Female Actors Redefine Artistry in Filmic Adaptations of Books and Plays


An abundance of book-to-film and play-to-film adaptations this year have connected with audiences, many of which have women either writing and directing or turning in compelling performances. From period pieces that reflect pressing issues of race or toxic masculinity, to modern-set features showcasing deaf culture or the societal mores of motherhood, these ladies’ unwavering dedication to infuse their characters with an organic, captivating sense of realism makes these conversation-stirring pictures come alive in their capable hands.

Rebecca Hall, the writer and director of “ Passing ,” wasn’t familiar with the history of the term, which describes covering one’s racial identity to assimilate into the majority. However, she recognized the brilliance of the character dynamics in Nella Larsen’s novel. “She takes the idea of racial passing and turns it over and over until it becomes this prism through which anyone can see the crucial truths hidden by our public selves.”

But it was a personal connection to the material that provided the impetus to tackle her debut as a filmmaker. “I had the quite intimate and inexplicable feeling that I knew these women, and when I explored the history further, and my own family’s history, that started to make more sense to me.” She continues, “I wrote the screenplay as a way to understand my purely visceral response to the book, and maybe I made the film for close to the same reason.”

For another actress-turned-filmmaker, Maggie Gyllenhaal , the motivation to write and direct “ The Lost Daughter ” came after she became “electrified” reading author Elena Ferrante’s taboo sentiments on motherhood. “I thought, ‘What if instead of this private experience, alone in my room with this book, hearing these forbidden, truthful things said, what if these things could actually be spoken out loud?’”

This valued experience compelled her to translate the text from one medium to another. “The book said something very delicate and very specific. I felt not so much pressure as a responsibility, which isn’t unlike the responsibility you maybe feel as a mother to care for something that’s very individual, truthful and real.”

The characters and their struggles featured in the French film “La Famille Bélier” captured filmmaker Siân Heder’s head and heart, priming her remake, “CODA.”

“CODAs (Children of Deaf Adults) often grow up within Deaf culture, but must also navigate the hearing world, serving as a bridge between the two communities. The story of this teenage girl coming of age, trying to individuate from her family when her own identity feels so inextricably tied to theirs was a powerful dilemma that felt personal to me.” She adds, “I also loved the idea of a story where there are no villains; the conflict comes from intimate, messy, complicated family dynamics – which feels like life.”

Marlee Matlin relished playing the Rossi family’s multi-faceted matriarch. “Jackie was tough for me to play because she just did things and lived a life so different than mine.”

Emilia Jones, who plays her hearing-abled daughter, was “delighted” to tackle the material, but was equally daunted by the task. “If I’m honest, any pressure I felt came from having to learn the multiple skills that were required.”

Matlin felt pressure to get her depiction right also. “I wanted to make doubly sure to play Jackie in as positive a manner as possible, knowing that portrayals of Deaf women in general in film are so few and far between. I felt an extra responsibility knowing that this would be the first time three deaf actors would be carrying a feature film and all eyes would be on us.”

While Jane Campion was thrilled to bring Thomas Savage’s subversive vision of the hyper male world of ranching in “The Power of the Dog” to the screen, she was equally inspired to further define and add shape to Rose’s journey. “I felt a responsibility to write a woman of her time rather than a revisionist exercise where Rose would somehow become a sassy heroine facing up to Phil’s bullying,” she says. “Rose is the heart of the story; she is instinctively kind while Phil becomes unerringly cruel. But Rose is not only soft, she becomes unhinged, wild.”

Kirsten Dunst proved to be the perfect match.

“She has such great depth and notes of suffering as well as a luscious female presence full of mystery and unpredictability,” says Campion.

“My process is kind of like doing therapy between myself and the person I’m playing,” adds Dunst. “I protected Rose’s motives with sensitivity.”

For their roles in “West Side Story,” Rachel Zegler and Ariana DeBose take the legacy of past performers and carve out their own path. Zegler notes that the casting added to the authenticity.

“The way Latinas carry themselves through the world is much different than the late, great Natalie Wood. While that performance can never be replaced or replicated, it can be redefined to accurately portray the story that was intended,” says Zegler.

Another factor in the script re-polishing was deepening her motivations. “Maria’s given so much more than she’s ever been given before. She’s given agency and a fire to stand for herself to people she’s historically never stood up to.”

DeBose felt empowered to bring more of herself to the role of Anita – even advising the filmmakers to explore her own valuable personal experiences. “All of what makes Anita who she is – her unshakeable belief in the elusive American Dream, the joys and challenges of her relationship, her maternal instinct, the ways she works tirelessly to uplift her community – take on an even greater weight when you consider how difficult it would have been for her to just exist in the world as an Afro-Latina at this time.” The refreshed material magnifies Anita’s strengths. “It’s a more holistic picture of this woman, her triumphs, and her struggles.”

Frances McDormand finds renewed vigor playing Lady Macbeth, whose powerful presence matches her character’s power-hungry machinations, in “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” She and costume designer Mary Zophres, working together once again, refashioned Shakespeare’s text through texture.

Not only did the duo utilize different materials to signal location and title transitions, but also to reflect the character’s psyche. Zophres says, “Frances is incredibly open, inviting and friendly. To have her on a film set is always valuable, but to have her energy as a producer was even more powerful. It helped to create a highly functioning collaboration which encourages all crew members to do their best work.”

Dynamic female-fronted material has gained momentum in the marketplace, culminating in today’s heartening era. “For a very long time, the extraordinary lack of equality for women in our industry and their systematic abuse did not feel like an urgent problem, or even a problem,” Campion reflects. “That attitude has shifted now to be unacceptable for women to be so slightly and inequitably represented. The brilliant news is women are now coming into the industry with an exciting, almost fearless urgency that is producing great work. It’s no longer charitable to support women, it’s truly good business!”

Nevertheless, further progress is absolutely necessary. DeBose says, We still have a long way to go as an industry to better represent and empower women of color and other communities that have been ignored for too long.”

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