Eat, Pray, Love: Please don't devour this magical memoir
Is there anything worse than a bad film adaptation of your favourite book? Rebecca Armstrong frets over 'Eat, Pray, Love'
Tuesday 21 September 2010
To the soaring vocals of Florence + the Machine, the trailer shows a flaxen-haired Julia Roberts seeing her love life crumble, exploring far-flung countries and having her palm read by a Balinese gent. "I just want to go someplace to marvel at something," she cries. Released this Friday, the film Eat, Pray, Love marks Roberts's return to the big screen after scaling back her acting to concentrate on her family. It also marks an experience all too familiar to bookworms – the sinking feeling that comes with learning that your favourite book has been given the Hollywood treatment.
I picked up a copy of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love at work, where a publisher's proof was languishing on a pile of discarded paperbacks. It was the story of a thirtysomething woman who walks out on her husband and goes on a journey of self-discovery in Italy (where she gets over her divorce by eating), India (ditto, but with yoga) and Bali (where she gets over her last man by getting under another). It smacked of chick-lit, but I was intrigued by the sound of the "Pray" section, where Gilbert stays in an Indian ashram and learns to meditate. I started reading and, like millions of other people who subsequently sent Gilbert's book to the top of the bestseller charts, fell hook, line and sinker for a writer who opened her heart and her life on the page in front of me.
That's not to say that Gilbert's memoir is perfect, nor that its narrator isn't sometimes breathtakingly self-obsessed. And as for finding love in the final third? Lady, I know you warned me in the title, but still, did you have to be such a cliché? Despite this, I love Eat, Pray, Love. I like the way Gilbert writes about heartbreak and adventure, but it's how she captures her experiences of meditation, with humour and humility, that for me, makes her book sing. Five years on, it's still something I dip into and I've lost count of how many people I've recommended it to.
But having stumbled upon it, I feel, erroneously, that Eat, Pray, Love is my personal property. That if I ever met Liz at a cocktail party we would get on like a house on fire. Of course, that's part of its appeal – why else would millions of other readers have snapped it up? Why else, for goodness' sake, would it have been turned into a film in the first place? But now Elizabeth Gilbert, MY Elizabeth Gilbert, is being played by Julia Roberts. And what if she comes across badly? The book I've spent years pushing to friends will be turned into Bridget Jones with a few sun salutations thrown in – and that will reflect pretty badly on me and my taste in reading material.
Pitch-perfect descriptions of meditation don't bob up very regularly in bestsellers and I am sceptical that they can be woven skilfully into a big-budget motion picture. And the murky tales of costly merchandise and tie-in holidays based on the film that have hit the papers recently leave a bad taste in my mouth. The book, after all, is as much about giving up the trappings of wealth (a sample quote from the trailer sees a Balinese wise man telling our heroine "you will lose all your money") as it is finding a soulmate.
Maybe it will be OK, I tell myself. Maybe the film will be good. Maybe I will still be able to read Eat, Pray, Love and not picture Julia Roberts rather than Elizabeth Gilbert. But with the film looming, I'm reminded of the adaptations of two books that I love, I Capture the Castle and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. While neither were big-screen disasters, they didn't capture the charms of the books on which they were based, nor the hearts of the cinema-going public.
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