Tell it to the Bees … (since the screenwriters didn’t get the memo …)

Please somebody, anybody, explain to me why one would ruin a perfectly perfect novel? Fiona Shaw’s 2009 novel, Tell it to the Bees, is ostensibly about two women who fall in love in the puritanical 1950’s. The forbidden, controversial affair doesn’t even emerge until around pg 80. All the while, Ms Shaw lyrically, and with enormous skill, builds the characters of her novel meticulously from the bottom up.

Jean is a single woman physician,strong,independently minded, self-sufficient, a bee-keeper, no shrinking violet to say the least!

Lydia is a lower class, Mancunian single mother stuck in an industrial Scottish town supporting her Charlie, since her deadbeat husband recently walked out.

These two, who couldn’t be more opposite, are brought together by young Charlie’s interest in Jean’s bees. He begins to help her out, which is how the two will-be lovers forge a confidence.

The 2018 film version, (directed by Annabel Jankel whose previous credits include episodes from the TV show, Live from Abbey Road, Henrietta Ashworth and Jessica Ashworth did the screenplay adaptation), mangles this lovely book so badly, that I wonder why Ms. Shaw agreed to let it be produced?

Internal-thought prose, which Shaw handles so magnificently, is difficult to visualize for the screen (or at least Ms. Jankel couldn’t, or wasn’t interested in figuring out how to manage it), and so the plot picks up when the two women meet nearly a quarter way into the story . There is a MOST SLOW, and CAREFUL choreographing of their falling in love in the novel. Lydia runs out of money when her husband leaves her, and faces an eviction notice. Although she has befriended Jean, the town doctor, who lives alone in a massively big house, she is loath to confront her new friend (not yet lovers) with her woes. This is a crucial element of the character development. Lydia is well schooled in the ways of class status in their world, and is much too proud to cross class lines. When they do become intimate, Jean offers Lydia to ostensibly become her “housekeeper”. In this way, Jean sees an answer to all of their problems…they can live together without suspicion. But Lydia rebukes her saying, ‘my kind is always a ‘service class’ for your kind.’ This bone of contention in the novel sculpts a realistic vision of a class fueled 1950s.

The film skips right over this, as if an irrelevant piece of the plot. The women quickly co-habit in the movie, and don’t fall in love until after they are living together. This crucial mangling of the story, takes the guts out of the body of the book, and slices it into unrecognizable pieces.

The next, and most woeful faux pas of the film is the casting. Anna Panquin plays the doctor, and mutilates her into a shriveling, shy, nearly pathologically terrified, retiring woman. One wonders how in the heck she ever made it out of her house, no less got herself to study medicine at a time when women would be seen as bizarre for even such a desire. It also makes one wonder what in the world Lydia would have seen in this woman?! Panquin plays her painfully introverted, scared of her own shadow. In the novel, Jean is an independent, undeniable FORCE! This is a woman I was attacted to as I was reading. The movie makes you want to refer either Panquin or Jean or both to your local therapist.

Lydia, by contrast, is played in the film by the beautiful, gifted Holliday Grainger, who portrays her as carefree, easy going, and in spite of her dwindling circumstances, magnetically positive and attractive. Sadly, there is ZERO chemistry between these two women. Anna Panquin runs the gamut of emotions, (pardon me while I steal a great line from Dorothy Parker) from A to B. Each time she is having a ‘deep’ emotion, it makes the viewer really uncomfortable, as though she is needing to relieve herself,and has been needing to for days. Wrong actress for this role. Wrong interpretation of the role. Wrong. WRONG!

And finally, why in the world would you change a happy, credible ending of a quiet, steady, lyrical drama in favor of science fiction? What in the world were they thinking? Weren’t we all tired of the old lesbian films in which women are locked away by the end, or isolated, desolate, depressed ? Aren’t we tired of how lesbians in those old movies committed suicide, were forever shunned, or came to an otherwise unfortunate end, a just recompense for their twisted, perverted, aberrant behavior?

The ending the screenwriters came up with is so weird, so fantastical as to shoot it out of realm of credibility and into every screenwriter’s nightmare…”Hell, I can’t find an ending! I ‘ll make up something really out there.”

And so the two Ashworth writers have. Are you ready? Young Charlie, who tells all his secrets to the bees, instructs them to gather together in swarms of thousands and attack his father who is inside Jean’s house, beating up on his wife for being lesbian. This, the bees DO! They swarm up in gazillions, find an open bedroom of the house, and attack poor ol’ deadbeat Dad. This ending makes the film’s credibility, already hanging by the thinnest spider thread into a shredded mess of cheap cloth.

The novel by contrast, contains a mellifluous ending in perfect harmony with the rest of the lyricism of Ms. Shaw’s story. (I won’t ruin it for you. Do read this lovely book for yourself. I couldn’t put it down.)

So why on earth would you retreat to the horrid lesbian movie endings of yesteryear by plunging them back where they “deserve” into misery, loneliness, and separation? This will remain a mystery, until we hear Fiona Shaw herself. Why would she let them mangle her book? Why would she let the sell this beautiful novel short?

The love scene is hard to watch. Not because of its detail, but because it looks like Panquin is going to be physically sick all over poor Lydia. In addition, the lack of chemistry between these actresses makes the suspension of disbelief, well, un-believable.

The Ashworth screenwriters have done interesting work in the past, Becoming Jane, Killing Eve. But here is one where they really missed the target. Certainly mangled casting was out of their hands, but why would you change, and thereby ruin, a perfect book?

Do read Fiona Shaw’s beautiful work. It’s not at all like the movie. And this, indeed, is a blessed thing.

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