Big Stone Gap and the problem of authors who want to direct

Consider two different jobs: in the first one, you sit in a room all by yourself at a computer and make up people, places, and events for months — more likely years — at a time. You push those imaginary people around in your head and try to coax a narrative out of them. You work on the same sentences over and over until you decide they’re as close to perfect as you can make them, or until a deadline rolls over you and you have to give them up. Then you start all over again.

In the other job, you manage a small battalion of people, from electricians to painters to executives to accountants. You’re in charge of every aspect of a production. You need to make sure that everyone does their job to the best of their ability. And you have to tell people how to behave in a manner closest to the ideal image you have in your head. Even in a best-case scenario, they never achieve your dream, but you have to take the performances they do manage to deliver and wring them together into a coherent narrative that works on an aesthetic, storytelling, and emotional level.

This is just a long way around saying that authors do not always make good directors. This seems like it should be obvious, but it’s not. Stephen King only directed one film — Maximum Overdrive — and though it has a kind of ramshackle bad-movie thrill to it, it’s by no definition a good film. But some authors can make the transition to director, and when they do, they make it seem effortless. Stephen Chbosky somehow transformed his beautiful novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower into a beautiful, meaningful, well-acted movie that hit the same emotional notes as the book.

And now Adriana Trigiani has adapted her novel Big Stone Gap into a movie, which Trigiani herself has directed. Sadly, as a director she veers more to Stephen King than to Stephen Chbosky. Big Stone Gap is a big-hearted bestselling novel about a Southern town full of eccentrics. It also happens to contain one of my all-time favorite all persons fictitious disclaimers at the front of the book:

Big Stone Gap is a work of fiction. While Chapter 6 and a few other references in this novel were inspired in part by a real-life campaign stop by John Warner and Elizabeth Taylor in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, in 1978, during which Elizabeth Taylor was hospitalized after choking on a bone, the visit described in this book is entirely imaginary and fictional. None of the events, actions, dialogue, costumes, or attitudes attributed to Elizabeth Taylor or John Warner actually occurred, and the scenes depicted here are in no way meant to denigrate the awesome career and stardom of Elizabeth Taylor or the democratic process of campaigning for elected office in the United States of America. All other characters, events, and dialogue are products of the author's imagination, and any resemblance to real people or events is entirely coincidental and does not change the purely fictitious nature of this work.

It’s also got one of the most welcoming first sentences a novel could possibly have: “This will be a good weekend for reading.”

Unfortunately, what comes across as earnest charm on the page reads as cheesy obnoxiousness on the screen. The main character, Ave Maria Mulligan, is simultaneously blunt and whimsical in the novel. But in the movie, as played by Ashley Judd, she seems more than a little simple-minded. Occasionally, Ave Maria is so shiny and vacant that she seems to be a female Forrest Gump. She runs all over town, bumping into various neighbors, and we’re supposed to enjoy seeing the world through her eyes. Instead, we can’t wait for her to stop talking.

The cast of Big Stone Gap might give you hope: Patrick Wilson, Jane Krakowski, Anthony La Paglia. Sadly, they just raise your expectations to an unrealistic level, only to let you down with unchallenging performances. Everything is so cozy, so warm, so drowsy that you’ll wonder if you accidentally drank some cough syrup before sitting down to watch the film. (Whoopi Goldberg is in the movie, too. She gives about as good a performance as we’ve seen out of Whoopi Goldberg in the last decade, which is exactly as much of an insult as it sounds.) Everything about Big Stone Gap oozes community theater. It’s a romantic comedy without the romance, or the comedy. It’s a pastoral lark that’s had its feet dipped in cement. It’s about as un-fun a cinematic experience as a syrupy-sweet small-town movie can be.

Ultimately, the blame for Big Stone Gap’s failure has to lie at Trigiani’s feet. All these people — yes, even Ashley Judd; yes, even Whoopi Goldberg — can act. We know the novel can charm the pants off any reader who’s halfway willing to be charmed. But between the page and the screen, something important has disappeared. The life of the book, the weirdness of building an entire novel around Elizabeth Taylor choking on a chicken bone, is leached dry and replaced with an antiseptic feel-good glow. The author has lost her direction. The director lacks authorial confidence. It’s a crying shame.