In Sebastián Leilo’s adaptation of The Wonder, stories can kill ‹ Literary Hub



The otherwise excellent adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel wonderment (2016) begins with a slow panning of a cavernous film studio, showing sets perched on scaffolding, camera gear stowed in bins and cases, and cables snaking across a hospital green concrete floor. After the stripped opening credits, we hear the voice of Irish actor Niamh Algar: “It’s the beginning. The beginning of a film called wonderment. The people you will meet, the characters, believe in their stories with total devotion. We are nothing without stories. And so we invite you to believe in this one.

This “it’s only a story of stories” device, which is not part of the book but frames – and at one point awkwardly interrupts – the film, is a terribly confusing intervention by director Sebastián Leilo. Not only is the framing pretentious and unnecessary, as many have noted, but its message is almost entirely at odds with Donoghue’s novel and Leilo’s own film. Yes, wonderment is only a story, but it is inspired by historical events with devastating consequences. Yes, some of its characters “believe in their stories with complete devotion”, but some don’t, and some of them use the power of the stories for evil purposes. And while the filmmakers would like to believe that their audience “is nothing without stories”, the most urgent message of wonderment it’s that beneath the stories we tell ourselves and each other, we are all flesh, blood and bone.

Thankfully, this sequence ends quickly and the panning camera locks onto the resolute face of Lib Wright (Florence Pugh), an English nurse en route to Ireland in 1862, just a few years after the Great Famine killed an estimated one million Irish by disease and starvation and caused another million to emigrate. In the creaking, dripping darkness of a ship’s cabin, Wright sits at the end of a makeshift table, eating. His face is frozen, seemingly expressionless, but Pugh can telegraph multiple emotions with a flick of his jaw: As Wright chews in the shadows, we see discomfort, mild disgust and resolve, but no suggestion of resignation or fear.

Pugh, always lovely to look at, softens Wright’s cruelties, but she doesn’t erase the novel’s anti-heroine.

Wright has accepted a somewhat mysterious job in the Irish countryside, and when she arrives at her destination, she learns that she will be watching over 11-year-old Anna O’Donnell, a local girl who is reputed to have eaten nothing since. four years. month. The men who control the village – the priest, the doctor, the innkeeper – are at odds over Anna’s mysterious survival, some insisting it’s a hoax while others see God’s handiwork. Wright, who was trained by Florence Nightingale, was hired to observe Anna for two weeks, during which she would either discover the ruse or claim the miracle.

Although there is great beauty in wonderment—in the beaming faces of Pugh and Kíla Lord Cassidy, who plays Anna; in the bogs of Ireland and the storms that sweep through them – Leilo and his cast are careful not to romanticize the story or its setting. The villagers, from the poorest to the most powerful, are still mourning their starvation deaths, and they are still furious at the empire they blame (with good reason) for their losses. Life remains brutally difficult, and one of the few sources of comfort is the Catholic Church and its promises of a better afterlife. It’s easy to see why so many people want to believe that young Anna has discovered a way to thrive without food.

Leilo’s adaptation of wonderment makes a few small but well-chosen departures from the book. Its quiet foregrounding of historical context makes the story bigger than its individual characters, and its less overtly charismatic Anna lends substance to the emotional bond between Anna and the skeptical Wright.

Unfortunately, these decisions are undermined by an overemphasis on Wright’s personal losses and the resulting implication that for Wright, Anna fills a blank space. In the novel, Donoghue spends far less time on Wright’s losses than on her later experiences as a nurse during the Crimean War. While Donoghue’s Wright has been through great pain, that’s not the primary reason for his devotion to Anna. Unlike most of those around her, Wright of Donoghue cares about Anna because of who she is, not what she stands for.

Pugh’s portrayal of Wright is also, perhaps inevitably, more sympathetic than Donoghue’s. In the book, the “story” according to Wright is not about Anna but about Ireland; Donoghue’s Wright is flippant and unrelentingly bigoted towards the Irish, reflecting the prejudices of his country and his time. For long periods of the book, she is actively unsympathetic, seemingly as bewildered by her assumptions as her employers and clients are by their desperate faith. Pugh, always lovely to look at, softens Wright’s cruelties, but she doesn’t erase the novel’s anti-heroine. In her performance, it is possible to see the mad cruelty of her breakout role in the 2016 film. Lady Macbeth and the suicidal honesty of his Cordelia in Richard Eyre King Lear (2018). wondermenta story about the danger of stories, finds safety in his firm and fearless hands.

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