Summer is the season of Hollywood Blockbusters and it is in this frivolous spirit that The Prime Writers give way to the dream and have a go at casting their novels as films. Throughout the month of August Prime Writers will be putting forth their ideas. It will be interesting to see whether readers agree with our choices in casting beloved characters.
Next up is Martine Bailey whose novel The Penny Heart has just come out in paperback.
Have you heard of the Bechdel test? In the film world it’s a test of gender bias. It is very simple:
1) there are at least two named female characters, who
2) talk to each other about
3) something other than a man.
It is named after the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, whose comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For shows a woman defining the rules and complaining, ‘No kidding. Last movie I was able to see was Alien…’
Research has shown that barely half of all movies would pass the test. It is even rumoured that American film schools still instruct screenwriters to only create single white male protagonists. So I am reassured that The Penny Heart seems to pass the test in spite of it being set in the eighteenth century. After all, women have always talked to each other – it’s just that it’s an activity generally invisible to men.
The novel tells of two very different women whose lives collide following a confidence trick. Casting would need two powerful female actors to carry a story that balances opposing points of view.
Mary Jebb is born poor, a talented cook and confidence trickster who has sworn to avenge those who have harmed her. She’s been reprieved from the gallows, survived Botany Bay and sailed into even worse horrors when her escape leads to shipwreck. She is a born survivor and I’d give her role to Myanna Buring, the sensual and feisty star of Ripper Street and Banished. Her looks are both alluring but also oddly reptilian when angry, which is how I imagine chameleon-like Mary to be.
Grace Moore is a timid and intelligent artist who grows increasingly dependent upon Mary at remote Delafosse Hall. She is unhappily married and soon finds her fortun
e and confidence failing. Grace has to develop hidden strengths to survive. It’s a perfect role for good-hearted but determined Felicity Jones (Northanger Abbey, Brideshead Revisited). Her attractiveness seems to me to stem from her innate lack of guile.
As I wrote the novel, I pinned up a photo of a young James Fox crying in the movie The Servant, to get a fix on Grace’s vain and weak husband. Yes, the two women do occasionally discuss him, but only one of them is telling the truth…
As for the Bechdel test, research shows that those films that pass the test actually return more on investment than those that fail. With hits like Frozen, The Hunger Games and new Ghostbusters movie, it seems that at last we’re moving forward from stereotypes to multi-dimensional women in our popular culture.
The Penny Heart is a Sunday Times Summer Read and was available in paperback from the 28 July 2016. It is also published by St Martin’s Press in the US as A Taste For Nightshade.