Writing the history of
women’s unmade films
by Shelley Cobb
This blog is a bit of self-reflection on the process of researching contemporary women directors and trying to figure out how to write about those ‘breaks’ in women’s careers – common for many and lasting years for some. But let me take a step back before I explain what I mean.
I am currently finishing a book on film adaptations directed by women. Films based on source texts are common, of course: some scholars estimate that more than fifty per cent of Hollywood films are based on previously published material. In my research on English-language film adaptations from 1990 to the present, I have found fifty-four adaptations directed by women. Most of these are based on books by women with female protagonists (a few have a group of women or a family at the centre). Only ten are from books written by men. Of those, six have female protagonists (such as Henry James’s Washington Square and Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar).
Taken together, these film adaptations are suggestive of a contemporary women’s cinema that includes women as writers, characters, directors and performers. The directors include women like Jane Campion, Gurinder Chadha, Patricia Rozema, Kathryn Bigelow and Andrea Arnold, several of whom have made more than one adaptation. Many of them also write their own scripts or work with women screenwriters. Laura Jones, who wrote the screenplay for The Portrait of a Lady (1996), is a particularly prolific adaptation screenwriter. And the women who star in these films include Nicole Kidman, Sandra Bullock, Reese Witherspoon and Queen Latifah.
Most recently I’ve been writing about how many of these adaptations foreground various forms of female authorship in the texts themselves. Examples include Orlando (Sally Potter 1992), Mansfield Park (Patricia Rozema 1999), How to Make an American Quilt (Jocelyn Moorhouse 1995), The Weight of Water (Kathryn Bigelow 2000), and Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsey 2002). I won’t offer a textual analysis here, but it’s worth noting that Potter’s and Bigelow’s films were made at times when their career status seemed somewhat under threat: Potter’s was made nearly ten years after The Gold Diggers (1983) had become a touchstone for a conservative government’s defunding of the arts; and Bigelow’s appeared five years after Strange Days (1995), whose authorship was often discursively credited in reviews to her former husband James Cameron, who wrote the screenplay.
Moorhouse and Ramsey made their adaptations as their second feature films after much critical acclaim for their first independent features, Proof (1991) and Ratcatcher (1999), respectively. After the failure of a subsequent adaptation, A Thousand Acres (1997), Moorhouse has not directed another feature to date. Only in the last six months has it been announced that she will be directing Kate Winslet in another adaptation of a novel by a woman author (The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham). Ramsey’s next feature after Morvern Callar, the adaptation of We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), was released nearly ten years after her second, highly acclaimed film.
It is these long years between feature films that I have been pondering, wondering how to write about them. Most of the women keep working during these years – sometimes in more traceable ways like directing for television and in producing or even acting. Some get attached to projects that are never made, at least not by them. These unmade films fascinate me. Both Moorhouse and Ramsey were attached to high-profile film adaptations in the early 2000s that they did not end up directing. Moorhouse was signed on to direct the adaptation of the acclaimed Australian novel Eucalyptus by Murray Bail, about a young woman whose legendary beauty draws many suitors. Her father, who is obsessed with rare Eucalyptus trees, offers her hand to any man who can classify them all. Russell Crowe was slated to play the father. News accounts suggest that Crowe domineered the first read-through and that he was unhappy with Moorhouse’s script. The tension was such that Moorhouse quit five days later. The producers insisted that she honour the contract, and work on the film resumed; however, relations deteriorated quickly again and Fox Searchlight postponed production indefinitely.
Ramsey, more famously, was contracted to adapt The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. Channel 4’s FilmFour had bought the rights to the novel before the book had even been released in 2002. That same year, FilmFour lost its independence, and the novel ended up on the New York Times Bestseller list. A Hollywood studio bidding war ensued. Channel 4’s new film unit, Film4, kept the rights to the film and continued with Ramsey as writer and director. According to Ramsey, her script would not have been a faithful rendition of the novel. As she told the New York Times, she did not like “the My Little Pony, she’s in heaven, everything’s O.K. aspect” of the book.
Steven Spielberg and Dreamworks became interested in the film around this time, and then Film4, according to Ramsey, dropped her as writer-director because they wanted a film more faithful to the novel. In an interview with the Guardian, Ramsey calls these events the “Lovely Bones debacle” and “a weird, Kafkaesque nightmare”. In the same interview, she speaks about the sexism and classism of the film industry, saying “I don’t speak the language. I can’t do the bullshit”. Eventually, Peter Jackson made The Lovely Bones (2009) with a script by Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh.
Both of these unmade films are intriguing for their gendered power battles and their stand-offs over scripts. I cannot help but imagine what demands Crowe was making of Moorhouse and wonder if the adaptation will ever be made. I can imagine the grittier, less fantastic, but more stylized Ramsey version of The Lovely Bones. And I long for her version. Historians of earlier periods of women’s film history are more than familiar with the experience of trying to write a history of filmmaking without the films themselves, and their research, discoveries and archiving have changed the way we think and construct film history. I am constantly conscious that contemporary women filmmakers may very well disappear or end up under film history’s radar if we don’t write those histories now. But I am also conscious that just writing about the films women filmmakers do make leaves out whole portions of women’s film history. A history that is the continuing fact of women’s filmmaking, as it was from the beginning – that, much like Virginia Woolf’s Judith Shakespeare, who was just as talented as her brother but whose plays were never written because of patriarchal society – there are women’s films throughout film history that have never been made. And these unmade films also have a history.
Shelley Cobb is a Lecturer in English and Film at the University of Southampton. She has published on Jane Campion and postfeminist chick-flicks, as well as adaptation theory. Recently, she completed a pilot project on the numbers of women working in key production roles in the UK film industry. Her book, Women, Adaptation and Post-feminist Filmmaking will be published by Palgrave-Macmillan in 2015.