Book Review: Little Children

A lot of people keep saying you need to read the book before you see the movie version of it. This seems to be the mandatory requirement of any true Harry Potter fan. For a long time, it seemed kind of ridiculous to read a book after you have seen based on it. But movie adaptations of books can take many liberties with the source material, and they can change the characters around. This could improve on the original source material ("Hannibal" by Thomas Harris), or it could be simply disastrous ("The Scarlet Letter," which reminds you NEVER mess with the classics.

I was very interested to read the book "Little Children" by Tom Perrota, as the movie it was based on was brilliant. Also, another movie based on a book of his called "Election" was also a brilliant movie. That was directed by Alexander Payne who later won an Oscar for co-writing and directing "Sideways." Both movies seemed to have a firm grasp on the realities of suburban life, and how confining and suppressive it seems. I like people who can get the details about people who live in quiet suburbs in a tight knit community so right, and then wipe away the façade of their seemingly happy lives to reveal what Thoreau would call "lives of quiet desperation."

The book of "Little Children" is a great read, and Perrota gets the details of suburban living so perfectly and vividly, that it easily reminded me of the towns I grew up in. What it has over the movie though is that gives many of the other characters aside from Todd and Sarah more depth and dimensionality. While the movie treated other characters as idiotic and foolish like Sarah's husband, the book gives a closer look at his life and how he has made the choices he has.

For those of you not familiar with either the book or the movie, it revolves primarily around Sarah and Todd, and the affair they end up having with each other. Sarah is a mother of one little girl named Lucy who she cannot seem to tolerate, and she is married to Richard who has ignored her for an internet crush whose panties he just got in the mail. Sarah meets Todd one day in the park where the other ladies there refer to him as "the prom king." They end up sharing a kiss which unnerves the other women and makes them run off, and it ends up linking these two together in an affair that lifts them above their frustrations of where their life is at.

During the book, a convicted child molester named Ronnie McGorvey has been released from prison and has moved back into the neighborhood with his mother. This of course makes every parent in the neighborhood angry, especially Todd's friend Larry Hedges, a husband and father out to warn the neighborhood that this registered sex offender is to be feared and thrown out of town. Meanwhile, Todd is playing stay at home father to his son Aaron while his wife Kathy is out making a documentary. Everybody has their own problems, but while they seem different from each other, they are all dealing with the same problem; they are stuck in lives of complacency that they tried to avoid.

Perrotta gets the details of living in the suburbs so well that you can recognize them in your own lives. You have the overly concerned parents who constantly overprotect their children, a young couple residing in a house they can barely afford, a group of residents looking to keep out people they feel are beneath them, the guy everybody gossips about, the members of the book club, etc. You can see this story as very realistic, and as one that could easily happen in your own neighborhood. We come to see that beneath all this seemingly peaceful existence, there are anger and frustrations that build up and up throughout the story that constantly threaten to explode.

What I also liked about the book was that each of the pivotal characters are very multi-dimensional. Some of them didn't quite seem that way in the movie, as certain concessions were probably made in adapting it to the big screen. For instance, we see the character of Kathy more fully here. She comes to see that she is very selfish in her desires of how she wants things to be. She is desperate for her husband Todd to pass the bar exam (which he has already failed twice), so that he can provide a more financially stable existence for the family. Problem is she's being very selfish in that as a documentary filmmaker, she doesn't make much of a living, and she wants to be able to do what she loves without sacrificing so much. Kathy sees a lot of her friends in their 30's struggling to get by and still having roommates, and she has managed to avoid that lifestyle. She is neither good nor bad, just human.

In fact, there are really no good or bad people in this book. Just people who are flawed in different ways, and leading unfulfilled lives as they suddenly find themselves in a long term situation that they never planned on being in. This also goes for Todd's friend Larry Hedges, who organizes a committee of concerned parents to rid themselves of the registered sex offender Ronald McGorvey. Larry is a self-righteous man who is out to protect his community, but he ends up doing more damage to himself than to anybody else. We see his own family life coming apart at the seams which he never intended to happen. Larry's voyage throughout the book is a reminder of how the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

We also get to know more about Ronald McGorvey's mother, May. She stands by her son even while members of the community keep posting fliers about his presence in their town. Perrotta shows us what May has gone through since her son was sent to jail. It comes across as sad how what one person does affects their family completely. May's good standing in the town is ruined when her son is found out for who he is, and she is ultimately alienated from everyone else. Her only friend is Bertha, a woman who is also dealing with her child's criminal delinquencies.

In fact, that's what I really liked about the book. All the characters are very multi-dimensional and we learn more about them then the characters learn about each other overall. It sucks us into the story more, and we see ourselves in these characters with their longings and how hopeless and stuck they feel in their current state in life. They don't all necessarily have a bad place in life, but it certainly isn't fulfilling them in the way they hoped it would. Who can't relate with that?

If there was any problem I had with the book, it was in the way it ended. Now I am not going to give anything away here, but it didn't feel like some of the characters came around full circle like they did in the movie. In fact, it made it look like certain characters had not changed at all. The ending just didn't feel right, and it left a feeling of some things being unresolved. But in the end, this is a rather minor criticism. Some endings can be utterly frustrating and can completely sell everything out here. This is not the case here.

"Little Children" is a very engrossing read, and even if you have seen the movie, there is much to discover and appreciate here. The dynamics of the characters are endlessly interesting, and there is much about them to discover here. In a way, it actually added to my enjoyment of the movie as a whole. Speaking of which, I just won a free copy of the DVD of the movie. It will be interesting to watch the movie again now that I have read the book. I'll try to let you all know how that turns out.

**** out of ****


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