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I loved “We Need to Talk About Kevin” as a novel. Lionel Shriver did the near-impossible with this book. She situated being the parent of a teen murderer as part of the continuum of motherhood, rather than a freakish aberration. Without sugarcoating the mother’s character, mistakes, or motivations, Shriver manages to get at a lot of the ways that mothers (not fathers) are blamed for things their children do. Without minimizing the horror of the killings in this story, it is a very delicate and constructed balance of compassion and realism for everyone involved.

The movie, not so much.


It wasn’t bad, mind you, just not as ambitious or interesting. While it certainly makes you feel the mother’s pain, for whatever reason it is unable to make Kevin and his killings a horrible part of a bigger picture. The result is a much shallower and more easily forgettable work.

The movie version certainly leaves an impression. The first half hour reminded me more of the incredible but hard to endure “Killer of Sheep” than anything else. Immersed in the life of the mother during a few interspersed time periods with very little dialogue, it’s agonizing to watch; but not in a bad way. In the way that makes you feel like you are experiencing a small portion of what a woman in that position must be feeling. So far, so good.

Making a work of art where a mother of a mass murderer is even a semi-sympathetic character is a hard job. How can that character ever feel any happiness? Any laugh or smile is an insult to the families of the dead. It’s hard to tell what seeing the movie would be like if I hadn’t read the book, but one pivotal scene really limited the movie’s possibilities.

In the book, the mother, Eva, often sits in the prison waiting room -- always alone, never talking to the other women who are almost all, if not exclusively, women of color. She uses her son’s name as a way of not having to interact because bringing him up usually shuts up anyone trying to talk to her. But one day another woman does not allow her to shut down the conversation. She tells Eva that Eva is a good mother because, even after everything her son has done, she still comes to jail regularly, trying to do what she can. It’s a brief conversation – one not examined thoroughly by the mother narrator -- but it brings up so many issues that – to me – it was the most weight-bearing few pages of the book.

What is motherhood? How much ability does a mother really have in shaping a child? What is the responsibility of a parent for the horrible things a child can do? How is the experience of black mothers different from white mothers in a society that imprisons black youth at a much higher rate than white youth? Are the incarcerated deserving of attention and support, even if unremorseful?

Additionally, it shows that while having a murderer in the family will certainly get you thrown out of the respectable upper-middle class, there are other communities in this world, other people who you may never have interacted with before who may actually have things to offer, in fact may have a richer, more complex view of life than you previously thought possible.

In the movie, the whole scene is reduced to a sobbing black woman sitting next to Eva. After some delay, Eva reaches out and holds her hand. Neither woman says a word. End scene.

The biggest failing of the movie is that it just left me with nothing to discuss. It was a two hour wallow in the misery of the mother of a teen school murderer. After I read the book [livejournal.com profile] smallstages and I talked about it on-and-off for days. It’s a pretentious cliché to advise people to read the book rather than see a movie based on one (Hello “Hunger Games,”)* but in this case it’s really the truth. The book was the best novel I have read in years. The movie is forgettable.


*The “Hunger Games” movie is better than the book (which I have never read) for one undeniable reason: outing racists.
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