12 March 2010

Post-Oscars Reverse Filmbook Special: Lynn Barber's AN EDUCATION

As a book supremacist, I nearly always try to read the book a movie is based on before watching the movie itself. I didn't think to do this for "An Education," the Best Picture-nominated movie about a teenage girl in London in the '60s, but when I looked it up afterward I discovered the book hadn't even come out in the U.S. yet. When I got an e-mail out of the blue from Atlas Books about the memoir the movie was based on, I was pretty excited.

If you haven't seen the movie yet and you should, a quick non-spoilery summary: Jenny, a teenager who fancies herself a sophisticate in training, meets an older man named David when he gives her a lift home from orchestra rehearsal. (Orchestra: where trouble begins.) David seems to be a portal into the glamorous world Jenny dreams of entering, much more than the college education her parents have always insisted she needs to succeed in life, but is he really? It boasts a screenplay by fellow British author Nick Hornby, which was also nominated for an Oscar but lost (to "The Hurt Locker," I think "Precious," my mistake).

The book, while short, covers Barber's whole life, while the movie only shows a few of her teenage years. I guess it's a spoiler then to reveal that she does not die by the end of the movie, but you're bright, you probably figured that out. After the events shown in the movie took place, Barber went on to have a pretty interesting life. She worked at Penthouse when it was a tiny start-up; she hobnobbed with the Condé Nast crew in New York; she had children and a career at a time when most nice girls didn't.

That's the first important difference. The second is that Barber's prose is very spare and matter-of-fact, employing the understatement some would call classically British to tasks like describing the content of Penthouse (apparently it was classier back then?) or relating her husband's struggle with cancer. The movie plays up the difference between Jenny/Lynn's shabby, drab family home and dull classroom existence and the flashbulb-happy, opulent life she is exposed to through David (Simon in the book); add a striking color palette and a few well-chosen touches of music, and seeing Barber's experiences in the movie is a much richer experience than reading about it. (For director Lone Scherfig, who began in the Dogme 95 tradition, employing these tools must feel like an embarrassment of riches.)

I don't mean to say that Hornby or Scherfig captured Barber's life better than she did, because that would be ridiculous. But it's easier to assign a particular arc to a section of your life rather than all of it, and somewhere along in adaptation it must have been decided that this was the section to focus on. Barber makes it clear that what happened to her as a teenager changed her life, so it's not an incorrect vision by any means. Still, I appreciated being able to complete the picture through the book, because I would have wondered otherwise what became of her.

Verdict: If you see the movie, you should definitely read this book. Run out and buy it now if you're a teenage girl and you liked the movie, because while I liked "An Education" more than I expected to, I would have loved it at, say, 15, but also seen it as a tragedy, and the book offers some perspective. With age comes wisdom, kids! It's my birthday, I should know.

FTC cover-assery: as mentioned, Atlas Books sent me a free copy to review.

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