Could you like a character that starts sleeping with her best friend’s fiancé on the thirteenth page of a novel? How much work does an author have to put in to convince an audience that her protagonist is worthy of sympathy, despite having begun with an extraordinary breach of trust between lifelong friends? In her debut book, “Something Borrowed,” writer Emily Giffin tries to do just that. Actually, she goes even further; one shouldn’t just sympathize with Rachel, but root for her. We, as readers, are set up to want the break-up of an engagement and a friendship. It’s more than a bit tricky.
This week, I took a dive into the world of “Chick Lit” and read this particularly tumultuous novel. It’s been adapted into a feature film (which I’ve yet to see), coming out this weekend. Ginnifer Goodwin plays Rachel, our hero who kicks things off by sleeping with the fiancé of her pal since elementary school, Darcy (Kate Hudson). The plot of the book doesn’t really get much more complex than that, at least not until the finale’s series of soapy dramatic reveals. In the meantime it proceeds to present a somewhat conventional affair between the fiancé, Dex (played in the movie by Colin Egglesfield, of daytime soaps himself), and our heroine. On the whole, though the book definitely has a problem in its representation of women, it offers some interesting fodder for cinematic adaptation. If done well and with some creative screenwriting, “Something Borrowed” could work.
Watching the trailer for its adaptation is as good an introduction to the plot of the novel as you need. Rachel and Dex sleep together the night of her 30th birthday, they end up having a bit of an affair, and we spend the rest of the book wondering with increasing trepidation whether or not he’ll leave Darcy before the wedding. There are also a few supporting characters, friends of Rachel that appear to have been combined by screenwriter Jennie Snyder into the role played by John Krasinski in the film. There’s a whole lot of cheating and guilt, which in any other context would be terribly dark and scandalous.
Yet it isn’t. And it’s not just because Giffin fills the book with her very light sense of humor. The principal reason we end up rooting for Rachel, hoping that she breaks up an engagement and ruins her best friend’s life, is due to Darcy’s horrible nature. Both Dex and Rachel behave quite badly, according to pretty much everyone’s morals, and so in order for this to work we have to hate Darcy. She’s cast as selfish, obnoxious, and obsessed with her image, always focused on making sure the attention rests on her. Giffin even makes sure to give her one of the most flighty and insipid professions you can have in New York City: public relations. Finding Darcy so despicable that you want her to be left at the altar is essential for the story, and so the movie really depends on Hudson. Hopefully she can pull it off.
As for the other characters, there are some things that probably need to be fixed if the adaptation is going to work. The novel has the typical chick lit problem of the embarrassingly guy-focused protagonist, a woman almost completely dependent upon the idea of having a man. Rachel has a one-track mind for the entirety of the book’s 300-plus pages. Having grown up in the shadow of Darcy’s egotistical lust for life she turns 30 with an extraordinary amount of self-doubt, body-image anxiety, and she’s constantly moping about how she’ll never get married. It’s the sort of ridiculous character construction that pervades the romantic comedy genre these days and frankly should be seriously challenged by the film. Ginnifer Goodwin too often seems to be the one tasked with the quietly codependent role, and while she got plenty of positive depth on “Big Love,” it seems likely that “Something Borrowed” may very well be a repeat of the disastrous “He’s Just Not That Into You.”
The men, on the other hand, are far too boring. While Darcy and Rachel are complex characters with a cacophony of flaws, be they excessive confidence or a complete lack thereof, Dex and Ethan (Krasinski in the film) are simply portrayed as either rationally sage or “just perfect.” Dex in particular is written as gorgeous, kind and lovelorn. Giffin completely passes up the opportunity to explore why he’s cheating on Darcy (beyond simply how shallow she is), instead opting to present him as a sexy 21st century Prince Charming with a good job, a great body and a deeply romantic sensibility. There’s some hope in the trailer that this is dealt with, a scene between Dex and his father (not a character in the novel), but it’ll require more than a little introspection to fix up the balance issues in gender representation.
Despite the basic flaws inherent in the book’s romantic leads, however, “Something Borrowed” is the kind of thing that could do very well as a film. It’s an awfully dark story, and there’s something very interesting in the project of making an audience root for the collapse of an engagement and the success of a couple cheating on someone they theoretically hold dear. It doesn’t necessarily need to be marital black comedy à la “The War of the Roses,” but an adaptation that is at least conscious of its blatant grab of support for unethical behavior would be nice. With that settled, and perhaps a bit of a feminist re-write of some characters, “Something Borrowed” could be a pretty good picture. Let’s hope.