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Is literature better at coming up with complex women protagonists than Hollywood?

19 September 2016

From The Atlantic:

Last year, I was working as a publicity associate at Simon & Schuster when Jessica Knoll’s debut thriller Luckiest Girl Alive was optioned for film. The novel, which would go on to sell over 450,000 copies, was still months from publication, but the option was a solid indicator that it would be the commercial success everyone at the publishing house was hoping for. While movie deals always bring some financial security to authors and perpetually-in-the-red book publishers, this one had the added benefit of being with Reese Witherspoon’s Pacific Standard, a production company with a record of turning would-be bestsellers into high-grossing, Oscar-nominated films—as it did with Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wildand Gillian Flynn’s thriller Gone Girl. A Pacific Standard deal is the kind of thing that could extend the buying life and cultural relevance of a new book tenfold.

It’s no coincidence that most of Pacific Standard’s current projects are book adaptations. As Witherspoon told the Wall Street Journal in April, she founded the company in part so that she could bring her favorite novels and memoirs to life. These books, she said, featured complex women in ways the scripts that landed on her desk did not. Witherspoon’s comments, and her decision to turn to books as material for the majority of the films she produces, illuminate an interesting parallel between two industries for which “strong female lead” has become a heated topic of discussion. In the world of commercial publishing, books written by and about women receive few prestigious literary awards, and reviewers are mostly men. Meanwhile, the film industry has been widely criticized for its lack of substantial roles for women, both onscreen and behind the camera, as well as a huge gender wage gap.

But the publishing industry is 78 percent female and, accolades or no, recent books from commercial publishers have offered up a bevy of leading women who are complex, unconventional, wholly human, and even triumphantly “unlikeable,” as Koa Beck wrote for The Atlantic last year. Many of them are  getting a second life in film, and not just at the hands of Witherspoon. Rachel from Paula Hawkins’ thriller Girl On The Train, Ifemelu from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, and the two sisters from Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale will all soon grace the silver screen.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic and thanks to Will for the tip.

Big Publishing, Movies/TV

44 Comments to “Is literature better at coming up with complex women protagonists than Hollywood?”

  1. The gender wage gap? Are they still peddling that one.

    • I don’t think it’s peddling. It’s just the way things are unfortunately for women.
      Just look at Star Wars- the only action figure you couldn’t get was the female lead.
      In most industries, there is a priority placed on male interests, even disregarding that women consume a large number of product and tend to have wide and varied interests, across gender lines.

      • “the only action figure you couldn’t get was the female lead.”

        That is not correct, though there was a lot of people yelling on twitter saying it was so. Ray was not included in a box set of action figures that was a Target exclusive. She was included in the box set of action figures that was an Amazon exclusive. She was also available as a stand along figure along with all the other characters.

        It is very, very common when it comes to the collectible sets to have different sets available at different stores. Back when my kids were into Disney infinity you would have to go to target to get the target one, toys r us to get the toys are us one, amazon to get the amazon one if you wanted to get everything. It’s how they do the marketing now.

        • It was this flyer from Legos. I wanted to buy some for my nieces. It was a book containing all the characters (pages and pages, quarter-size pages but still…). But none of the girl.
          (although it did have the silver storm trooper – course no face so you can’t tell the sex).

          It’s very odd even if you say ‘normal’. I’ve never seen that before… excluding the main character (not sort of important but the main character of the movie)
          they had the other main characters in the story of course.

          • Was she really the main character, though? I vaguely remember her, but the movie was almost entirely forgettable any time Han Solo wasn’t around. I’d say he has far more claim to the title than she does.

            (In fact, I was surprised by how much of the movie he was in, because I’d been led to believe he was just a minor character in that one)

      • Anyone think action figure makers are choosing to sacrifice sales so they can avoid making specific figures?

        Is it reasonable to ask if they know something about demand for these things as a function of the sex of the figure? And then they adjust production to maximize profit?

        • Of course it’s reasonable to ask.

          In the absence of an answer, is it reasonable to assume that they do? I mean, in the absence of research, it would seem reasonable to assume that the publishing industry nurtures and supports authors as a matter of course.

          Just because something seems like the best course for the market, doesn’t make it so.

    • Peddling? Nice word to use when you want to belittle the truth.

      • Gwyneth Paltrow thought people who paid to see Iron Man were just as interested in seeing her as seeing Downey.

        • Good example of there being an earnings gap but not an equal pay for equal work gap. Assuming you think stars and supporting cast are worth different amounts.

          The discussion is about society at that point. Why is it a better bet to kick off the MCU with Iron Man instead of Captain Marvel, Scarlet Witch, etc…

          Why are there upteen million Batman and Superman movies but we are just now seeing Wonder Woman? Sexist studios or are they being smart about the market?

          She’s probably the 3rd most popular in DC (maybe 5th after Harley and Joker, I’d have to do some math to figure it out…), but geez I thought she’d never get her own flick.

          • Don’t expect any sort of logic from Warner Brothers.

            In another incarnation, twenty-plus years ago, my husband and I had an online store that sold collectible items based on a ground-breaking syndicated SF television show. Warner Brothers produced this television show, and handled the licensing of these items.

            I was able to track down some, but not all, of the items our customers wanted to buy. I got the bright idea to contact Warner Brothers and obtain a comprehensive list of license holders, licensed items, and contact information for these companies. So, using information I got from one of our suppliers, I made a long-distance phone call to California. (This was back when daytime long-distance was an expensive proposition, especially for a tiny mom-n-pop lurching financially from one order to the next.)

            After being bounced around, hung up on, and left on hold for pricey minutes, I was transferred to a lawyer — supposedly, the lawyer who handled questions about this particular TV show. For perhaps the fifteenth time, I explained who I was and what I wanted.

            Her first question: “Why do you need this list?”

            Me: “So we can expand our inventory and supply our customers with collectibles related to [TV show].”

            Lawyer: “Yes, but why do you want to sell these items?”

            Me (after pulling the receiver away from my ear and blinking at it slowly a couple of times): “To make money …?”

            Yeah, there were whole boxes of hammers brighter than WB back then …

            • Ugh. I’ve had similar conversations with doctors and pharmacists. Ask a direct question, watch them assume the wrong motive for the question and go into defense mode.

            • WB has contracts with various parties. It’s nobodys’s busines who they are. WB is correct to keep the list private.

              This has nothing to do with hammers. It’s a business trying to get WB to do their work for them.

          • And about Captain Marvel and the Scarlet Witch …

            Five of the eight incarnations of Captain Marvel are male. Wanda has never been able to carry a book on her own — whether the evil or the good incarnation of Wanda, she’s always a member of a team. Wanda’s probably the most powerful character in the Marvel Universe, but her powers are poorly understood, nearly impossible to control, and confusing when depicted on screen. Neither character is robust enough to support a television series, much less a movie franchise.

            Wonder Woman is the only always-female, non-derivative, solo super heroine who could carry her own book, movie, television series, or movie franchise. As you point out, she is #3 in the DC Universe; Warner Brothers can’t get #1 and #2 right twice in a row.

            WB could screw up a lollipop …

            • Wonder Woman is clearly the most doable.

              She-Hulk carries her own titles well but nothing as long running and popular as Wonder Woman. WW is the safe bet for sure.

              And yes. They’ll eff it up.

              • “Wonder Woman is clearly the most doable.”

                Uh… Ya might want to rephrase that.

              • She-hulk is derivative and only does well sporadically. Mostly when given a screwball story arc. Considering her cousin himself is hardly blockbuster money in Hollywood there never was a chance there.

                The recent success of Captain (nee Ms) Marvel is due primarily to Kelly Sue Deconnick. And that only dates to 2014. Before that the character was jerked around, defined, redefined, repeatedly mind-wiped, and even replaced by a villain. Hardly a property any money-focused Hollywood exec would bet a hundred million or two on.

                The more logical Marvel bet would be Black Widow but even there it comes down to Scarlett Johansson. And while she is a fine actress, her track record in Hollywood term$$$ is spotty when she is the lead.

                As for DC, anybody remember the flap when Gadot was cast as WW? The character is really very hard to cast and not just because the shadow of Lynda Carter is so large. Moving forward that will not be a problem in the near term, she silenced her critics pretty effectively, but longer term anybody trying to follow her is going to be facing a serious challenge.

                The really interesting news in the superhero movie arena came last weekend: Margot Robbie was so effective as Harley Quinn in SUICIDE SQUAD that she talked WB into letting her executive produce a (nominally) solo Harley movie through the production company she already has. The deal is for more than just that movie–she already has another she’s been working on–but Harley is her chance to build up her own production company.
                Pretty smart move.
                The movie itself should be a no-brainer because the character started out in video and has a nice backlist of movie-worthy stories to choose from. The front runners being a version of MAD LOVE dealing with her abusive relationship with Joker (which was actually covered in Suicide Squad but deleted, presumably to save the material for the solo movie) or, more to the liking of the moneychangers, a Gotham Sirens romp featuring Harley, Poison Ivy (her current love), and Catwoman, vs Batgirl and some BIRDS OF PREY variation. Or, since the BOP are reportedly headed to HBO, they might instead tap Cassandra Cain and the Spoiler, both of which served as Batgirl in their time.
                It will be telling to see which path they take, the complex MAD LOVE or the romp. Of course, they money men (and, face it, they *are* men) would prefer the romp but…

                Robbie is golden right now. She just might convince them to let her go the darker road, critics or not.

                We’ll know soon enough since the movie will probably be slotted for late ’18, early ’19.

                • Btw, DeConnick revamped Carol Danvers in 2012, not ’14.
                  Either way, given hollywood studio scheduling, the earliest they could have gotten a movie out with that character would be next year.

                  Marvel’s problem in this space is that their top non-derivative female characters are tied to XMEN or FANTASTIC FOUR. And those are off limits to Disney.

                  Whatever their corporate faults, WB does control all their top characters.

        • Weren’t both Paltrow and RDJ huge gambles at the time of the first (and still best) Ironman? RDJ was coming from Zodiac and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang but a lot of drug and jail problems right before, and Paltrow had drastically decreased her onscreen presence after her Oscar win for Shakespeare in Love.

      • Ugh. It’s a tough one Robert. The gender earnings gap is falsely conflated with an equal pay for equal work gap. They are very different things.

        Pointing out the difference, however, puts you in the camp of bigots and truth deniers. It’s sort of a paradox.

        • Anyone notics the horrid inequality among teachers?

          A third grade woman teacher with 25 years experience is paid much more than a third grade woman teacher with one year experience. And they do the same job in the very same building, with the same number of stiudents, and their classromms are right next to each other.

          Equal pay for equal work!

  2. “Is literature better at coming up with complex women protagonists than Hollywood?”

    Title be a question so auto ‘no’.

    Still anyone that can turn something like Battlefield Earth into a two hour movie has to be leaving a few things out …

  3. No idea about “literature”, but it certainly is true of manga. Which is why I have become a heavy manga reader in recent years. So many more awesome female characters I can really root for.

  4. Short answer: literature is better at coming up with any story or character better than Hollywood, because we have an advantage: we aren’t subject to the restrictions of screenwriting.

    • Books also don’t have to recover a $500,000,000 budget. The movie market for ‘complex women protagonists’ is small, and Hollywood producers aren’t that stupid,

      • The movie market for complex male characters is small. By design.
        Hollywood doesn’t like complex.
        They do like explosions.

        • Good point. When all the movie business really cares about is blockbusters, complex characters go out of the window regardless of whether they’re male, female or alien.

          • The kind of stories they’re looking for are not to be found in movie theaters but rather cable and streaming.
            HBO, STARZ, SHOWTIME, A&E, Bravo, TNT, even History.
            Netflix, Prime, Hulu, and more to come.

      • It costs an author the same to make a giant Death Star or a paper airplane.

        • Yeah, I learned the difference between literature and screenwriting when I wrote my first movie. Writing about a jeep racing across a field was much easier than standing in the back of it with a Steadicam, hanging onto the roll bar with my free hand and trying not to get thrown out as it bounced over the ruts at high speed…

  5. good for reese. i really enjoyed some of the movies she starred in and now she is making exactly the movies she wants to.

  6. I would suggest that literature is better at coming up with complex characters period, just because there are more people writing books than making movies and with books you have more time to develop characters than you do in movies.

    And I agree with Felix, the greater and greater move toward explody blockbusters is part of it. I mean, when they’re turning even Star Trek into a special effects, chases-and-explosions blockbuster-or-bust, there’s something seriously wrong with Hollywood’s storytelling priorities.

    • “… there’s something seriously wrong with Hollywood’s storytelling priorities.”

      And there’s your problem right there.

      Today’s Hollywood doesn’t have any ‘storytelling’ priorities at all.

      They only have ‘money making’ priorities.

      • Yes. I suppose that’s the real problem, isn’t it. All the decisions about which stories get made and how they’re made are made by people who are not actually artists or storytellers at all but only in it for the money.

        • The same could be said for the qig5.

          It’s not how good/bad the story is but ‘can we make any money on it?’

          Or on some it’s more ‘we don’t want to have to compete against this storyline/writer — can’t we throw a few dollars and a crap contract at the writer and prevent them from self-pubing this dang thing?’

  7. the dishonesty of this article is breathtaking ‘the perpetually red’… are you kidding me? Who do you think derives income to buy condos in Manhattan, town car travel each day, fabulous lunches, houses in the Hamptons??? “While movie deals always bring some financial security to authors and perpetually-in-the-red book publishers”. I could seriously throw up.

    Also, the fact that the publisher even HAD HOLD OF THE MOVIE RIGHTS IS DEAD WRONG FOR THE AUTHOR.

    Just sickening ‘poor pantsing’ around is this artilce while crowing about having gutted the author of rights– in the eyes of those who are not asleep and snoring about how great be the elite-grasping publisher, it is disgusting rights grab for NO additional expertise and service. I cannot even imagine what happens to an author’s creative control in film once the ‘in the red’ baldfaced lying publisher puts the pressure on to get the bucks over all else.

    The “publicity associate ” imo either did not live deep enough in the underground of the publisher’s dark tunnels to get the true picture, or else is in the ‘want to see what I want to see’ in order to have access and be given work.

    An ‘associate’ in pub is usually an outside hire, often as cheap as possible. Would never give such a person deep and daily access to the innards of pub

  8. I was reading an article yesterday that said the TV show “Castle” won’t be returning, mostly because the producers fired two main female characters over money issues (the company wasn’t making much, since the show’s audience had dropped). Considering one of them was the second “star”, the female detective Kate Beckett, “wife” of the other “star”, Richard Castle, that seemed like a suicide run.

    It’s not the first time women and/or female characters have been sacrificed for whatever reason, while their male counterparts go on. It’s hard to blame the lack of female heroes on the females, when it’s men who are writing their stories. Perhaps if they made more effort, there would be a better chance for female-focused movies to be successful. There’s certainly a large female fan base for SF stuff, whether the guys want to admit it or not. We just don’t want girls with big tits and little brains. We want believable female characters.

    • Castle was good until it became a romance series/soap opera instead of a mystery series. We stopped watching it a few years back.

      It kind of went the same way as the A-Team, trying to revamp a proven formula to bring in new viewers, but lost the existing audience rather than gaining a new one.

      “We want believable female characters.”

      But when people write believable female characters in SF, SFSJWs complain that they’re not acting like men in drag. Because, in the future, everyone is all the same.

  9. Tom Hanks recently pointed out that the kinds of movie Hollywood makes is a reflection of what sells at the box office. Especially the *global* box office. People voting their wallets matter. People griping in The Atlantic, not so much.



    After joking that Warner Bros. brass would be thrilled with his plugging another movie, Hanks continued his praise for La La: “This is not a movie that falls into some sort of trend. I think it is going to be a test of the broader national audience, because it has none of the things that major studios want. Pre-Awareness is a big thing they want, which is why a lot of remakes are going on. (La La) is not a sequel, nobody knows who the characters are…But if the audience doesn’t go and embrace something as wonderful as this then we are all doomed.”

    He continued: “We all understand the business aspects of it. It’s cruel and it’s backbreaking and take-no-prisoners. But there’s always that chance where the audience sees something that is brand new, that they never expected, and embraces it, and celebrates it. We might be in the luxurious position that we can say we don’t have to pay attention to the trends, but there are other people whose parking spaces with their names on them are paid to follow these trends. I don’t take anything away from them and there are some good movies that come out of that. But we all go to the cinema for the same thing, that is to be transported to someplace we have never been before.”

    Eastwood then piped in saying he had not yet seen the picture to which Hanks was referring but wondered how many “turndowns” they got before someone financed it. The fact is that Chazelle couldn’t get La La Land made for years and finally wrote Whiplash, an easier concept to sell and a less risky investment, in order to get the kind of calling card he needed for his dream musical.


    Kinda like how AMERICAN GRAFFITI paved the way for STAR WARS.

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