Adaptations are tricky – how do you simplify a book into a two hour film but still stay true to the characters, the plot, and – most importantly – the themes? I argue that serviceable adaptations do just that. But great adaptations find something extra, something present but not explicit in the original work, and bring it to the forefront, subtly enriching everything. So while Brooklyn makes a few missteps with its characters and plot, the universality screenwriter Nick Hornby and director John Crowley find at its core results in something deeper.
Both book and film document a few years in the life of Eilis, a young Irish immigrant in 1950s Brooklyn. In the book, Eilis’ defining character traits are her indecisiveness and her passivity (or, as my wife put it, the fact that nothing happens to her). I wasn’t as put off by her character – and actually identified with her a little bit – and felt that author Colm Toibin had created a well-rounded character, albeit slightly aggravating to some readers. It’s clearly easier to capture her personality on the page than on the screen, but Hornby, Crowley, and especially Saoirse Ronan succeed beautifully. A simple scene at the beginning, where Eilis tries to hide her disappointment at a local dance before going home, felt so true, and sum up everything about her I loved from the book. (Don’t take my word for it; Toibin himself praised the adaptation, saying it captured in 15 seconds what it took him 15 pages to convey).
That’s not to say the adaptation is perfect. While I’m glad that Eilis is given more agency in the film than in the book, I wish they could have split the difference between the two; as it is, she undergoes a sudden transformation in the last 15 minutes of the film that, although more satisfying, feels somewhat out of character. Additionally, much of the action is played more broadly on screen than it was in the book – dinners with the tyrannical boarding house matron and with Eilis’ Italian boyfriend’s family are relatively cliche, albeit still effective. Other choices seem driven more by the need to fit everything into the film’s running time. Multiple scenes felt truncated, as if they had been cut to feature ONLY the essential information for the plot. I’m all for snappy pacing, but some of these would have benefited from being given room to breathe.
In the end, however, Brooklyn the movie is less about Eilis’ experience than Brooklyn the book was. Instead, it somehow becomes a film about the experience of Irish immigrants in general. Some of this is due to structural changes, as the book lacks the scenes of Eilis’ family back in Ireland that the film shows. But it’s also focus. Eilis’ farewell doesn’t just linger on her and her family, but pans over a crowd of Irish faces both on the ship and on the pier. Likewise, a charity Christmas dinner for poor, elderly Irish has less to do with Eilis’ experience as their server and more with theirs. Both brought me to tears.
These tweaks translate Brooklyn into a subtle yet profound examination of what emigration means – not just for Eilis, but for all those who made the trip from Ireland, and all those left behind. More so than the book, the movie communicates exactly what she – and, by extension, all of them – have gained and lost in the process. Brooklyn may not be a perfect adaptation, but in these moments it may actually be better than its source material.