers Adele and Frank while Adele’s son Henry, played by Gattlin Griffith, narrates the story.
Henry lives with his mother Adele, a woman bound in depression, barely able to deal with the world and the mundane challenges of daily living. Henry is the adult of the household, even offering up services as “Husband for the day,” an experience, Maynard said while in Kansas City, taken from an interaction with her son.
Two miscarriages, a stillbirth and a decision to have an abortion (an element left out of the film) bring on Adele’s sickness, one that her husband Gerald, played by Clark Gregg, eventually can’t handle.
The novel offers a poignant explanation of Adele by Gerald to Henry, parts of which were in the film.
Everybody talks about all this crazy, wild passion, he said. That’s how it goes, in the songs. Your mother was like that. She was in love with love. She couldn’t do anything partway. She felt everything so deeply, it was like the world was too much for her. Any time she’d hear a story about some kid who had cancer, or an old man whose wife died, or his dog even, it was like it happened to her. It was like she was missing the outer layer of skin that allows people to get through the day without bleeding all the time. The world got to too much for her.
That explanation comes late in the book and feels incomplete in the film. Winslet’s perpetual sad face explains her condition but not the reason why. It also makes the appearance of Frank, an escape convict, and Adele’s relatively quick acceptance of him and Henry’s implausible introduction of a bleeding and injured Frank to his mother in a public place without any protective instincts on his part a big leap of faith in storytelling.
Brolin’s portrayal mirrors the Frank of the novel, which adds to unreality of the situation. Brolin underplays convict Frank to the extent he comes across almost as patient seminary student, deep in redemption and ready to spread the gospel of love and forgiveness. The book does a better job of defining Frank through the eyes of Henry but in both the film and novel none of the assumed hardness and fearful anxiety of being caught comes through in Frank, an expectation ordinarily attached to someone on the run from authorities.
Reitman tries to better define Adele and Frank through flashbacks dealing with Adele’s lost pregnancies and Frank’s accidental killing of his wife and son. The book uses the same elements.
Adele and Frank’s developing love affair over a Labor Day weekend rings believable, and Winslet and Brolin’s interaction convey some of sensuality found in the novel. Close up scenes of Frank spoon feeding Adele after tying her up so she could rightfully claim and not lie that she was being held by Frank if the police came seethe with sexy tenderness. Missing from the film was the sex in Adele’s bedroom and Henry’s near comical confusion about what the various sounds meant he was hearing through the wall coming from Frank and his mother.
Also Henry nearly minute-by-minute preoccupation with his changing body and want to understand sex is underplayed in the film unlike the novel. Henry’s voice through Maynard’s writing rings authentic and dominates in the novel. In the film, Reitman mistakenly focuses on Frank and Adele, leaving Henry’s narration and participation in scenes with Frank and Adele almost clumsy at times. It’s only when Reitman has Griffith take Henry away from Frank and Adele, like being with Eleanor, played by Brighid Fleming, a girl and outsider like himself, does Henry lend more realism to the story.
When asked about the downplaying of sex in the film, Maynard said, “It doesn’t have to be spelled out. It’s not about the physical stuff.” Later she adds, “It would have been more explicit if it was from the mother’s point of view.”
Though Maynard would not admit it, Reitman did a poor job in transporting the romance of the novel to the screen. He did not mean to. For many men, romance is a conflict, a power struggle, a victory. It’s hard to shake that element of masculinity — only intense, spellbound true love does that in a man. Women, and Maynard, see romance as dealing with struggles coming from the outside and the acceptance of great love as a resolution of spirit that ends that struggle.
A reader can suspend disbelief that a depressed woman with a pre-teen son who thinks of himself as the man of the house would readily take in a runaway convict then have his mother fall in love with him in a matter of days because of the strength of Maynard’s writing. It’s a story grounded in a truthful self, in the writer recognizing a yearning within oneself, in Maynard exposing what she knows about herself despite her saying, “I like to write about what I don’t know but would like to know.”
Maynard knows love, knows longing, knows lost, knows depression and the otherworldliness of a soul in search of comfort. She said she wrote Labor Day in ten days.
Adele was Maynard at one time. Frank was someone she knew. The happy ending in both the novel and the film is something she craved, and here’s hoping it’s been found for her.
Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.