Aptly adapted to its environment

As ‘Shopgirl’ moves from sheet to screen, complexity remains

Jenna Ross

Of course there are moments. For terrible split seconds, the film crushes where the novella caresses. The film speaks where the novella pauses. The film exposes what the novella hides.

But overall, “Shopgirl” is a rare film that complements – rather than ruins – the work on which it was based.

Perhaps this is because Steve Martin’s slim book about a young woman’s self-discovery isn’t perfect. Perhaps it’s because Martin himself adapted that slim book into a screenplay. But for some reason, “Shopgirl” the film and “Shopgirl” the book mix and match their highs and lows and land, beautifully, in between.

The film’s fortes
The dialogue:
Martin’s omnipotent narrator is charmingly and often achingly straightforward when describing his heroine, Mirabelle, a Saks Fifth Avenue shopgirl (Claire Danes). But when the book’s constant voice is translated to an only occasional voiceover, its subtlety is lost.

Subtlety appears instead in the dialogue. Martin had to write more dialogue for the film than was present in the novella. The result: What the narrator had to explain in the novella is now exposed by funny, smart conversations.

The actors:
As Jeremy, Jason Schwartzman is charmingly oblivious, rather than annoyingly so. When Mirabelle has to open the car door herself, he delivers the “I’ll get it next time” with a perfect, precise monotone.

With each of his lines and each of his looks, he fills out the novella’s sometimes flat character. Thus, when that character changes and learns and understands and grows and at last becomes a man, it rings true.

Oh, and Danes and Martin aren’t bad either.

The book’s bag
The Structure:
The film’s trailer shouldn’t have been as surprising as it was. Of course they made the film into a love triangle. It’s Hollywood, after all. But it’s also unfortunate.

One of the novella’s perfections was its refusal to set the story up as a “whom will she choose” scenario. At times, Jeremy is all but forgotten. As in life, he escapes from memory only to reappear with unexpected force.

The money thing:
If Jeremy shows up in the end of the novella in a shiny new car, I don’t remember it. Jeremy transforms inside. It matters little what he drives.

But in the film, it is only when Jeremy finds success – professionally and financially – that he is good enough for Mirabelle. The book is so much sweeter. Jeremy sees what truly attracted him to Mirabelle. And Mirabelle sees herself in him -not in the reflection of his sweet, silver ride.

In the end Ö

Both the film and the novella succeed where they must. They disregard the idea of the perfect mate and instead focus on how a person can be a little wrong but a lot right. Ray (Steve Martin) and Mirabelle treat each other in a familiar way. They fight. They comfort each other. They fill voids and create new ones.

It’s funny how that imperfection feels an awful lot like love.