I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the movie Mermaids. I remember watching it as a kid, I think I may have even seen it in the theater with my mom. And I’ve continued watching it, again and again, over the years. So imagine my surprise when I recently discovered that my beloved Mermaids is actually based on a book. A book that I haven’t read! I had to rectify that immediately.
Mermaids, written by Patty Dann, was published in 1986. The movie came out shortly after in 1990. Here’s what Patty Dann had to say about the process of adapting her novel:
“It was wonderful and a bit overwhelming. I would be sorting socks on the bed and get calls like, Barbra Streisand wants to do the movie, and I’d just say, sure, and then Cher ended up playing the mother. It was a wild experience. I like the movie very much. The first time I saw it without music it had a very different feel, and it took a while to get used to the soundtrack. When I wrote it, I never thought about music in the background, but now I put the music on sometimes when I clean the house.”
When I compare books to movies I don’t really care about the small differences between the two, I don’t care about things that were cut. I understand that both are completely different art forms so they can’t possibly be the same. The only reason I compare books to movies is because I find it interesting to see what artistic choices are made when adapting the written word to a visual medium like film.
I have mixed emotions about the book Mermaids. There are many similarities between the novel and the movie. Some of the dialogue, especially Charlotte’s dialogue, is exactly the same in both. Take this gem, for example:
“Please God don’t let me fall in love and want to do disgusting things… Dear God, I love the way he throws.”
If you read the book after seeing the movie, such as I did, it will be impossible for you not to hear Winona Ryder’s voice narrating the story as Charlotte. In the novel, Charlotte describes herself as having “curly hair and haunted eyes.” I think Ryder was a great choice for this part, despite the fact that she doesn’t have curly hair. She pulls off this quirky character and really makes it her own. The story is told from her perspective, and in the book the other characters remain pretty detached throughout, so you never really get to know and love them like you do in the movie. Take Lou, for example. He’s such a secondary character in the book, and nowhere near as interesting and likable as he is in the film, where he is brought to life so brilliantly by Bob Hoskins.
I was also surprised how different Mrs. Flax is in the book. The basic idea of her is the same, she moves around a lot, gets tons of attention from men, makes weird meals that revolve around hors d’oeuvres and fun finger foods. But she’s so cold in the book, nothing like the woman Cher plays in the movie.
Joe Peretti plays a bigger role in the book. One detail that they changed for the movie was Charlotte and Joe’s day out together. In the movie it was a fishing trip, but in the book it was a “photographic safari” to take pictures of egrets. I had to google what the hell an egret is, so I’d say that change was for the better.
My favourite part of the book was the sensory language Dann uses, especially in the scenes that take place in Landsky’s shoe store. That store plays a bigger role in the book because Charlotte gets a part time job there. Here’s what I mean about the language:
“The best part of the job was when Mr. Landsky was not around. Then I turned the OPEN sign to CLOSED and lay down on a pile of broken shoes behind the counter, smelling the leather and trying to remember my father.”
And for some reason, this line really stuck with me. I just love how Dann crafted this:
“I breathed in the licorice and shoe-leather smell and could almost forget the snow that covered the town and the fact I’d felt cold all my life.”
One thing’s for sure, Mermaids tells a really original story, with really interesting and strong female characters. I’d have to say that I like the movie better in this case, but that might be based more on nostalgia than anything else. It also helps that the movie has a pretty epic soundtrack, including Cher’s flawless version of “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss)“.