May 26, 2019

Meg Wolitzer’s Novel Comes to Life in ‘The Wife’

When it comes to dealing with Hollywood, author Meg Wolitzer has learned that patience is essential. Her novel “The Wife” was published in 2003. The following year, screenwriter Jane Anderson began adapting it, and 14 years later it has finally been made into a movie starring Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce. The film has already earned rave reviews ahead of its Aug. 17 release.

“It’s delayed gratification; that’s how it goes. But the payoff in the end is seeing your work being taken seriously and appreciated by other people,” Wolitzer told the Journal. The reason for the long gestation period, she said, was that the central character is a woman of a certain age, and studios and financiers weren’t interested. Even when Close came on board, it was still hard to get funding. “It’s not about an asteroid hitting Earth,” Wolitzer said.

However, the fact that the movie is coming out when gender roles, female empowerment and working women’s issues are at the top of people’s minds makes it especially timely. “It’s about the marriage of this couple, and power and compromise. And it’s about the contracts that we make in a relationship, set against the world as it has treated men and women,” Wolitzer said. “There are issues in it that we’re still wrestling with today in so many ways.” 

In the film, Joan Castleman (Close) has supported her famous novelist husband Joe (Pryce) since they met in the late 1950s, when she put her own writing ambitions aside for his sake.  But as he’s about to receive the Nobel Prize for literature, secrets come to light that rock the foundation of their marriage.

“These are issues I’ve been talking about for a very long time in my work,” Wolitzer said. “I’ve often written about men and women, women and power, and ideas of how we get our say in the world: who has a voice, who doesn’t. But Joan is not a victim. That was important to everyone involved in this.”

Anderson kept Wolitzer in the loop as she wrote and revised the script, and although the role of the Castlemans’ son (Max Irons) was beefed up, other threads in the book were cut for time’s sake. In the novel, Joan’s wealthy, WASPy mother does not approve of her daughter marrying Joe, who is Jewish. “There’s a strain of anti-Semitism that impels Joan toward Joe more and away from her mother,” Wolitzer said. “Making them different from each other created a tension that brings them together.”

 “It’s about the contracts that we make in a relationship, set against the world as it has treated men and women. There are issues in it that we’re still wrestling with today in so many ways.” —Meg Wolitzer

Wolitzer’s novels often include Jewish characters, with her latest, “The Female Persuasion,” among them. But their religion is explored only if it’s relevant “and true to who they are,” she said. 

Wolitzer’s own Jewish upbringing in Syosset, N.Y., was secular, but she has fond memories of celebrating the holidays with her family and attending the Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute Sunday school. “We had a Yiddish reader, ‘Mottele and Gittele,’ a sort of Yiddish ‘Dick and Jane,’ ” she said. 

Today, she is not affiliated with a temple, “but I celebrate the Jewish holidays in my own way with my family,” Wolitzer said. She’s married with two grown sons — a lawyer and a musician. In becoming a writer, she followed in the footsteps of her mother, novelist Hilma Wolitzer. “She was always incredibly encouraging to me as a writer and that meant a lot to me. She never said, ‘Maybe you should try something else’ because she was worried about me,” Wolitzer said. “To this day I’m very grateful to her.”

“The Wife” is the fourth of Wolitzer’s dozen novels to be adapted for the screen, following Nora Ephron’s directorial debut of her novel “This is Your Life,” the TV movie “Surrender, Dorothy” with Diane Keaton, and “The Interestings,” which Amazon made into a pilot but passed on the series. Wolitzer was disappointed, “but I’ve had more [projects] made than most writers,” she said. “It’s a miracle when something actually makes it to the screen because so many things have to happen involving money and timing.”

She did not visit the set of “The Wife” during filming in Scotland and Sweden, but attended the Toronto Film Festival premiere last fall, and has seen it again while making the rounds of pre-opening premieres. “The audience responded in this incredible way. You don’t get that [feedback] with a book,” she said. 

“It’s very gratifying to see characters I’ve created with specific idiosyncrasies and lines of dialogue suddenly appear on the screen,” she added. “I never write with that in mind. I don’t see their faces that clearly but when it happens it’s a lovely thing, especially in this case. It’s so exciting to have these extraordinary actors play these parts. It’s thrilling for me. I was riveted by the performances. And as a film lover, it’s very exciting to see this come together.”

Wolitzer is working on a new novel and has been busy promoting “The Female Persuasion” on a book tour since its release in April, but said it was worth putting her work aside to participate in activities for “The Wife.” 

“I just attended a screening in the Hamptons. It made me so proud. I didn’t make the film, but I felt like a shepherd of it, introducing it to the audience.”

She is gratified to see her book—newly reissued as a tie-in with the film—complete “this long journey to become a film that I think is great,” she said. “I’m a grateful novelist.”

“The Wife” opens in theaters on Aug. 17.