As long as we are making admissions, Women’s Voices couldn’t resist going behind the curtain to interview novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz, whose novel Admission has become a film that’s in theaters now. Back when WVFC launched in 2005, Jean Hanff Korelitz covered our mission in
My daughter hasn’t finished her freshman year in high school yet, but we’re already anticipating (“stressing out about” might be a more accurate way to put it) a looming major life event. College admissions.
Jean Hanff Korelitz’s wonderful 2010 novel Admission deals with this real-life drama, shedding light on a mysterious process that is somehow simultaneously scientific and subjective. Portia, the story’s protagonist, is an admissions officer at no less an institution than Princeton. Her devotion to her work keeps her from facing her passionless present and a painful past. Through the course of the book, she faces some powerful admissions of her own.
Having read Admission (practically in one sitting) and just seen the new movie adaptation, starring Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, and Lily Tomlin, I was thrilled to speak with the novel’s author, Jean Hanff Korelitz.
Can you tell me about the journey from novel to movie? What was that like?
It’s a bit like college admissions itself, in that a series of people have to say “Yes” to you and, at any time, somebody can shut the whole thing down by saying “No, I don’t think so.” My agent sent it to a producer, Kerry Kohansky, who was looking for a project to do with a particular screenwriter, Karen Croner, who had just gone through high school admissions with her son.
So she was close to your material.
Yes, very close. She has referred to Los Angeles high school admissions as a blood sport. She was very taken with the notion of an admissions officer whom one was supposed to feel sorry for. (She thought that was hysterical.) She loved the book, and it started rolling from there. They worked with Paul Weitz, the director, and he brought in Tina Fey—and, of course, that was the big one. Once Tina Fey was interested, it became a much more viable project. Of course, at any moment the whole thing could have fallen apart. I kept thinking, “Oh this is all going to go away.” Then finally, on the set, I thought, “Maybe it’s not. This is actually going to happen now. I mean—that’s Tina Fey over there; she’s speaking the lines.”
How involved were you? Obviously the story changed in some significant ways. Were you part of that conversation?
Conversation? Yes. Decision-making process? No. They were extremely generous toward me in terms of keeping me—well, your metaphor is very apt—in the conversation. But I was not the screenwriter; I signed over my rights. But Karen and I sat down together at the beginning and set the ground rules. I was going to keep out of her way, and in return she was going to keep me in the conversation. And that’s basically what happened. She had warned me that there would be a lot more humor in her script than in my novel, and I didn’t think that could be done, but I was willing to see how she was going to do that. And she did.
Talk to me about the term “romantic comedy.” The trailer for Admission certainly packages it as a “rom-com.” Did you think of your book as a romantic comedy?
Absolutely not. Not at all. But I don’t think the film is a romantic comedy either. So that’s something that was either consciously attached to it or somebody said, “Oh . . . attractive couple, meets cute, it must be a romantic comedy.”
One of the things I loved about your book is that it’s very thoughtful. I had to think while I was reading it. It seems as if the marketing people in the Hollywood industry don’t want you to think you have to think.
It’s too bad, because I know that if I were to go into a movie that I didn’t know much about, I would consider it a plus that it was not a formulaic story, that I didn’t know where the story was going, and that it ended up in a place I didn’t anticipate. I think this would be a plus. But, I think you’re right, I think most people say, “I’m going to watch this romantic comedy, and dammit, it’d better be a romantic comedy or I’m going to be disappointed.”
I think that really came across in some of the reviews, where they got more laughs out of the trailer than they did out of the movie. There were some funny parts in your book, but it’s not a laugh riot situation that you’ve set up.
Not at all. I did have a lot of fun with the faculty dinner party. Academics can be very silly (as much as I love them). In the novel, I have a lot of fun with philosophers, and that’s because two of my closest friends at Princeton are philosophers. I’ve been collecting their stories of life in the philosophy world for years, and I put a lot of them into that chapter. But I think that’s as close as the book actually comes to anything funny.
Do you feel like the ideal audiences for the book and the movie are the same?
That’s a good question. You mean the actual perfect audience that’s out there, not necessarily the one the filmmakers went for? Yes, I do. Because I think this is a film for women, for smart women. I think we are better able to . . . (pause) I’m going to get in so much trouble for this.
Ha. You probably won’t in Women’s Voices for Change.
I think women are more willing to keep multiple ideas in their heads at the same time. We live with the complexity of real life situations that don’t have easy resolutions. We know that crazy humor and great sadness are bound up together, because that is the way many of us live our lives. There is tragedy and there is humor constantly and we are going through our lives with full knowledge of these at all times. [Paul Weitz’s previous movie] About a Boy is a beloved film. We remember it as a comedy, but it’s a film about a mother trying to commit suicide. It had incredibly hilarious moments, and yet it was a story that resonated with us because it was a movie about how hard it is to be a parent, and how hard it is to be a kid, and how hard it is to get through your life and not hurt anybody. This is how we live. This is how women—especially women in midlife—live. We’ve had harm done to us, we’ve harmed other people. If we’ve had children, we’ve tried really hard not to screw them up. Maybe we’ve been successful, maybe we haven’t. But we’ll take humor where we can find it. We’re open to seeing that on screen.
I feel strongly that this is a film for me. If I walked in and had no knowledge of it, hadn’t read the book, didn’t know the story or anything, I would have walked out saying “I love this film.” And I would have recommended it to everyone. And it sounds like that’s what’s beginning to happen now. Of course people have to get past the perception that it’s a failed romantic comedy. But women who’ve actually seen the film are loving it.
I certainly did. Do you have a new project you’re working on?
I have a new novel that’s coming out a year from now, You Should Have Known. I’ve finished it and it’s just been accepted by my publisher. Again, I find myself attracted to these characters who build their lives and their self images around a lie, around a mistake. In this case, it’s an oversight. It’s about a marriage counselor who is a bit on the judgmental side. She’s about to publish a non-fiction book called You Should Have Known, which basically castigates women about listening to their early impressions of men. Just before the book is published, her life explodes and everything that she thinks she knows about her own marriage is a lie and, again, there’s the taking apart of a superficially together life and knocking this poor character down to the studs.
And then Hollywood will make it a romantic comedy.
Ha! Terrific. That’ll be hard, though, because there’s an actual body count in it!