I recently revisited an old favorite book and finally saw the movie based on it, and it’s been an interesting experience that’s going to be difficult to talk about without spoilers, so I’m going to do this post in layers.
The book The Boyfriend School by Sarah Bird feels like it was written just for me because it parallels my life in a lot of ways (in fact, the inscription in the autographed copy I have mentions the parallel lives, since it turns out I have a lot in common with the author, including having the same editor for a while, which is how I got the autographed book and why she knew about the parallel lives). It takes place in Austin in the 80s, which is when I lived in Austin while I was in college. During one summer, I stayed in Austin to work at a small newspaper, and the heroine works for a small newspaper. She lives in the neighborhood I lived on the edge of for that summer, so I walked around a lot of the places mentioned in the book. When the heroine goes to the library or post office, it’s the library and post office I went to. And during the course of the book, the heroine goes to a romance writers’ conference and starts writing a category romance novel. It was after I lived in Austin, but I’ve been to a lot of romance writers’ conferences and used to write category romance novels.
I was thinking about this book recently because it takes place during a bad heat wave, and we’ve been having a bad heat wave this summer, so I was planning to reread it. And then I saw that the movie based on it was on Amazon Prime. I’d started to watch it when it was on TV years ago but noped out at the beginning when I saw that it was set in Charleston, S.C., not Austin. Since the Austin setting was a big reason I loved the book, that turned me off of the movie. But I thought I’d give it a try again. It wasn’t as bad as I feared, but it may have to win some kind of award for being the worst adaptation of a book in which the screenplay was written by the author of the original novel. I’m sure a lot of the changes were dictated by Hollywood—like they probably got some filming incentives to shoot where they did, which meant the location change. Other changes were required by the change in medium. You couldn’t film the book as it’s written because of the structure. While the movie is your basic false identity rom-com, the book is actually more about the contrast between real-life love and romantic fantasy.
But the changes mean that you can’t really talk about the movie without spoiling the book because the movie flips the perspective and centers on the book’s big twist.
So, first the book. I’ve referred to it as “proto chick-lit” because it was published in the late 80s, long before Bridget Jones came along, but it has a lot of the same elements — it’s got the first-person narrator heroine who’s a bit of a mess and trying to navigate her life, friendships, career, and relationships, and not necessarily doing a great job at any of them. There’s a romantic plot, but the focus is on her personal growth and figuring things out.
The story’s about a photographer for a small newspaper who gets assigned to cover a romance writers’ conference, where she goes in with some preconceived notions but gets taken under the wings of a couple of pro writers, who teach her a thing or two and encourage her to try writing her own book. She insists that real women wouldn’t actually be interested in romance heroes. Women don’t want dark, dangerous men. They want nice guys. But then she recoils at a setup with the nerdy brother of one of the writers, and just as she’s struggling to write the romantic parts of her romance novel, she meets a mysterious biker she can’t resist, so she may have to eat her words.
I don’t know how much my fondness for this book comes from the parallel lives thing, since I’ve never gone for the dangerous rogue type. Then again, I also would have rejected the nerdy guy (those scenes made me cringe because just about every guy I’ve been set up with has been a lot like that, personality-wise). What I’d prefer is somewhere in the middle. So, I don’t really relate to that part of the plot. I guess I just enjoy reliving the summer I spent in Austin and the time when I was first getting into serious writing and going to conferences.
The book is now available as a pretty inexpensive e-book and it’s on Kindle Unlimited, so if it sounds interesting, check it out. The rest of this post will address the movie, which means it will have spoilers for the book.
So, the movie …
They changed the setting and the heroine’s name. She’s a writer, not a photographer, and they skip the part where she’s trying to write a romance novel. She just interviews the writer. But the focus of the movie is more on the guy. Here’s where the book spoilers start.
The movie is about a guy who falls hard for the woman his romance writer sister sets him up with, but when she rejects him, his sister sets out to turn him into a romance hero the woman won’t be able to resist, in spite of her protestations about real women not being interested in men like the heroes in romance novels.
That’s the twist in the book, that the mysterious biker is the nerdy guy. The biker doesn’t show up until more than halfway through the book, and we don’t find out who he is until near the end. It really does feel like a twist. I remember being surprised the first time I read it. I was pretty sure she was being set up, but I didn’t guess that it was the same guy rather than something like an actor hired to prove a point. But I can see how you couldn’t pull that off in a movie. In the book, it’s all from the heroine’s perspective, then she finds out who the guy is and he gives her his journals to explain himself, so then there’s a section where we see what’s been happening from his perspective. You couldn’t do that in a movie.
And I don’t think you’d be able to make his identity be a surprise in a movie. In the book, you can believe it because of how it’s set up. The guy has just finished cancer treatment, so his hair hasn’t come back yet, he’s been on steroids, so his face is still puffy, and his body is still skinny. There’s a three-month gap, during which time his hair grows back, his face goes back to normal, he starts exercising and builds muscles, and he gets colored contact lenses. But in the movie, as good of a makeup job as they do on him, he’s still recognizably Steve Guttenberg at the beginning, so you know who he is when he shows up as a stud. I think it might actually work in real life that you wouldn’t recognize someone you’d barely met if you ran into him again after he went through a lot of changes, but it won’t work with a known actor. Maybe with an unknown and no opening credits it might have worked, but trying to hide that twist would be hard in a movie. In real life, you encounter a lot of random people who aren’t necessarily connected, but when you’re watching a movie, you know that everyone you see is probably important, so you look at them differently.
Focusing on the guy’s story means the movie loses a lot of the things I love about the book, but I noticed in some of the Amazon reviews of the book that there are people who like the movie more because they like the straightforward rom-com. They don’t like that the heroine is such a mess or that the ending is a bit ambiguous. I still think the movie should have been better than it was, and there were things from the book that could still have made it to the screen. The casting, aside from the heroine (who’s too pretty for the way the book character was described), is pretty good. It’s on Amazon Prime, and it’s short, so if you want an 80s rom-com that’s a bit different, check it out.
And now I’m going to spoil the book even more.
There’s something that’s always bugged me about the book and the way it works out that I finally have the right vocabulary for: It basically reinforces the “nice guy” myth, the whole “women don’t really like nice guys, they just go for jerks who treat them badly” thing that you tend to hear from the incel crowd. That’s something guys who proclaim themselves as “nice” like to say, and I’ve found that the self-proclaimed “nice” guys are seldom as nice as they think they are. A lot of the time, they don’t actually make a move on the woman and then act like they’ve been rejected for being nice when she doesn’t go for them. Or the niceness is purely transactional, so he’s supposed to be rewarded for being nice and he pouts if he isn’t. Or he has his own definition of “nice” which is on his terms, not what she wants. Or he seems to think that just being “nice” should be enough, without him working on anything else.
For the most part, the guy in this book isn’t entirely like that — up until the end. She understandably feels betrayed by his deception, even after she reads his journal. She’s understanding about the cancer thing, and he doesn’t start out planning the deception. That was something his sister came up with, and he only panicked when this woman met him, so he went with it rather than admitting who he was. What she can’t get over is the fact that the role he was playing in the deception was created based on what she was writing in her book, which his sister was critiquing for her. It was designed purely to fulfill her fantasies. And yet he’s the one acting hurt because she fell for this character when she wouldn’t give him the time of day. I keep wanting the heroine to point out to him that he was just in love with an imaginary person. His journal talks about falling in love with her at first sight, but the person he thinks he’s in love with has nothing to do with who she really is. The real woman is basically an avatar for his fantasy woman. At least when she fell for a fictional guy, it was a deliberate deception designed to fool her. He made up a fantasy woman on his own, without her doing anything to encourage it. It seems pretty clear from the contrast between what we saw from her side of the story and the way he sees her in his journal, but no one in the book ever addresses it, and it’s not even mentioned in the reading group guide in the back of one of the copies I have, aside from a question about whether you believe in love at first sight the way he does.
Not to mention, the guy is stalking her the whole time. He follows her home from work and drives by her house all the time. He even looks in the windows sometimes. He’s supposed to be a nice guy who couldn’t get any attention until he changed, but he’s rather creepy. He claims to be following her because he’s worried about her coming home from work in a shady part of town late at night, but if she doesn’t know he’s there and never asked for this help, him following her like that isn’t cool.
I may be a bit overly sensitive about this because I’ve found that the “nice guys” tend to do that avatar thing, where they act like they’re really into me, but it becomes clear that the person they like has very little to do with me. I’m like the actress who plays the character they’re in love with. For me to buy the possibility of a happy ending, I’d need for this to be addressed. The ending of the book is ambiguous, so I guess in my head they’ll have this conversation before anything else happens. It’s always left me with an unsettled feeling, but in recent years the “nice guy” has been discussed a lot on the Internet, which has made me realize what unsettled me so much. I still like the book, but now I know why it bothers me. I don’t know if you could publish this book or make this movie today. Would we see it differently?