Book v Film: Brooklyn

“None of them could help her. She had lost all of them. They would not find out about this; she would not put it into a letter. And because of this she understood that they would never know her now. Maybe, she thought, they had never known her, any of them, because if they had, then they would have had to realise what this would be like for her.”

Based on the 2009 award-winning novel of the same name, written by Irish author Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn is a historical period drama directed by John Crowley and screenplay written by Nick Hornby.

Set in 1950s Ireland, Brooklyn follows Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), a young Irish girl who reluctantly moves to Brooklyn with the promise of a job. Although Eilis didn’t want to leave the comfort of her quaint hometown and the company of her mother and sister, the initial shackles of homesickness quickly diminish when she is swept into a fresh romance with Italian plumber Antonio “Tony” Fiorello (Emory Cohen). But when tragedy forces Eilis back to Ireland, she is faced with temptation when the charming Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson) enters her life. With her new vivacity disrupted by her past, Eilis must now choose between two countries and two loves.


The following post is a review of the film adaptation in comparison to the book. You can read my review of the book on its own here.

Colm Tóibín‘s novel that the film is based upon is a literary delight. Incredibly well written, Tóibín uses plain prose and a simple linear structure, but his writing reads like poetry as he adds detached detail to almost every sentence. It’s easy to see why the novel is so well praised, telling a simple story about a young girl transforming into a woman, finding her own way in life as an immigrant in a big city.

But although I enjoyed reading the novel, it was pretty uneventful for the most part and it was only until the final few chapters where we meet Jim that I was eager to read through until the end and find out what happens. John Crowley‘s film adaptation, however, moves you from the very start until the closing scenes. Working alongside the incredibly talented Nick Hornby, he and Crowley have adapted this novel perfectly, creating a true gem of a film set around an elegantly sophisticated story.

There are many reasons as to why Brooklyn works so well as a film, with the visuals being one of the biggest factors. Both the characters and the locations are brought to life beautifully. Seeing the contrasts of Eilis’ pretty hometown to the inflated lifestyle of the city heightens both the experience that Eilis is going through but also gives the story a breath-taking backdrop.

The casting is spot on, too, and it is Saoirse Ronan‘s elegance that adds to this visual beauty as well as the exceptionally talented performance that she leads the film with. The story really wouldn’t have been the same with any other actress, as she completely embraces every characteristic of her role.

I didn’t particularly relate to Eilis in the novel, as she is quite a dull character when you really think about it. But this isn’t merely a matter of opinion, as the novel opens with Eilis sat watching everybody else in her town, observing their lives rather than living her own. She has a few passions, but mainly she does as she is told and it is these constraints that paint her personality traits. Then again, the story is set in 1950s Ireland and women did have to conform to society, and if Eilis wasn’t so naive and inexperienced, this wouldn’t be the story that it is.

You can buy the book here

Crowley handles the characters, their situations and their emotions so well that the film made me cry three times, whereas I felt very little emotion towards the novel at all. Maybe it was because of Ronan’s phenomenal portrayal of the character, but I did relate much more to Eilis in the film. To see Ronan’s emotional journey on-screen made her struggle more relatable, as we engage with a character who really has no control over her own life.

Much like she didn’t have any choice in where moving to Brooklyn at the beginning, it seems that Eilis didn’t have much of a choice in either of her relationships, either, as she constantly floats between decisions that are being made for her. The ultimatum that she is faced with at the end of the story isn’t really down to her, either, as she must choose between having what she’s always wanted, but under the watchful eyes of everybody around her, or she can return to America where she is granted a little freedom, but where she must live the life that Tony has had planned for her all along.

Still, Eilis stands up for herself for the first time at the end of the story, which is truly admirable. Crowley handles these scenes incredibly well, making a few changes to the novel to highlight the strength of character in Eilis. It is these closing moments that make her such a likeable character, and it is for this reason that I prefer Eilis’ character in the film than in the novel.

I’ve already commented on how well Ronan led the film, but the supporting cast is just as excellent. Another thing that benefits the adaptation is how likeable that Emory Cohen makes Tony. I didn’t like his character at all in the novel, and he does come across a little pushy in the film, as he should, but Cohen makes his character so adorable that you can’t help but want Eilis to go all the way with him.

I was rooting for Jim, however, mostly because of how he wants Eilis to make up her own decisions, but also because I’m a huge fan of Domhnall Gleeson which was an excellent casting move. Jim Broadbent as Father Flood and Julie Walters as Madge Kehoe are brilliant, too, with the whole casting bringing so much talent to such a well-adapted film.

Differences From The Book:

As an adaptation, there are only a handful of noticeable differences from the novel in the film:

  • The very beginning of the story is different. The film skips over how Eilis is persuaded to move to Brooklyn and doesn’t emphasise how reluctant she is to do so, but how she knows that her family are only looking out for her.
  • The film doesn’t mention Eilis’ brothers. Although this doesn’t necessarily take anything away from the story, it adds to how rushed the beginning of the film feels and it could have worked better to show how much family means to Eilis, especially with the recent death of their father.
  • Eilis is also supposed to meet Jim for the first time before she moves away. Again, this doesn’t necessarily do any harm to the story, but it would have explained Eilis’ dislike towards meeting him for the second time when she returns to Ireland.
  • In the film, Eilis is a lot friendlier with the girls and asks them for advice which is a really nice change from the novel as we get to know the characters a little better, although this does lead to the awkwardness around Eilis getting the bottom floor bedroom being missed out, the confrontations that this opens up and the truth behind the flasher that scared Miss McAdam back to her hometown.
  • In the book, Mrs Kehoe hears Eilis having sex with Tony, which creates an awkward atmosphere before Eilis leaves for Ireland and encourages Eilis to stay in Ireland all the more. This doesn’t happen in the film.
  • The film doesn’t mention that Mrs Kelly is actually Mrs Kehoe’s cousin, which would have emphasised how everybody in Ireland seems to have a relative in Brooklyn, which is often commented on. In the book, this is how Mrs Kelly finds out about Eilis being married but, in the film, Mrs Kelly knows somebody that Tony and Eilis spoke to at the wedding chapel.
  • Just like the beginning, the end is also very different. When Mrs Kelly confronts Eilis in the book, Eilis runs off and is scared into going back to America. In the film, Eilis stands up to her, as we see Eilis finally take control of her life.
  • Afterwards, in the book, we simply see Eilis make up her mind and say goodbye to Ireland, whereas in the film we see her reunite with Tony. Personally, I loved this alteration. In the novel, it’s difficult to tell whether Eilis is happy with her choice or whether she had no other option, but seeing her fall into the arms of Tony was a lovely way to end the film.

Overall Verdict:

Just like Tóibín’s novel, Brooklyn is elegant, breathtakingly beautiful, and a real emotional journey. It should satisfy fans of the novel, but also newcomers to the story with the perfected casting. I wouldn’t read the novel again, but the film adaptation has made it into my all-time favourites, and that is down to the beautiful story that Tóibín has created.

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