Earlier this year, my sisters went to the cinema together to see Brooklyn. When they came back, the only information I got about it was from my younger sister, who said ‘you’ll cry’, and left it at that. A few months later, when it came out on DVD, my dad got it for my mum. I like to read the book before I see the film, so I put the book on my kindle, and read it on the tubes to and from college over the course of a few days.
It’s rare that I find a book that I actively dislike the main character as much as I did Eilis in Brooklyn. It’s also rare that I find a book where I strongly prefer the film version. That makes Brooklyn unusual in my books, for two reasons!
Colm Tóibín’s sixth novel, Brooklyn, is set in Brooklyn and Ireland in the early 1950s, when one young woman crosses the ocean to make a new life for herself.
Eilis Lacey has come of age in small-town Ireland in the hard years following World War Two. When an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers to sponsor Eilis in America — to live and work in a Brooklyn neighborhood “just like Ireland” — she decides she must go, leaving her fragile mother and her charismatic sister behind.
Eilis finds work in a department store on Fulton Street, and when she least expects it, finds love. Tony, who loves the Dodgers and his big Italian family, slowly wins her over with patient charm. But just as Eilis begins to fall in love with Tony, devastating news from Ireland threatens the promise of her future.
So I read this book over the course of three days, and really my main reaction to it was that Eilis is a big pushover and a wuss and a yes-man. Throughout the whole book, she had no agency, no backbone, and made no decisions for herself – she just went with what she was told to do, rolled over, and took it.
I absolutely hated her – every non-decision she made, from being shipped over to America because her sister said she should, to the eventual climax of the book where she didn’t actually make a decision, but just did what she was forced to. I hated her – I really, really hated her.
I’m a pretty spineless person myself – I like to say that I’m easygoing, but what I actually mean is that I’m too lazy to make decisions. Nonetheless, I have a certain amount of opinions, and am actually capable of making decisions for myself – or fighting back when something is foisted upon me. But Eilis? No such luck. She just rolled over and agreed to anything that was suggested to her, from intercontinental moves to jobs to all sorts of other things. I really, truly hated her as a character.
There were a few good things about Brooklyn – the scene setting was lovely. Lots of the supporting characters were compelling. I sobbed my way through the ‘devastating news from Ireland’ mentioned in the blurb (while on a tube! Oh! The mortification!) and was totally caught up in the emotion of the moment.
Sadly, though, it just wasn’t enough to stop me from hating Eilis and her story and the choices she made (or accepted that were made for her). She was a pushover and a wuss and I had no sympathy for her at all. She wasn’t compelling enough to carry her own story, and I finished the book sorely disappointed.
About a week after I had finished the book, I was home with my parents, and suggested that we watch Brooklyn. They agreed, so we all sat down to watch it. Then they changed their minds, and we watched something else for two hours, then changed their minds again, and we did eventually watch it.
That’s all preamble though. Brooklyn got a few Oscar nods, including Saoirse Ronan as Eilis. To be honest, I couldn’t see where the fuss about it came from. It was a good film, but not great.
When watching a film adaptation of a book, it’s difficult not to make comparisons, of course. Somewhat unusually, though, I enjoyed the film a lot more than the book.
Brooklyn the novel is told entirely from Eilis’s perspective – we see nothing other than what she sees, get no insight other than what she knows, but the film has a more omniscient presence. When Eilis is writing letters to her mother and sister, we see them, and how Eilis leaving has affected them – I really enjoyed this. It was great to see something more than the inside of Eilis – oh, how much I hated her – and her thoughts and feelings. The claustrophobia of the narrow, spineless mind which irritated me so much in the book was much less stifling in the film as we saw a wider perspective. That was point one in its favour.
Point two in its favour was that it changed the progression of the final third of the book slightly, in a way which made Eilis a much more likeable character. The difference is a massive spoiler, so I won’t go into detail, but suffice it to say, Eilis’ character is made much stronger, and she actually has something resembling a spine. Not an actual spine, mind, but something close to it. That was point two in its favour.
These two differences were enough to make a huge difference to my enjoyment of the film over the book – where I finished the book disgusted with Eilis and everything she stood for, film Eilis was more agreeable, and I finished the book actually happy for her and the choices she made – because she did actually make one tiny choice in the film, which is more than can be said for her book counterpart.
As for what my sister said? Oh, yes, I did cry. I sobbed my way through three consecutive scenes, and was struggling to breathe during the phone call home. It got so bad that my dad threw a box of tissues at me and then laughed. He’s an awful mean sod. There were also trickles of tears on and off throughout the next hour of the film.
Brooklyn the film was good, but not great. It was leagues better than the book, but I don’t think it’s the kind of film I’d watch again (unless I was in the mood to have my heart temporarily ripped out by that mid-way through happening).