It’s perfectly understandable for an author to want some level of creative input in how their work is adapted. In reality, though, it’s rare for an author to have influence beyond possibly handling screenplay duties. Few authors have the clout of J.K. Rowling (or, to more disastrous results, E.L. James). Adriana Trigiani, though, gets more than just some creative input with the film adaptation of her novel Big Stone Gap. Trigiani not only tackles the screenplay for the film, but also handles directing the film, with the choice to shoot it on location in the actual Big Stone Gap. The result may give Trigiani a film that she’s proud of, but it also serves as proof that a story that works in one medium doesn’t necessarily translate into another, and having someone with experience working in film isn’t a bad idea.
Big Stone Gap is set in the town of the same name in 1978, and follows 40-year-old Ave Maria Mulligan (Ashley Judd), who is ready to resign herself to life as the town spinster. Ave Maria has a partner of sorts in her friend and colleague in community theater, Theodore (John Benjamin Hickey), but there’s no chance of a romance with him. She instead keeps busy managing the local pharmacy, directing plays, and occasionally flirting with Jack (Patrick Wilson), a miner she’s known since high school. One day, though, Ave Maria’s world is thrown into chaos when she learns about her lineage, leading to a property dispute with distant relatives and the chance to travel out into the world.
The book this film is based on is a bestseller, and readers have enjoyed it enough to turn Trigiani’s love letter to her hometown into a series of books. It’s one thing to paint a story with words, though. With film, eccentricities that read well on paper stand the very likely chance of becoming gross exaggerations, and settings that create an idyllic image in the mind can come off as flat on screen. Both of these problems are obvious issues with Big Stone Gap. Judd and Wilson turn in solid performances, but the supporting cast – including Whoopi Goldberg, Jenna Elfman, and Jane Krakowski in full Rural Juror mode – are basically cartoons. Instead of representing a facet of America that’s not normally the center of a film, Big Stone Gap just makes the story a cliché that Hollywood’s pumped out so many times before.
As I mentioned, Judd turns in a solid performance, and keeps the film watchable even when she’s dealing with Trigiani’s clichéd script. Her moments opposite Wilson share enough of a spark to suggest a film that focused more on these two would have the potential to be a better film. But even Judd can’t save this film from Trigiani, who may just be too close to the subject matter to make it seem special to her audience. Aside from a documentary made decades ago, Trigiani doesn’t have directorial experience, and it shows in the way that scenes are staged and inconsistencies that pop up between cuts. It’s understandable that an author would want to make sure their labor of love was adapted with care, but in handling those duties herself, Trigiani may have failed her story more than an outsider or two would have with this material.