Book vs Film: Girl with a Pearl Earring

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I remember exactly when I first read Girl with a Pearl Earring. I was going on a beach vacation and packed a bunch of books to keep me occupied (because for me “beach vacation” equals “non-stop reading under an umbrella”). I worked at a bookstore at the time and Tracy Chevalier’s novel came highly recommended from a co-worker. She described it as historical fiction but I had no idea what that meant. All I knew was that I wasn’t a big fan of history class in school so I probably wasn’t going to like the book. But at some point within the first few chapters I remember thinking, “Wait, THIS is historical fiction?” It was nothing like I expected, and I’ve been hooked on the genre ever since.

If you haven’t read it, Girl with a Pear Earring is a novel inspired by the Vermeer painting of the same name. Chevalier’s main character is Griet, a 16-year-old servant working in the Vermeer household who ends up becoming the model for the famous painting. In the film adaptation, Griet is played by Scarlett Johansson, although apparently Kate Hudson was scheduled to take on the role but had to drop out. I liked the character of Griet in the book but Johansson’s performance fell incredibly flat. She basically had one facial expression for the entire movie. Don’t believe me? There’s an entire discussion on IMDb about it.

But while the acting wasn’t amazing, the overall look of the movie was. Everything about the art direction, cinematography, set & costume design made the film look incredible. It’s not exactly surprising that a book about art would translate well to film, but still, sometimes the movie doesn’t look as good on the screen as it does in your mind while you’re reading it. That is definitely not the case with Girl with a Pearl Earring. It really is a gorgeous movie to watch.

Whenever I watch a movie based on a book, I wonder how the author feels about the adaptation. Tracy Chevalier has been pretty open about her experience with her book being made into a film. In fact, she wrote an entire article about it, which you can read here. I appreciate her honesty about the process:

“It was a strange experience reading someone else’s version of my story. I felt a little sick as I read it, as if from the dizziness of someone else climbing inside my head and looking out through my eyes.”

Although Chevalier has written seven books, Girl with a Pearl Earring is the only adaptation of her work to date. I’d be curious to find out if any of her other books have been optioned for films, or whether she has turned any proposals down. From the Guardian article I linked too above, she doesn’t sound overly positive about the whole thing:

“All of the private ideas I’d had about the settings of my book were suddenly, brutally public, with cast and crew crawling all over them, measuring and moving, pulling and prodding. I kept wondering if eventually they would pull so hard the story and characters would fall apart and I’d be caught out as a fraud.”

I’d much prefer to read Chevalier’s books than see the movie versions anyway. If you like historical fiction I highly recommend picking up any one of her novels. Skip this film version of Girl with a Pearl Earring, though. Unless you want to see Colin Firth as Vermeer, and I certainly wouldn’t blame you if you did.

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