Bee Season

Yes! It's a two-for-one posting this week. Last week the movie Bee Season, based on the novel of the same name by Myla Goldberg, opened. I just so happened to have read the book a few months ago and was interested as to how they would adapt this quirky and delicate piece of fiction to the big, bad and scary screen.

Bee Season revolves around the Naumann family, a seemingly functional family whose secrets and tensions begin to reveal themselves after its youngest member, Eliza, qualifies for the regional spelling bee. In the book -- and somewhat in the movie -- the mom, Miriam, is a cold and detached ice queen who's rarely present, even if she's sitting at the kitchen table along with everyone else. The father, Saul, is a tornado of love who seems to only be able to focus on one thing at a time and, as a result, each child finds himself/herself competing for his affections; the thoughtful and overachieving son Aaron, much more than Eliza.

Normally neglected, after Eliza participates in the bee, her father shifts his energy from Aaron to her, setting up study sessions after school and lavishing her with attention. A resentful Aaron rebels not by experimenting with drugs or alcohol or even music and girls, but with religion. Meanwhile, Miriam's neurosis make increasingly frequent appearances.

It's always fascinating to see what they ("they" meaning the screenwriter, director, producers and studio execs) choose to change in a novel upon adaptation. Sometimes, it can be a small detail, however, many times it's a major component about a character or the plot. Basically, the changes indicate what they think "works" and what they think doesn't.

In Bee Season the novel, Saul (played in the movie by Richard Gere), is a cantor and unofficial scholar of Judaic mysticism. However, in the movie he's a religions professor at UC Berkeley, which ends up altering the dynamics between father and son. It doesn't make as much sense why Aaron chooses religion as his way to rebel if he's father an open-minded professor at a liberal university; it doesn't have the same impact as him being a cantor in a synagogue.

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In the book, the mother is a lawyer and in the film, as Juliette Binoche, she's a researcher of some sort. She's also much, much colder in the book (she hardly ever touches Eliza much less tells her she loves her) than in the film where her coldness is toned down. I wonder why they made her warmer, is it because they thought audiences wouldn't be able to cope with a character who's a cold mother?

It is also interesting to compare what you as the reader imagine the characters to look like as opposed to how they are portrayed in a movie. I think they did a good job casting the characters. Binoche as the mother is perfect and so is Gere. And Flora Cross as Eliza is just as awkward as I imaged her to be. Max Minghella as Aaron is a little better looking and less dorky than what I had thought. And his mentor Chali got turned from a weird hippy dude into Kate Bosworth! I felt this took away from the storyline and made it seem like Aaron's exploration into other religions, specifically Hinduism, was more based on a crush than a genuine curiosity and appreciation.

A major motif in both the book and the movie is Jewish mysticism, specifically Kabbalah (you know that thing all the celebrities are into now). Saul uses Kabbalah techniques to help Eliza study and envision her spelling words. To put it simply, letters and words are divine and can be used, at the highest level of Kabbalah, to directly commune with God. I have to be honest, the whole religious strain was lost on me. Call me a sinner that's going to hell, but religious mumbo-jumbo just isn't my cup of tea, even if it's honeyed with a compelling story.

The verdict? Avoid the movie and sit down with the book. It's a lot better, as is usually the case.
Bee Season by Myla Goldberg
Paperback, 288 pages

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