Francois Duhamel/Sony Pictures
Julia Roberts stars in Eat Pray Love, which made some big missteps on the way from book to movie.
I still like Julia Roberts, and I'm not sorry that Eat Pray Love made a lot of money this weekend, because as I said Friday, the round of stories about whether she's washed up had gotten a little old.
But wow, that movie is really, really not good. For a movie made from an adored book, it's a startlingly weak film. And what's odd is how specific and simple the reasons are for its not being good — and for the fact that people who read the book and loved it probably will love the movie, too.
It's much too long. First things first: two hours and 20 minutes is simply far too long for this story. By the time Elizabeth Gilbert — or, rather, the person I will call "Movie Liz," to distinguish her from both Book Liz and actual Elizabeth Gilbert in real life — finishes up in Italy, the thought that there are two entire countries left for her to visit is like realizing at the close of a one-hour doctor's appointment that the doctor has only looked in one ear. Fewer shots of pasta would have been a good place to start.
Inadequate attention is given to establishing the reason for the trip. Full disclosure: I'm only about a quarter of the way through the book at this point, but from only one quarter of the book, I already understand why Book Liz went on this journey. Book Liz had an unhappy marriage to an often unkind person, followed unsuccessful efforts to get pregnant with the painful realization that she didn't want to get pregnant, got a divorce, and then had her heart ripped out by a broken relationship with another guy she really loved. She went through depression, medication for depression, and lots more before deciding on her year-long international trip.
Movie Liz, on the other hand, wakes up one night unhappy in her marriage and dumps her apparently sweet and loving, if somewhat flaky, husband. She then uses a hot young guy who's unlucky enough to be actually in love with her to get over her divorce, and then, for no particular reason, she dumps him, too. And then: Off to Italy!
Book Liz is a more serious person. Consider this paragraph from the book:
My own parents have a small farm, and my sister and I grew up working. We were taught to be dependable, responsible, the top of our classes at school, the most organized and efficient babysitters in town, the very miniature models of our hardworking farmer/nurse of a mother, a pair of junior Swiss Army knives, born to multitask. We had a lot of enjoyment in my family, a lot of laughter, but the walls were papered with to-do lists and I never experienced or witnessed idleness, not once in my whole entire life.
This is critical information. That Book Liz has never known idleness, that she was raised working on a farm in addition to babysitting, helps the reader understand why she needs to pause for breath. Without this background, her quest to do nothing seems simply to be born of a desire to spoil herself and eat.
Burying the book deal. Book Liz is very open about the fact that she got incredibly lucky and got a book deal to take this trip and write about it. That's how she paid for it.
Movie Liz gets no book deal prior to leaving on her journey.
It's possible that the people who made the movie were afraid that the book deal would make the trip seem crass; less like an inspired journey and more like work. But to me, the fact that she was writing a book makes it less like obsessive, self-interested navel-gazing, because she intended all along to share the story with other people. And that's not to mention the fact that it helps people understand how anyone affords to go off for a year to eat pasta and meditate without simply being a self-indulgent rich person.
Small moments of selfishness. It would really help if Movie Liz ever seemed interested in anyone but herself. Instead, she takes an interest in a friend's baby only as it relates to her own decisions about parenthood. She gets to Italy and immediately starts complaining about the bathtub. She devotes her meditation to a young girl unhappy about an upcoming arranged marriage only as a last resort intended to facilitate her own spiritual growth. Even a fleeting moment or two in the movie where she seems to be thinking of others and is willing to give of herself without wanting anything back would have been a great help.
Movie Liz is a dabbler. Book Liz had always wanted to learn Italian, because she thought it was beautiful. So when she feels like she's having a breakdown, she decides this is the right time to learn Italian. Furthermore, Book Liz has been a serious practitioner of yoga for a long time, which establishes a connection between what she's already interested in and what she chooses to do on the trip.
Movie Liz, on the other hand, loves travel itself, and she seems to learn Italian as part of a dream of visiting Italy. Similarly, I don't think there's any indication that Movie Liz has ever taken any interest in yoga or meditating until she meets David (James Franco), her post-marriage boyfriend, who has a guru. Her entire interest in India, and the ashram, and yoga, and meditation, seems restless and sort of touristy, just bored dabbling until she goes to India and is suddenly transformed.
Book Liz has always been interested in those things, and she just takes the opportunity of her screwed-up life to finally explore them. It's a small but critical difference.
The thing is, if you've read the book, you know these things that the movie doesn't tell you. You know she was a more serious person, you understand what her internal monologue was like, and you're probably less likely to see the entire thing as purely a spontaneous moment of rich-lady self-indulgence. (Though plenty of readers of the book would still argue that it was that exactly.) It wouldn't surprise me a bit if a lot of people who loved the book also love the movie, because it's pretty scenery and luscious scenes about food, and if you know where she's coming from, it's not so annoying.
But if all you have to go on is Movie Liz, she seems like kind of a selfish jerk, and that makes her voyage to better self-care very hard to care about.