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Hateship Loveship Departs From Alice Munro's Iconic Story -- But Still Does Her Proud

Posted: 09/17/2013 11:47 am

Of all the choices director Liza Johnson had to make when adapting Alice Munro's iconic short story "Hateship Friendship Courtship Loveship Marriage," the title was probably the easiest one. The film gets a much simpler moniker of Hateship Loveship. Easier to remember, easier to say and, like the film itself, somewhat easier to parse and digest.

The basic narrative of both the story and the film is a heartbreaker: a frumpy, nearly middle-aged woman named Johanna, employed as a housekeeper and caregiver, is the victim of a cruel teenage trick that leaves her thinking a man is in love with her for the first time in her life. After Johanna meets Ken, the deadbeat dad of the teenage girl she is taking care of, she receives a friendly but impersonal note from him thanking her for his care of his daughter, Sabitha (who lives with her grandfather). Johanna replies and receives another note -- except the second (and subsequent) letter is not actually from Ken, but from Sabitha, who crafts the letters as a joke with a friend.

Munro's piece (which is the first and title story of a collection Munro published in 2001) is set in the postwar era, presumably the late fifties, while Johnson updates the timeline to the present day. This means letters become emails and Ken transforms from a drunken roustabout to a cocaine addict. And notably, it means no one in the movie is resigned to his or her station in life, as in the story -- there's a modern expectation of social mobility. The two teenage characters are of different stations in life: Sabitha is wealthy, while her friend is a modest shopkeeper's daughter. In the text, the two seem to accept that in their social reality, they're not destined to remain friends; in the film, the less wealthy girl rails at the inequality and lashes out.

The differing reactions pinpoint the effect of Johnson's decision to update to the timeline. Hateship Loveship is a thematically inside out version of "Hateship Friendship Courtship Loveship Marriage"; Munro's story is about silence, whereas the movie is about finding a voice. Both are worthy stories, but Munro's asks more of the reader than Hateship Loveship does of the viewer -- there is no neat resolution, no expository conversations, no guarantee of a happy ending in Munro's narrative. The ending of "HFCLM" might be a happy one -- we don't actually know, because Munro refuses to tell us. It's a personality test of a story, because most readers assume one interpretation or the other.

Johnson isn't alone in finding Munro's collection fertile ground for adaptation; while she chose the first story, fellow filmmaker Sarah Polley adapted the last story from the same collection, "The Bear Went Over the Mountain," for her 2006 movie Away From Her, which also premiered at the festival.

The only criminal decision for real CanLit lovers is Johnson's decision to arbitrarily set the film in Iowa and Chicago instead of Ontario and Saskatchewan. Presumably the choice was made to appeal to American audiences, but given the mood, budget, and subject matter of the film, most interested viewers will hardly be the blockbuster crowd demanding to see explosions, cleavage and only locations they can immediately recognize. To take the work of our first lady of Canadian letters and American-ize the setting of one of her most beloved short stories (and then debut it at our festival!) does sting a little.

But if viewers familiar with Munro's masterpiece are able to unclench from an expectation of perfect fidelity to the source story, there is much to love in Hateship Loveship. While the film goes for slightly easier emotional connections (for instance, Johanna in the story is much less pleasant than Kristen Wiig's Johanna in the film), it is successful in becoming its own freestanding story. It takes what is quite a (purposefully) distant, uncomfortable and silent short story and fleshes it out into a story of a broken family finding healing from a surprising source. There is real emotional resonance in both Munro and Johnson's creations, but for different reasons. Munro leaves us contemplating the uncertainties and misunderstandings that inform a life like Johanna's, while Johnson asks what happens when a woman like Johanna starts to question those factors. Johnson doesn't go too far towards easy resolution (there's a wide, wide country between easier than Munro and actually easy), but the update in the timeline requires more personal agency; modern day Johanna wasn't indoctrinated to believe in her station in life the way Johanna born around the first World War would have been. And while Wiig has brilliant moments, it's really Guy Pearce as Ken, the good-for-nothing deadbeat dad, who turns in a spectacularly Munro-worthy performance. His mix of pride, self-loathing, manipulation, helplessness and charm is so contradictory it seems nearly impossible to portray until Pearce appears on screen, embodying the difficult mix without any apparent effort.

Hateship Loveship does Alice Munro proud in that, while it may not cleave perfectly to the textual inspiration (and nor does it have to), it prioritizes creativity, complication and storytelling.

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