Adaptation Studies: We Were the Mulvaneys (+ Emmy Flashback 2002)

mulvaneyThis is a post I’ve wanted to write for a long while. This is kinda nerdy, but I am fascinated by adaptations, particularly from book to film. I know many people have strong opinions regarding certain film adaptations. “The book is better” has become the unofficial mantra for most bibliophiles. Personally, when I approach an adaptation, I try to appreciate what the screenwriter (many times the author himself…with the help of a dozen film and studio executives) was trying to convey, even, if some of the details from the book are different or entirely removed. I understand that it can be tough to fit even the shortest novels into a two hour film (which is why, honestly, most books should be adapted into miniseries but that’s another discussion for another time). It’s also easier for me to accept an adaptation if I haven’t read the book. That might have been the case with We Were the Mulvaneys.

As someone who enjoys watching made-for-television movies, particularly ones for or about the family, I stumbled across the movie We Were the Mulvaneys about a couple years ago on Youtube. The movie first aired on Lifetime in 2002. It stars Blythe Danner and Beau Bridges. In short, the movie is about a happy wealthy, prominent upstate New York family who is pretty much torn to shreds when the daughter, Marianne (played by Tammy Blanchard) is raped after a high school dance. Despite the fact that Marianne refuses to press charges (because she claims she cannot bear false witness since she was drunk and does not exactly remember all the details from that night), the town still shuns the Mulvaneys, and they practically become social outcasts.  From then on, the members of the family, which also includes three brothers, slowly break away from each other. The father, having become depressed, alcoholic and unemployed, dies at the very end of the movie. However, it’s his death that brings the rest of the family together after years of being apart.

The storyline, performances, and music score all drew me in. I thought the movie was wonderful. I still think that, even after reading the original book by Joyce Carol Oates. However, even when I first watched the movie, it was obvious that certain plot elements and story lines were either condensed or cut. It’s a very swift movie, where there aren’t many scenes or moments that are really given the time to breathe. It’s obvious why that is. The movie is 90 minutes, without commercials. The book is about 450 pages. The somewhat choppiness of the movie was, obviously, made more clear to me when I actually decided to read the book, since I was captivated with the story in the first place. And, again, while the movie is my go-to destination for an easy overdue cry, after two reads, the book has become one of my absolute faves.

So what are the differences between the book and the movie? The truth is, the movie is really just a Cliffnotes version of the book. From my perspective, the movie is technically “faithful” to the movie. All the supposedly major landmarks of the book are, at least, mentioned or even portrayed in the movie. The book is narrated by the youngest member of the Mulvaney family, Judd. While most of the action in the book takes place while Judd is a child to young adult, the narration itself is from when Judd is an adult, recalling the past. The movie has a similar set up; it is narrated by Judd, but the young actor who plays Judd (Tom Guiry) is also the narrator, so there’s very little sense of time passing between the action and the telling of the story. The book is split into four massive parts, plus an epilogue. Those parts are, in one way or another, represented in the movie. The movie is simply a condensed version of the story. If you want the basic story, but can’t read 400+ pages of black ink text, then clearly the movie is for you.

But, if you don’t read the book, in my opinion, you’re missing so much. I’m not usually a huge fan of overly descriptive writing. Just tell me the story without all the flourish and clever wordplay and oh-so impressive metaphors. And Oates’s writing in this book pretty much fits into that category. And, to be frank, if this book is 450 pages, I still think, like, fifty pages could have been cut. But, for the most part, I appreciate all the attention to detail here, because I feel like I could simply melt into this story. We get such rich descriptions of this family, their personality, their routine, their rituals, their farm estate, and really the town as a whole where they lived comfortably for so long. The book is set in the 70’s, but the story feels modern because 1.) rape culture and victim blaming is still thing in 2017, and 2.) because Oates doesn’t simply depend on cultural references and easy callbacks to set her scene. The writing is just so rich.

But I think the biggest difference between the book and the movie is that, in my opinion, while the movie centered on the rape, the book, while the rape plays a big central part because it is the catalyst that causes the family to break apart, at the end of the day, is centered on the family, and Judd’s complicated relationship with each member of his family, particularly his older brother Patrick. Both book and movie end with a family reunion. However, one of the final “non-montage-y” scenes in the movie is a very emotional scene between mother and daughter, as mother apologizes to Corinne for how she responded to her rape, and the daughter forgiving her back. That scene is sweet…but we don’t really get anything like that in the book. The truth is, both the book and movie seem to be a “What Not to do when a member of your family gets raped” manual. Because how Marianne is treated by the town and, most regrettably, her family is almost unforgivable. Each member (save for Judd, who is too young to fully understand what exactly is going on) really thinks of himself before considering Marianne’s feelings or needs. Because Marianne refuses to testify (which is very unfortunate, but, ultimately, her right), her father cannot even bear the sight of her. Thus, Mrs. Mulvaney sends Marianne away, and builds a tall brick wall between her and the rest of the family. Marianne’s life spirals downwards before she is able to come to terms with her troubles on her own.

So, yes, the movie gives us a nice succinct scene where, after the father’s death, Mrs. Mulvaney is able to try to explain her choices and show some regret for her actions. And, maybe, the audience is able to find the justification for Marianne coming back to the family that shunned her. However, the book isn’t that easy. And as I was reading the book, I felt like I was waiting for that scene between mother and daughter…but it never really came, at least not as explicitly as the movie. And, at first, it was almost disappointing, because Marianne never got to truly express herself to her family. She doesn’t even really forgive her family…because, in her eyes, there’s nothing to forgive. Sweet Marianne, who always puts everyone else’s feelings before her own. It’s weirdly upsetting.

But, I came to realize that the main character in the book isn’t Marianne. It’s Judd. And Judd is telling his own story. And even if he acts as an omniscient narrator for the bulk of the book, recounting many scenes where he isn’t in the room, the story is still about him. He just didn’t have the same direct hardships as some of the other members of his family, so his story, voice, feelings are almost muted. But the very last scene in the book, is one between him and Patrick. I don’t want to get too into plot points here, but at the climax of the novel, Judd almost risks his life, his future, for his brother. Patrick returns the favor by abandoning Judd for almost fifteen years. The book ends with the two brothers, reunited, with Judd still feeling resentment for his absent brother, someone he had always looked up to. He realizes that some day, in the future, they’ll have to talk about why Patrick abandoned him. But, for how, Judd is just glad to see Patrick have that same face he had…when they were the Mulvaneys.

The book has a rape. The book spends a lot of time on that rape. But I don’t think it’s a book about rape. I think the story is more about a crumbling family from the eyes of its youngest member, who only got to experience a handful of years when the Mulvaneys were “happy” before, well, sh#t hit the fan. A ninety minute movie on a network that’s known for its “problem child” or “women in peril” movies just can’t fully convey that. Director Peter Werner and the screenwriters try, but, with the time constraints (and audience consideration), they can’t truly convey what the book is wholly about.

We Were the Mulvaneys the book was first released in 1996, to good reviews. However, the book certainly didn’t receive the awards and buzz that some other Oates novels had received, particularly with the Pulitzers and National Book Awards. It wasn’t until January of 2001, when it became an Oprah Book Club pick, that the book sales soared and it became a bestseller. The Oprah endorsement is most likely the catalyst that led to the TV movie adaptation being produced for Lifetime.

The movie starred Bridges and Danner as the parents, Michael Sr. and Corinne, with Jacob Pitts and Mark Famiglietti as their two older sons, Patrick and Mike Jr. The movie received three Emmy nominations in 2002. Both Beau Bridges and Blythe Danner received Emmy nominations for Lead Actor and Lead Actress respectively. In the Lead Actor side, Bridges competed against James Franco (James Dean), Michael Gambon (Path to War), and Kenneth Branagh (Shackleton), with Albert Finney winning for his portrayal as Winston Churchill in The Gathering Storm. Besides Mulvaneys, it’s been a little while since I’ve watched all these movies. The only performance that remains memorable and stands out is James Franco’s. Bridge’s program was the only one in the category to not get a nomination for Best Movie or Best Miniseries.

Danner, on the other hand, receiving her first Emmy nomination before she’d win a couple for the TV series Huff, lost in her category to Laura Linney for her emotional and explosive performance in Wild Iris, about a single mother who struggles to raise her son after her husband had committed suicide. Angela Bassett for The Rosa Parks Story, Vanessa Redgrave as Clementine Churchill, and Linney’s on-screen mother Gena Rowlands were also nominated. I don’t think Bridges and Danner were technically my top choices for their respective categories, but I certainly think they were deserving of their nominations.

In fact, I wish the movie had received more. Multiple Emmy award winning composer Patrick Williams (who also received an Oscar nomination for one of the greatest sports films of all times, Breaking Away), received his last Emmy nomination for his work in the movie. However, I certainly would have also given a nomination to Tammy Blanchard as the distraught abused daughter, Marianne, and, despite its faults, the movie as a whole. I just think this is the kind of quality, dramatic family made-for-television movie that are rarely made anymore (unless it’s some overly sentimental faith-based movie for Uptv.) It’s the kind of the movie that can bring me to tears and give me hope and inspiration all at the same time. It’s truly one of my favorite TV movies of all time.

Like I mentioned earlier, I think most books should be turned into miniseries. And, if by some miracle, the novel is adapted into a longer, deeper limited series that really gets to all the crevices of the original story, then that would be wonderful. Maybe Oprah can give the book another shout out so it can land on the Best seller’s list again. Maybe some executive from HBO or Netflix can bring the story back to life again. But, hey, I’m already satisfied with the book itself and the Cliffnotes movie that we got!



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