"The book was better" is a phrase heard often in conversations about book-to-film adaptations. "Don't judge a book by its movie" is another common jab. While we've all uttered some version of this sentiment at one point or another, there have been those rare occasions when the opposite is true. As a lifelong bookworm and cinephile, I've discovered that whether I read the book before or after seeing the movie can have a profound influence on my enjoyment of the story across both mediums. In this column, I’ll be checking out old and new adaptations to further explore both sides of that experience. In the process, I hope to unveil how these two vastly different mediums work together to tell the same story, from cover to credits.
“We didn’t belong and never would…such truths, FOXFIRE made softer.”
- Joyce Carol Oates, Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang
Two teenage girls, best friends, lay huddled side by side in whispered conversation about God and mortality. One of them, the bold one, admits she doesn’t believe in the idea of a soul that goes on forever. She believes in the here and now. “Like a flame is real enough, isn’t it, while it’s burning?” she asks. “Even if there’s a time it goes out?”
It’s an intimate moment between the main characters of Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang by Joyce Carol Oates, offering a profound statement on the impermanence of youth and girlish devotion. The type of moment I’d wager a lot of girls remember sharing with at least one bestie in their lifetime. As a result, Foxfire is one of those stories that brings back memories and feelings long forgotten. "Like a flame" that once burned so bright you thought it would last forever.
Published in 1993, the novel chronicles the rise and fall of Foxfire, a teenage girl gang formed in the fictional blue-collar town of Hammond, NY during the 1950s. Led by the charismatic Margaret “Legs” Sadovsky, the narrative follows Foxfire’s humble beginnings of five members with some graffiti and peaceful protests to a veritable sisterhood of outlaws enacting violent and criminal retaliations against their male oppressors. Abandoned by deadbeat parents, most Foxfire girls have been fending for themselves for years and are just grateful to have a place they belong. But providing emotionally and financially for an outfit of teenage delinquents proves more than this lot can handle. As their numbers grow, so does their desperation, inspiring impetuous decisions that lead to the gang’s inevitable downfall.
There have been two films adapted from the novel. The first, released in 1996 was directed by Annette Haywood-Carter from a screenplay by Elizabeth White and is best remembered for Angelina Jolie’s mesmerizing and seductive turn as Legs Sadovsky. Relocating the events to present day Portland, set to the grungiest hits of the nineties, the film preserves only the barest bones of Oates’ original story with all the heart remaining in the bond between the characters. Rounding out the gang with Hedy Burress as Maddy, Jenny Lewis as Rita, Jenny Shimizu as Goldie, and Sarah Rosenberg as Violet, things play out more like a wild weekend than an organized gang uprising. Considering the book’s themes of harassment and denigration of women remain relevant, it’s not the change of the year or the place, but the accelerated timeline that dims the impact Foxfire has on the girls. Sacrificing the growth and maturity of the gang and its members to focus on Legs’ influence over them, the film becomes more about one girl than an entire sisterhood.
Not that Jolie’s Legs isn’t worthy of the attention. Portrayed as more of a drifter than the childhood friend she is in the book (in which she’s described repeatedly as, I kid you not, “a beautiful sharp-cheeked girl”), she’s only passing through long enough to break some hearts and stir up some trouble before moving on to the next inevitable heartache. In the book, Legs is much more dependable and intelligent, caring for everyone to the point where she reaches some sort of mythical status. She’s the Tyler Durden of Foxfire, organizing everything from the gang’s housing to their elaborate money-making schemes, and even branding every new member with a tattoo. A moment beautifully depicted in the film's candlelight ritual that I’m sure more people remember for the nudity than for its empowering message about love and acceptance. At the end of the day, even with the changes, this version manages to convey the feelings of impermanence coursing through the novel.
In contrast, the second adaptation released in 2012 from director Laurent Cantet deviated very little from the book. Unfortunately, holding true to the time period and plot does very little to make up for the film's lackluster performances. His choice to cast unknown and inexperienced actors results in 143 minutes of uninspired line readings, with none of the girls having the presence or magnetism to believably portray these outcasts born from the incomparable mind of Joyce Carol Oates. However, it has its moments, mostly in allowing the girls time to grow up together in Foxfire. Sure, the extended timeline inspires more boredom than entertainment in this adaptation, but it changes the dynamic in a way I would have loved to see them explore with the 1996 cast. While neither film manages to produce more than a rough sketch of the original story, the vastly different approach of the two filmmakers proves that adapting the same story doesn’t require being chained to the source material.
I like to think that since Oates set the novel in a fictional place, she was inviting readers and filmmakers alike to make Foxfire their own. Set it whenever and wherever you want, the girls and the adversities they’re up against remain the same. Their story still fueled by the impermanence of youth and girlish devotion, searching for a place they belong.