Maggie Gyllenhal’s directorial debut, The Lost Daughter, is undoubtedly beautiful and well-done, but it’s hollow. Adapted from Italian author Elena Ferrante’s novel of the same name, the movie disappointingly dulls the power and force of Ferrante’s work. The rich interior lives and crucial cultural context that so often defines Ferrante’s complex women characters is stripped away here, and there is nothing of similar weight to replace it.
Perhaps it is unfair—and a bit boring—to lean on “I liked the book better than the movie” as a critique. I must confess that perhaps my love of Ferrante is keeping me from seeing Gyllenhal’s smart choices behind the camera. And the author herself said in a 2018 Guardian column that she would never tell a female director adapting her work to adhere strictly to the source material. “I don’t want to say: you have to stay inside the cage that I constructed,” Ferrante wrote. “We’ve been inside the male cage for too long—and now that that cage is collapsing, a woman artist has to be absolutely autonomous.”
Autonomy is crucial: it’s the only condition in which creativity can flourish. But what we do with that autonomy has an impact on the story we tell and how people perceive it. The decisions of deviation Gyllenhal made ultimately detracted from the original story. Part of this might be because Ferrante’s novels are often told from a tight perspective of the main character. Translating these histories and mental processes to the screen is a difficult task; Gyllenhal relies mostly on glances to convey what Ferrante might take two to four pages of inner dialogue to explain. But even easily avoidable mistakes—like downplaying the role of certain characters in Leda (Olivia Colman)’s life and divorcing the narrative from its Neopolitan context—all make this story inferior to its source.
In the movie, Leda is an Italian literature professor on a solo holiday on the Greek seaside. She spends the beginning of her vacation in peaceful solitude on the beach and in the forest, interrupted only by simple, uncomplicated male characters such as the older American caretaker of her rental, Lyle (Ed Harris) and the young Irish beach attendant, Will (Paul Mescal). These men don’t disturb her peace because she finds nothing unsettling or challenging about them; she doesn’t attempt to understand herself through their interactions. As the plot continues, these men become important only through their relationships with female characters like Nina (Dakota Johnson), who is deeply unsettling to Leda.
Leda’s peace is disturbed when Nina and her family, a large and boisterous Greek American brood with mafia ties, clamors onto the beach where she’s reading. Nina and her small daughter Elena (Athena Martin) trigger Leda’s own memories of being a young mother and academic (young Leda is played by Jessie Buckley). In a fit of discontent and overwhelm, Leda divorced her husband Joe (Jack Farthing) and abandoned her children, not laying eyes on them for three years. In between feverish flashbacks to her younger self, Leda notices Nina frantically searching for her daughter who suddenly goes missing. Leda eventually finds Elena, but the girl becomes unconsolable when she realizes that her doll, Mina, is missing. Mina isn’t lost, though. Leda has stolen her. Leda takes the doll back to her rental, kissing, playing, and caring for it as she reflects on her experience of early motherhood and the series of events that led her to abandon her children.
The movie has been described as a psychological thriller, but the book is all interior reflection, solely through the perspective of Elena. Gyllenhal’s directorial debut is only a thriller because all the necessary context we need—to assure us that Leda is not a deeply disturbed person who perhaps murdered her daughter and stole a little girl’s doll just for sick pleasure of it all—is stripped away. Essential text is swapped out for totally insufficient glances and lip quivers that the viewer has to interpret, which does make the audience unsettled, but not necessarily in a productive manner. This is the work of adaptation, it’s true. Take 300-plus pages of a novel and distill it into a screenplay. Although the film is compelling, it falls a bit flat because we have little to no idea why Leda does what she does, or feels the way she feels. When Leda steals Elena’s doll, the audience is left a bit puzzled. Did she do it because she’s mentally unstable? Cruel? Dangerous? Childish? When she comes up to Lyle playing with his friends and whispers “beautiful game” in Italian, is it because she’s quirky or desperate or experiencing a mental breakdown? What the book makes clear, the movie makes murky.
Even the most interesting part—the doll’s relationship to Leda, Elena, and Nina—is lackluster here. For instance, in the movie, a slug just comes out of the doll. In the book, we know that Elena inserted it purposefully into the doll because she wanted to pretend it was pregnant. Leda does not find it by accident, she purposefully “births” it out of the doll, coaching and soothing the doll as if it were an actual expectant mother.
In the movie, all we really know about Leda is that she’s burdened by motherhood. The Lost Daughter has been praised by film critics for portraying a version of motherhood that we rarely see, that’s nearly always demonized. But from my perspective, the movie doesn’t seem to break any new ground or deliver on anything subversive.
While it’s important to show more diverse depictions of mothering outside the strained and unrealistic jubilance that people seem to prefer, Gyllenhal’s version doesn’t necessarily suffer from lack of telling. There are many stories about mothers—especially white ones—who are burdened by motherhood. There have always been those stories. Although they do face a degree of marginalization, the story of a woman who wants to prioritize a career over her husband and children is gradually becoming a more accepted and celebrated neoliberal trope. What makes The Lost Daughter stand out is the abandonment, which is admittedly not celebrated or accepted, and probably for a good reason.
But in the book, Leda’s character is so much of her own person that it matters very little whether she’s a trope or not. She’s lost in her own head and in her own thoughts and we become lost with her. We suspend judgment in favor of giving her what Gyllenhal writes in the script (based on Simone Weil’s words) as attention: the “rarest and purest form of generosity.” Leda on the page is not a hero but a human, while in the movie, she is held up as a hero because she is human. It’s ultimately a shallow perspective.
Confusing the audience about who a character is at their core doesn’t endear us to them or make them feminist heroes; they’re simply written poorly.
The Leda of the movie is simply confusing and not necessarily in a way that’s enjoyable. We need more messy female characters, but “messy female character” does not have to mean illegible female characters. Sometimes the two are mixed up. Confusing the audience about who a character is at their core doesn’t endear us to them or make them feminist heroes; they’re simply written poorly.
It’s possible that had I not read The Lost Daughter, I wouldn’t feel so strongly about the movie. Reading Ferrante has always been an intense activity. I can physically feel the impact of her words. Sometimes it elicits an uncomfortable ache, sometimes it’s stillness. I would like that same feeling from adaptations of her work, but this one misses the mark.
So many of the subtleties and themes of Ferrante’s work don’t translate well to the screen, particularly how she writes rage, which, ironically, some have praised in the movie. Colman is a fantastic actor, but her rage here is odder and more petulant. The Leda of this film seems more like a middle-aged child than a reflective woman brimming with the undercurrent of furious unhappiness. Ferrante’s characters exude a degree of petulance and oddness too, but by being in their heads constantly, we also recognize their confidence and power. But there aren’t many moments in this film where Leda is interesting, apart from keeping us wondering if she will commit some great violence because her intentions haven’t been communicated well. Her selfishness is not even interesting because we have no idea where it comes from, except for the fact that she does not want to play with her daughters or talk to them on the phone.
It’s also a mistake to strip The Lost Daughter of its Neapolitan context. Or at least, Gyllenhal could have replaced it with something that held a similar weight. In Ferrante’s book, Leda is a professor of English literature, and she is Italian from Naples. Nina, Elena, and their vaguely criminally connected family are also Neapolitan. In the movie, Leda is a British professor of Italian literature, and the family is Greek American, from Queens, New York. While we might assume that Leda in the movie is also Italian because her last name is Caruso and she’s a professor of Italian literature, she also has a British accent and doesn’t really interact with any Italians in a way that would suggest kinship rather than academic interest.
But the kinship ties are an integral part of this story and why she reacts to mother and daughter—and the entire family—in the way that she does, because her actions are informed by this tortuous intimacy she feels with them on first-glance. In the book, this family embodies her roots and fears and insecurities, everything she was trying to run away from, in a very tangible way. Upon seeing the family for the first time, Leda thinks, “I had been born in a not dissimilar environment, my uncles, my cousins, my father were like that…and if necessary they could be vulgarly insulting and violent. My mother was ashamed of the rude nature of my father and his relatives, she wanted to be different; within that world, she played at being the well-dressed, well-behaved lady, but at the first sign of conflict the mask cracked and she, too, clung to the actions, the language of the others, and with a violence that was no different.”
Leda constantly grapples with her “repugnance” towards Nina and Elena’s family, which sometimes extends directly to Elena. She accepts that so much of it is shame informed by class, something which played a role in her decision to leave her children in the first place. “They were just like the relations from whom I had fled as a girl. I couldn’t bear them and yet they held me tight, I had them all inside me.”
In the movie, these ties of ethnicity and location—and yes, blood—are random and meaningless. Each character is untethered, and by taking away those ties, all that connects Leda to this family is parenthood, which feels weak. The aversion that Leda, a professor at Harvard, has towards this family becomes vaguely classist. Although we learn that she comes from an underprivileged background, we’re not informed until the movie’s almost over. In the book, Leda’s fear of this family’s violent tendencies and hard pregnant bellies and lack of education is a fear we know comes from the fact that she has been sprinting from this her entire life. In fact, she somewhat hates herself for the lengths she’s gone to disappear into the bourgeoisie. The Lost Daughter is as much about class as it is about motherhood, and the movie doesn’t use this material at all.
By observing British, Greek American, Irish, and perhaps British Italian characters rather than Neapolitan characters, we as the audience participate in an entirely different act of observation that prevents us from understanding the depth of this story beyond “Being a mother is difficult.” Ferrante’s work is so deeply Neapolitan that to yank that away is to defang and deplume it, to erase what makes her work dangerous and seductive.