Locked Out of the Little House: Hollywood Shuts the Door on Women Directors. Again.

September 4, 2013 | by | 0

I’ve often wondered why none of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic children’s books have been adapted for the big screen. Based on the experiences of Wilder’s own family homesteading on the Great Plains during the late 19th century, they have always seemed to me ripe for cinematic interpretation. Apparently, Scott Rudin agrees. The Hollywood super-producer is reportedly developing Little House on the Prairie into a major motion picture. The most iconic and controversial volume in Wilder’s eight-book Little House series, it chronicles the Ingalls’ attempt to settle Native American-populated territory that would later become Kansas. The news of Rudin’s upcoming production filled me with the apprehension I always feel when a cherished book is turned into a movie. The result is so often disappointing. This time that feeling was accompanied by something else: resentment.

Like many women, I began reading, and re-reading, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books as a young girl. I’ve never stopped. I have returned to the books at various stages in my life, always finding new and different angles on them, at once seduced and troubled by these autobiographical but fictionalized narratives. Unlike many Laura Ingalls Wilder fans, however, I never embraced the long-running 1970s television series, which not only starred Michael Landon, but which Landon also wrote and directed. From its ludicrous plots to Landon’s portrayal of Pa as a self-righteous brawler with blow-dried hair, bared chest and blinding white teeth, the show deviated unabashedly from the books. And not in what I considered good ways.

In 2000, a TV miniseries called Beyond the Prairie, directed by Marcus Cole, came along purporting to be the “true” story of Laura Ingalls Wilder. It too took questionable liberties with the source material. At the very least, a director with a genuine understanding of Laura’s character and the world she describes would not have had his blonde (blonde?!) lead running around with her hair down looking like a Southern California surfer chick or having sex al fresco in an abandoned claim shanty. Beyond the Prairie is more faithful than the Landon show to the events as they happened in the books and in the author’s life, but it is similarly tone deaf.

I’m not advocating slavish adherence to the text here. What I would like to see is a screen version of Wilder’s frontier tales that captures their unique flavor and spirit, the tensions and subtext embedded in the narrative. I want the cinematic equivalent of Sharon McCartney’s haunting poetry collection, The Love Song of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Each poem is written in the voices of different characters and objects from the Little House books. Lyrical and precise, these poems ply the undercurrents of desire and despair that flow through the narratives, addressing unanswered questions the books raise upon close and repeated reading. Here Laura speaks in lines from the title poem:

Let us go. . . on black ponies,
half-wild, bareback, like straddling locomotives,
. . . worsted drawers damp, dappled with horse sweat.

. . .I will always remember
how you tasted of granite, of lightning
and thunder, a fiddle string humming.

In her penetrating critical study, Constructing the Little House: Gender, Culture, and Laura Ingalls Wilder, author Ann Romines argues that the series really begins with Little House on the Prairie. It is here, she says, that Wilder and her collaborator and editor, daughter Rose Wilder Lane, first hit their stride, shaking off the narrative constraints that she believes hamper the first two books in the series, Little House in the Big Woods and Farmer Boy. Significantly, both of these earlier books center on the boyhood stories of fathers: Charles Ingalls, Laura’s beloved Pa, and Almanzo Wilder, husband of Laura and father of Rose. Romines writes:

To create a Little House series that would become one of the most memorable and problematic U.S. narratives of a girl’s experience, Wilder and Lane had to find new narrative strategies and to preempt the patriarchal voice that is such a strong presence in the first two books. They begin to discover their strategy in the third book, Little House on the Prairie . . . a mobile, exploratory lyric narrative, with a female sensibility at its center.

As the series follows Laura from early childhood to early adulthood, it shows the compromises and accommodations she must make to fit into an approved female mold and the small victories she achieves in cracking, if not breaking, that mold. Laura’s struggles in this area still feel pertinent today, which helps explain the series’ enduring popularity. Certainly, it is one of the reasons why the books, as well as Wilder’s other writings, have been examined at length by historians and cultural scholars and embraced by many as proto-feminist.

It is the reason why, when I heard that Rudin was making Little House on the Prairie into a film, my first thought was that it should be directed by a woman. I was rankled to discover, instead, that David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express, Prince Avalanche) is in talks with Rudin and Sony Pictures to direct. I don’t have anything against Green as a director. While his work has always been uneven, and in recent years he has concentrated on mainstream slacker comedies, his early coming-of-age dramas, such as George Washington and Undertow, revealed a keen eye for scruffy Southern landscapes. My problem is that his output, to date, has not demonstrated that he has any striking interest in telling stories about or through the eyes of female characters. Even in his two films where women play central roles, All the Real Girls and Snow Angels, our view of them is filtered through the perspective of the young male protagonists. The characters portrayed by Zooey Deschanel, the virginal love interest in All the Real Girls and Kate Beckinsale, a beleaguered small-town beauty in Snow Angels, drive the plots of these movies, but I would argue that in both films the story ultimately belongs to the boy.

Let me say here that gender inequality in the film industry isn’t usually something about which I get particularly worked up. It’s not that I am unaware of the dreary statistics; I can count on one hand the number of female directors working today at the forefront of American cinema. As an MFA student and, later, a teacher at two of the major film programs in the country, I have seen and experienced firsthand the obstacles, both subtle and overt, that women face when trying to make a career in film. I’ve periodically paused to reflect on how the once promising careers of so many women directors who came out of the gate strong with critically and/or commercially acclaimed features have seemed to stall or fizzle out – Susan Seidelman (Desperately Seeking Susan), Allison Anders (Gas Food Lodging), Jennie Livingston (Paris is Burning), Stacey Cochran (My New Gun), even Kim Pierce of Boys Don’t Cry fame. In the end, though, I’ve always been more interested in the quality of the work than the gender of the filmmaker.

With Little House on the Prairie it’s different. When I think of Rudin and Green bringing this book to the screen, I am overcome with the helpless anger of the dispossessed. These guys have swept in and taken over the Little House; taken it away from me and all the other women and girls who have lived with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, loved them, absorbed and pondered them, often to such an obsessive degree that it feels as though they are woven into our very DNA.

Pa Ingalls may build the various houses the family inhabits, but it is Ma, Laura and her sisters who furnish and keep them. Just as it is overwhelmingly females who keep the fires of Laura Ingalls Wilder fandom burning some seventy years after the books first appeared, who maintain most of the many blogs devoted to the author, who write the fan fiction, conduct the online read alongs of her books, and make the pilgrimages to her home sites. In the last few years, not one but two memoirs have been published by life-long Laura fanatics who have retraced the footsteps of the peripatetic author: Kelly Kathleen Ferguson’s My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself, and Wendy McClure’s laugh-out-loud funny The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie.

Let’s face it: most boys don’t read Laura Ingalls Wilder. They consider the Little House series “girl books.” I may be dead wrong, but I am willing to go out on a limb here and wager that David Gordon Green never opened Little House on the Prairie until Scott Rudin handed him a copy or he was compelled to read it to a female child. In Constructing the Little House, Romines writes that, as a girl, Little House on the Prairie is the volume that first captivated her and made her a fan because it was this one that:

freed [Laura]–and me–from the suffocating smallness of the Little House in the Big Woods and gave her space to run and imagine on the Kansas prairie. And it held out the tantalizing possibility that Westerns and Indians were games, and genres, in which (white) girls too could play.

As the story of a pioneer family attempting to homestead on contested Native American land (specifically on what was then the Osage Diminished Reserve), Little House on the Prairie qualifies as a Western, with cowboys even making a brief appearance. It also has the same problem so many examples of the genre do: an unenlightened depiction of Indians and their situation in relation to the white settlers. Reflective of the eras in which Wilder grew up and was writing, Little House on the Prairie has been condemned by many contemporary readers and critics as offensive to the Osage people and Native Americans in general. (Take a look at Osage descendent Dennis McAuliffe, Jr.’s scathing essay, “Little House on the Osage Prairie,” in which he memorably compares Charles Ingalls to Charles Manson.)

In the book, Pa is actually relatively open-minded towards the Indians though hardly progressive in his views, while Ma is a straight up racist. Young Laura’s attitude is much more conflicted. Though fearful of the Indians, she is also attracted to and fascinated by their culture as she encounters it on the prairie. Her curiosity, however, must be suppressed because, ultimately, it poses a threat to the patriarchal project of Western expansion and conquest. In order for Manifest Destiny to be fulfilled, the Indians must be removed from the land that white men, like Pa, seek to own and farm. Justification for their removal is, of course, predicated on the the idea that they are inferior beings, unworthy of respect or even interest.

All throughout the Little House series there are many things Laura Ingalls, as a female, must learn to suppress: not just curiosity about other cultures, but her emotions, thoughts, words, and most of all her desire to do what boys are allowed to do and girls aren’t, to experience the freedom and wildness that “respectable” females in 19th-century America were denied. Laura envies the Indian child she sees riding naked over the prairie. She, too, wants to feel the wind and sunshine against her bare skin, even as Ma Ingalls repeatedly cautions her daughters to keep their sunbonnets on lest they turn “brown as Indians.”

Love it or hate it, Little House on the Prairie is significant because it recounts, through the eyes of a young girl, a tragic and defining episode in American history that has traditionally been narrated in books and film by white males. The fact that the screenwriter attached to the forthcoming adaptation, Abi Morgan (Shame), is a female isn’t enough. A screenwriter is always subordinate to the director and, in commercial films, the producer. The director and producer have the power, the money and the creative control. It is the director’s vision we ultimately see up on screen. It’s no accident that women have so often filled the role of screenwriter rather than director.

In a way, the relationship of the screenwriter to the director and producer is a lot like the relationship between Pa and Ma Ingalls. Pa makes the decision to go West, even though it is arguably a terrible one. Ma voices some initial protest; she doesn’t want to drag her young children and baby to unsettled Indian Territory, leaving behind forever her extended family and the comforts of a familiar, established community. In the end, however, she must acquiesce uncomplainingly to her husband’s desire. Pa is a loving spouse and father, but as patriarch, his word is law. He calls the shots. Just as Scott Rudin and David Gordon Green will on their production of Little House on the Prairie.

It’s not as though Rudin has never worked with female directors before. Earlier in his career he produced Jodie Foster’s Little Man Tate and Gillian Armstrong’s Mrs. Soffel (Armstrong later went on to direct an acclaimed adaptation of that other classic girl’s story, Little Women). So why isn’t Rudin hiring a woman on this project, where it would make so much sense? Even if we consider the marketing standpoint, it seems unlikely that attaching a midlevel director like David Gordon Green, who has one minor hit under his belt, will be enough to pull in that coveted 18-to 25-year-old male demographic that we always hear so much about. A period piece about a prepubescent girl offers little to attract those audience members.

Why not give it, then, to someone who has proven her facility with similar material? Someone like Kelly Reichardt, whose stark vision and compelling female protagonist made Meek’s Cutoff a remarkable modern western. Or Jane Campion. Her uncanny feel for the emotional constrictions that bound 19th-century females as tightly as their corsets and unflattering hair-dos, coupled with her brilliance in expressing visually the odd, unexpected ways in which their sensual appetites surface, is what made The Piano and, to a lesser degree, The Portrait of a Lady, extraordinary. A similar quality animates Wilder’s prose in Little House on the Prairie and all the books in the series.

I’m not suggesting that only women should direct stories of women and vice versa. Katharine Bigelow directs intensely masculine stories with stunning results. In the history of cinema, though, men have always directed women’s stories. And Wilder’s books have already been adapted twice by men, both of whom left a lot of room for improvement. There are female directors out there who are as talented as David Gordon Green. Surely, it isn’t so far off base to imagine that one of them might be more likely to connect with this material and on a deeper level than a male director, resulting in a film that is truer to the essence of Wilder’s own vision. Isn’t that, after all, what we want from a literary adaptation?

Kryssa SchemmerlingKryssa Schemmerling is a filmmaker and writer. She is currently in post-production on a dramatic short, “The West Begins at Fifth Avenue,” which imagines the childhood of a notorious American outlaw. Her most recently completed project is a documentary about surfers in Rockaway Beach, Queens entitled “Our Hawaii” (ourhawaii.net). Kryssa teaches screenwriting at New York University and Montclair State University and lives in Brooklyn. Her poetry can be found online in the journals Mudlark and the upcoming issue of Poecology.

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