I found out accidentally that Where the Heart Is began its life as a book first. Until I was randomly searching for information on Wikipedia one day, I thought it was just a pretty good Natalie Portman film. Then I learned it's actually a really amazing story.
Where the Heart Is, by Billie Letts, was published in 1995. It became a film after Oprah singled it out as a Book Club selection.
The novel begins with Novalee and Willy Jack, a couple of kids on their way from Tennessee to California. Novalee is 17, 7 months pregnant and totally afraid of the number 7. At age 7 her mother ran off on her, and once she got cut by a customer while she was waitressing. Repairing the damage took 77 stitches.
After Novalee's shoes fall through a hole in their beat-up car, Willy Jack stops at a Wal-Mart in Sequoyah, Oklahoma so she can go to the ladies' room and buy new sandals. The cashier hands her $7.77 in change, and Novalee returns to the parking lot to find that she's been abandoned.
She has nowhere else to go, so Novalee spends the day in Wal-Mart. This is how she meets Sister Husband, a friendly woman in charge of the Welcome Wagon for the town. She mistakes Novalee for someone named Ruth Ann Mott, and gives her a welcome basket. Novalee also becomes aquainted with Moses Whitecotton, Wal-Mart photographer, who gives her advice about naming her baby. Later, Native American Benny Goodlucky gives her a buckeye tree.
Novalee begins to live at Wal-Mart, hiding out during closing time and sleeping in the store after hours. The tree becomes sicker and sicker as she continues squatting in the store. Novalee doesn't just stay at Wal-Mart, however. She goes to the library to find books that can help her with the tree, and here she meets Forney Hull. He's charged with caring for his sister, the librarian, and seems a little off-kilter himself.
Novalee delivers the baby in the store, but Forney sees her and breaks in to take her to the hospital. This is where she meets Lexi, a nurse with lots of kids. Novalee ends up living with Sister and becoming good friends with Forney. At the end, she finds Willy Jack again. Novalee takes him home before she goes to find Forney and tell him of her true feelings: she's in love with him.
In the movie, Natalie Portman is Novalee Nation and she shines in the role. Novalee begins as a timid young girl, but she finds her way through the course of the story and realizes her true potential. Stockard Channing plays a memorable Sister, and Ashley Judd is positively charming as Lexi (though physically she was ill-suited to the role). If you haven't seen this tear-jerker, you are truly missing out. But if you, like me, become familiar with just one version of the story you're only getting part of the entire tale.
Sally Field appears briefly as Novalee's mother, who runs off with the $500 Novalee received from Wal-Mart after her baby is born. In the film, Sister arrives to pick Novalee up from the hospital instead. Joan Cusack later appears as Willy Jack's agent. He fell into trouble one night and got arrested, but in jail Willy Jack composed a hit country song. He messes up his opportunity, of course, the way he messed up so many others, and Willy Jack comes to ill ends. But he inadvertently tells Novalee what she needs to hear: that one lie can change an entire life. Novalee rushes to Forney to tell him she lied when she told him she didn't love him.
What Got Adapted?
In the book, Novalee is afraid of the number 7. On film, it's changed to 5. Sister has blue hair in the book, but Stockard Channing's hair is normal on film. One of the most notable differences is Lexi's character. In the book, Lexi is obese. Ashley Judd plays Lexi on film, and she could not be construed as being anything close to obese. In the film, Lexi marries Ernie to get her happy ending. This doesn't happen in the book. Benny is left out of the film entirely; Sister gives Novalee the tree in the adaptation.
The movie is a tear-jerker, but it's also a feelgood story. The book is a little grittier, a little more real and heartfelt. The biggest difference is in the ending. In the film, Novalee and Forney get married in Wal-Mart and (one presumes) live happily ever after. They do not marry in the book at all, and Forney doesn't even go to college. He travels instead and eventually settles in Chicago.