Saturday, February 23, 2013

Books on Film: Julie and Julia

Julie and Julia is one of the more interesting books on film you'll watch, because it's not based on one book. It's based on two books written by authors who were worlds apart. The movie shows both stories, though they did not occur concurrently, and somehow manages to blend both together pretty seamlessly.

The Books

Julie and Julia is based on My Life in France, an autobiography by the famous chef Julia Child. It was published in 2006 and compiled with the help of Julia's grandnephew Alex Prud'homme. He completed it after her 2004 death. In the main, it takes place from 1948 to 1954. This is when Child lived in Paris, Marseilles and Provence with her husband Paul. It's when her star as a chef rose, and she became a household name. 

The book details the arrival of the Childs in Paris, and Julia's love affair with French cuisine. She began taking classes at Ecole du Cordon Bleu and learned how to master cooking. She learned how to make amazing things like souffle, gnocchi, canard a l'orange and turbot farci braise au champagne. Sounds good, right?

She was well into her 30s when she discovered her love of French cuisine, but she embraced it with unfettered devotion. Julia stubbornly pursued all the goals she set for herself, and the story is truly delightful. As most of you probably know, it ends happily. Child went on to accomplish the goals she set for herself and became one of the best-known chefs to American audiences. She was so well-known, Dan Aykroyd even spoofed her on SNL.

And she was still interesting a few decades after her cooking show went off the air. The cookbook she wrote in France during the 50s was still darned good in 2002...good enough to interest a blogger living in New York City.

Julie Powell decided that she wanted to learn how to cook -- really to cook -- and began to consider her copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child. She decided to blog about it, and gave herself a deadline for cooking her way through the entire book. Later, Powell's blog became a book in its own right, and formed half the basis for the movie that would follow.

Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen is the blog that Powell wrote, slightly reworked for print. The book was published in 2005, and later re-titled in paperback as Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously.

The blog took off, and Julie developed a following. For the book, she added a backstory describing her own life and her marriage to high school sweetheart Eric. The book doesn't read like a typical reads more like chick lit, containing lurid descriptions of Julie's day-to-day life and squalid apartment. It's hard to find the bits about cooking within it all. But the book is saved by Julie's humor, which springs up often, and her persistence to finish her goal. In that, she is very much like Julia Child indeed.

Their similar personalities are made more apparent in the film that followed, aptly named Julie and Julia

The Film

On the big screen, Amy Adams became Julie Powell and Meryl Streep Julia Child. Streep, who stands at 5'6", was manipulated on screen to look more like a stately, 6'2" Child. Camera angles and Hollywood trickery were employed to make Streep look a little more Amazonian, like Julia.

The movie shows Julie Powell, a woman in her late 20s who is unhappy with her job and her tiny apartment. She latches onto Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, published in 1961. Hilarity ensues as Julie attempts to execute complicated recipes in her itty-bitty kitchen, sometimes breaking down into hysterics when the lobsters must be boiled alive or the bone marrow burns.

Julia's story is woven equally into the narrative. We go with her to French restaurants, and futilely pursue a cookbook of French recipes written in English. We go to culinary school, and watch as each woman realizes her true fate. Julia Child is meant to be a chef...Julie Powell is supposed to be a writer. They take different journeys in different places, in vastly different times, and doggedly attempt to succeed at all costs.

Julia's book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, is the thread that ties them together. Each woman is obsessed with the book, and captivated by it, in different ways. Each is creating something. Each is learning. In other words, it's a movie about three books, two writers, and a ton of French recipes. Watching it without snacks is impossible. 

It's a really good movie. Both are writers of different sorts, and like most writers both face rejection and obstacles that stand in their way. 

Julia Child certainly learned how to master French cooking, and thanks to her all us Americans may attempt to do the same. Julie Powell learned how to cook, and blog. Both became published, and Julie and Julia was born on film. 

But like all good books on film, changes were made. 

What Got Adapted?

Julie Powell seems to have ambivalent feelings about the film. She wrote an online article distancing herself from the way she was portrayed on film (by Adams), while simultaneously stating that she liked the movie very much.

Powell is right about some things. Amy Adams doesn't totally capture Julie Powell's voice because she's more sanitized on film. Powell has a knack for the colorful euphemism, and only a scant amount of this remains in the film. Her use of f-bombs is cited as the main reason that Julia Child didn't like the blog, and did not consider Powell to be a "serious" cook. Powell's pets aren't shown as often, or at all, and some "characters" from the book were dropped altogether. Julie's brother Heathcliff is not present, and her friends appear only on the fringes.

However, the movie does a good job of capturing the flavor (pun intended) of both books, and showing both heroines in a  positive light. It's two stories about writers, and how can that be anything but appealing?

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