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My Stories Become Someone Else’s: Adapting a Book to Film

Of course, filmmaking is more collaborative than book-writing, and the process of working with others caused me to rethink and refine some of my own ideas. While the text of my book runs to some 700 pages, the movie is 93 minutes long. But what it loses in detail, it gains in verisimilitude. The people whose circumstances I chronicled were at times almost unbelievably well-spoken; I sometimes felt that in describing how remarkable they were, I invited negative scrutiny, the supposition that I had exaggerated. I had to make it clear that I wasn’t rewriting my subjects into eloquence. I had to make their emotional dynamism, determination, wisdom and clarity convincing. The joy I discovered in the families of children who were different ran against widespread social expectations, so I felt I needed an abundance of interview subjects to reflect multiple views of various conditions and to support an irrefutable thesis: that profound meaning comes in the struggle to find it.

A film doesn’t carry as heavy a burden of proof as a book. On a movie screen, people are raw. Of course, footage is edited and a story is assembled, but the basic reality is incontrovertible, and the viewer becomes close to the characters, like it or not. I was astonished by how much of the larger meaning of my “Far From the Tree” could be packed into just six stories, and by how much less proof was needed to underscore a point when the audience can witness the stories unfolding. In a documentary, there’s no need to demonstrate an unexpected reality repeatedly because the strength of the argument is inherent in the recorded scenes. Film’s explicit tenderness derives from its being less mediated.

Making the book and making the film were both exercises in intrusion. They both involved asking private people to tell their stories publicly in service of a presumed greater good. The catharsis that ensued for these subjects can be hard to glean in the book, but in the film it’s quite evident; you see a person’s life story as well as the way that recounting it offers something of a liberation. Rachel and her team were determined to find people still struggling who were willing to trust her enough to appear in the film. So the film became a collaboration not only between the filmmakers and me but also between the subjects and us.

It felt weird to have my own story told in the film. Things I had been comfortable writing about in the privacy of my study made me anxious when shared on the screen; talking about the sexual surrogacy therapy I once pursued in an effort to make myself straight felt both vain and sad. Although the words remained mine, the images that accompanied them, the rhythms of the editing, even the occasional insertion of music, made certain episodes startlingly, sometimes painfully fresh. I had entrusted someone else with my reality, which was eminently different from writing about it myself. The book’s final chapter details how I become a father, and my children appear in some of the closing scenes of the film, as do my husband and our extended family. Intimate moments in my children’s experience were set in amber, unfiltered by my paternal protectiveness. I had often asked others for such trust; for once, I had to vest it in others.

In writing “Far From the Tree,” I was trying to expand the national conversation about identity, to champion a more tolerant and accepting society. The book was published during the Obama years; the movie is being released during the Trump years. And so there’s a new urgency to this conversation. Some find it easier to sympathize with people they can see than with people about whom they read, and I’m eager for the film to reach this population. The film is politically charged, and that probably has more to do with the changing times than with the switch of medium. Heroic kindness — a value that seemed inseparable from the American ideal just five years ago — has grown circumstantially disposable. People are more and more likely to see those who are different as their opponents, to hoard for themselves the sparse entitlements that have historically gone to our nation’s most vulnerable people.

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