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Kristen Wiig, Alice Munro And Negative Space In Fiction

Kristen Wiig plays Johanna Parry in Hateship Loveship, adapted from an Alice Munro short story.
IFC Films
Kristen Wiig plays Johanna Parry in Hateship Loveship, adapted from an Alice Munro short story.

[This piece discusses the plot of both the Alice Munro short story on which Hateship Loveship is based and the film itself, although it's frankly nothing you can't intuit from the trailer.]

The Alice Munro short story "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage" begins with a plain and awkward woman named Johanna arranging a shipment of furniture and shopping for a dress. She's leaving town to go to the man she expects to marry, though he hasn't yet asked. The story shifts to follow the nasty fellow she's been working for, who's angry about her departure, and then it makes its way to Edith.

Edith is a young teenager, and with her at the center of the narrative, we leap back in time to learn how Johanna came to be leaving: Edith and her friend Sabitha played a cruel joke in which they made it appear that this man, Sabitha's father, was writing Johanna love letters. He was not. But, fooled into believing she's been carrying on a long-distance romance, Johanna made plans to leave all she knows and head off to what appears certain to be abject humiliation.

We then jolt forward to the present, where Johanna arrives at her destination, and we follow her for a short time again. But then we leap ahead two years. And those two years later, we learn, through a notice in the paper read to Edith by her mother, what became of Johanna and Ken.

Alice Munro won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature. To adapt her work, as screenwriter Mark Poirier and director Liza Johnson have done for the film Hateship Loveship, is a hugely daunting thing. The risk is that there is a way to look at this story that would rob it of everything about it that's interesting, and that way to look at this story is the way this trailer looks at it.

The film shown in this trailer is, happily, not the film they made. It's much better than this, much smaller and more intimate than this, and much truer to the spirit of the story — especially at first — than this. Somehow, the girls' forgeries look almost benevolent here, like they're trying to get Sabitha's father (Guy Pearce) a date. That is not the story, and it's not the film, either. Edith is a little sociopath, not to put too fine a point on it, who finds Johanna's humiliation — and the lingering promise of more — hugely entertaining.

But what you do get from the trailer is a sense of, strictly speaking, where the story is going: Ken and Johanna (played nicely by a decidedly non-manic Kristen Wiig) wind up together after all. In the film, they're clearly in love. In the story, all Edith learns is that two years later, they're married and they have a baby. Whether it's a love story is far more ambiguous.

The story closes with a still icy, baffled Edith wondering how she came to be responsible for a baby coming into the world, and writing, "You must not ask, it is forbidden for us to know --" and then finishing, "what fate has in store for me or for you --"

And that dash is where we leave her, and all of them. The suspension of it is startling; it leaves a huge white space where everything that follows a dash would normally go.

But white space, in fact, is crucial to the story. The fact that we see so little of what happens between Johanna's initial meeting with Ken and the news that reaches us later — not because we ever return to Johanna, but because Edith learns what happened — is part of that contemplation of fate. Edith's aggravated disgust at how such a thing could have happened is built into the story: how could they have gotten married? Why hasn't anyone called Edith out on this behavior by now? She doesn't know. We don't know either.

Of course, films don't work this way. While the film is quite true to the early scenes of the furniture shipping and dress purchase, once it introduces Guy Pearce as Sabitha's scruffy father, it stays with the two of them far longer. It explains how they fall in love, how they kiss, how they have sex the first time. It tells you all those things that existed in that huge swath of metaphorical white space. And the bafflement that Edith feels at the seemingly arbitrary, or even illogical, consequences of her behavior is replaced with a more linear explanation of how these broken people might have ended up as they did.

It's not a bad film; it's a lovingly made little piece, with a lot of gorgeous attention to details like hands and dust motes. Kristen Wiig is intriguingly toned down and, in several places, conveys some very complex feelings with very slight changes in her expression. But it's conventional — not as conventional as that trailer makes it look, not by a longshot, but conventional nonetheless. It does get some of the point of the story, in that the girls are not cute and this is, at best, a decent ending arising from a dismal display of cruelty.

But the structure of the story is so important that, by filling in the blanks, the punch of the ending — much as the screenplay tries to restore it with a different device — is really lost. In the story, Johanna vanishes from her own tale, much as she vanishes from town, and all we hear is third-hand. It's awfully difficult to make a movie that way, and not surprising they didn't. Still, you do lose something, and it's probably more than you gain.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.