Book to Film: What Maisie Knew

I first became interested in reading Henry James because he was a great literary friend of Edith Wharton, my favorite novelist. (You can read briefly about their correspondence here or if JSTOR is more your thing, check out this article).

whatmaisieknewbookcoverWhen I first read What Maisie Knew, I was struck by how funny it was. Sure, there are long, run on sentences and convoluted paragraphs, like lots of classic literature, but I didn’t think James was the worst offender in that regard. It almost made it more fun to find the hidden humor. James is a keen observer of personality with a sharp wit, which made what could have been a dull piece of “classic” literature fun and enjoyable to read.

The novel is about a young girl whose parents divorce, remarry, and use her to make each other’s lives miserable. She is a precocious young girl who understands far more than the adults realize, which is probably why they continue to have very inappropriate conversations in front of her.

It’s startling how relevant this story is 100 years whatmaisieknewmovieposterlater. Julianne Moore plays aging rock star Susanna, who has ended her dramatic relationship with narcissistic art dealer, Maisie’s father, Beale, played by Steve Coogan. Though neither are particularly present in Maisie’s life, they both want to retain custody to hurt the other, and Maisie ends up in the middle, shuffled back and forth between them.

When Beale marries Maisie’s nanny, Margo, in order to support his bid for custody, Susanna in turn marries bartender Lincoln. Unlike Margo, who seems to think Beale married her for love, Lincoln is flat out paid for this arrangement and Susanna has little fondness for him, and actually gets jealous when he forms a close relationship with Maisie. Joanna Vanderham’s portrayal of Margo is utterly forgettable, but Alexander Skarsgard’s chemistry with Onata Aprile as Maisie is moving and touching.

Even with four adults in her life, Maisie is routinely forgotten, overlooked, and dismissed. Though her parents try to buy her affection with gifts, it’s obvious to her that Margo and Lincoln are the ones who really care about her. It’s heart-breaking to watch Maisie be disappointed or hurt by her parents, yet uplifting to see how resilient she is, and how attached she becomes to Lincoln, who truly cares for her, going so far as to tell Susanna that she doesn’t deserve her.

The film adaptation lacks the humor of the book, but makes up for it with an amazing performance from Onata Aprile. Her expressions and nuanced delivery perfectly captured so much emotion, it was hard to believe she really was such a young girl. The film captures the viewpoint of a child perfectly, focusing on Maisie’s routine and the way she survives amidst so much turmoil. The camera angles are often low, from her height, and the director wasn’t afraid of quiet scenes depicting her making sandwiches, playing with toys, or scared and alone in an unfamiliar place.

This is a quiet but dramatic movie that breaks your heart but leaves you feeling hopeful. Unlike the book, which follows Maisie into her teenage years, the movie adaptation focuses on a few months in her life. The movie is perfect for those who enjoy character driven stories rather than fast-paced plotting. I felt so fortunate to see it while I was in New York.

9 thoughts on “Book to Film: What Maisie Knew

  1. Imagined how excited I was to learn that this book is free on Kindle!! Yipee!! I’ve been reading ‘The Wednesday Sisters’, but its not catching my attention. I’ve always wanted to read more ‘classic’ literature, and you’ve inspired me to do so. Thanks!!

    PS~ I’ll report back after I see the movie too.

  2. I didn’t know this was a movie. Julianne Moore is a favorite of mine, but she isn’t always in great movies. It’s too bad it lacks the humor, but I’ll have to look into this one. Thanks for the review!

    1. Julianne Moore is really great in this role. It’s “funny” how the humor didn’t translate into the movie. I’m not sure if it was the time period or what. In the book Maisie witnesses all these adult situations that and seeing them through her eyes can be hilarious. The adult conflicts play more off screen, and the POV of Maisie is more internal. And since she doesn’t grow up to a teen, we don’t get to see her fully understand the dynamics. The timeline is much more condensed in the movie and she stays a young girl of maybe 6. It’s still a great movie (but then I even tried to sit through BATTLESHIP for Alexander Skarsgard…so I’d pretty much check out anything he was in).

  3. I had no idea this movie was based on a book until this moment. I went to see a screener of White House Down the other day and thought about staying afterward to watch this one but ended up going home and then going to see Man of Steel at midnight:) Anyway, now I definitely will head over to the theater this week to catch this one before it’s out of theaters.

  4. I’ve heard nothing but good things about this movie, and I love quiet, character-driven movies (which seem to be not that common these days). Crossing my fingers that it eventually makes it way to the Pacific Northwest.

    1. I was so lucky to see it in NYC. We have a local indie theater here in Lawrence, and there are a couple in KC, but I still can’t go see a lot of the movies I’m interested in. I don’t know why mainstream America’s taste has to be so terrible — I mean, I’ll check out a special effects heavy movie every once in a while, but it’s the quiet, character-driven movies that really stick with me.

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