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How Maggie Gyllenhaal's The Lost Daughter Compares to Elena Ferrante's Book

Gyllenhaal's directorial debut, now streaming on Netflix, stays loyal to its source material.

the lost daughter l r dakota johnson as nina, olivia colman as leda cr yannis drakoulidisnetflix © 2021

Minor spoilers for The Lost Daughter below.

As a movie, The Lost Daughter has the satisfyingly melancholy feel of a rained-out vacation in a dream destination. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut is a prickly examination of ambivalence towards motherhood, with an emotional heft that belies its coastal Italian setting. More than picturesque set dressing, the locale is a nod to the source material: a slim volume of the same name by Elena Ferrante, a precursor of sorts to the Neapolitan Novels that later made her famous. (Fans of those books will notice some familiar names and themes in The Lost Daughter—both the novella and the movie.) Though Gyllenhaal has Americanized her characters, the drama still unfurls on the same slice of Ionian Coast as in Ferrante’s original telling. It proves to be an appropriate setting for the story, at once sunny and dreary in a way that gives life to its protagonist Leda’s (an unmissable Olivia Colman) inner conflict.

Colman’s Leda is a single, 48-year-old college professor on a working vacation in Italy, the country of her chosen academic discipline: She’s garnered acclaim as an English-Italian translator. While on vacation, she meets a large family of Italian Americans visiting extended family. Among them is Nina (Dakota Johnson in peak seems-like-she-could-hurt-someone form), a young mother with whom Leda feels a strange kinship. Nina’s toddler daughter, Elena, has a beloved doll which she carries everywhere; when the doll goes missing, the beachgoers are plunged into chaos—and Leda finds herself revisiting her difficult early years as a mother.

In adapting The Lost Daughter for the screen, Gyllenhaal leaves most of the story’s architecture intact; changing the characters from Italian to American (Colman’s Leda is English but now lives in New England) is perhaps her most significant alteration to the source material. Still, there are a few other meaningful differences between the book and the movie.

Leda’s Inner Monologue

Ferrante’s original novella is written in first person, with much of the story taking place inside Leda’s mind, so it’s understandable that Gyllenhaal’s movie adaptation externalizes so much of Leda’s inner dialogue. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Leda’s digressions into her past are translated into straightforward flashback scenes that show her younger self (a luminous Jessie Buckley) struggling to come to grips with motherhood as her two young daughters cling to her. These long-ago scenes are depicted with a disconcerting vividness that contrasts from the events in present day, illustrating the degree to which Leda is haunted by her past.

But it’s Leda’s interactions with the men of the town—beach attendant Will (Paul Mescal) and elderly cottage caretaker Lyle (Ed Harris)—that are most transformed by this alteration. In the book, Leda is more outspoken inside her own mind than in real life: over dinner with Will, she indulges in a winding train of thought about her own daughters, wondering which of them he’d be more attracted to; she fantasizes about pretending to be Lyle’s conquest in order to make him look good to her friends. In the movie, however, Leda’s thoughts about her daughter take the form of a rambling monologue delivered directly to Will. Rather than merely entertaining the thought of flattering Lyle’s ego, she goes up and hits on him while he and his friends are playing a game of cards. Where the book version of Leda is lost in her head but outwardly composed, the movie version of her gives off the impression of a lonely woman struggling to feel relevant as she grows older.

jessie buckley as young leda with her two daughters
Jessie Buckley as young Leda with her two daughters.

Leda and the Neapolitans

In both the movie and the book, Leda and Nina’s tentative friendship comes as a result of Leda’s confession that she once walked out on her family when her daughters were young. Nursing some guilt about her own feelings of resentment towards Elena, Nina sees in Leda a kindred spirit, someone who will understand what she’s going through and can reassure her that it’ll all be okay in the end. In the book, Leda blurts out this information about her past in front of the whole Neapolitan clan, causing Nina’s relatives to look down upon her and framing Nina’s subsequent overtures towards Leda as an act of defiance. In the movie, though, Leda shares this information privately with Nina—reaffirming their relationship as a private one, an indulgence that has nothing to do with Nina’s family one way or the other.

The Lost Daughter: A Novel
Europa Editions amazon.com

Leda’s Family

Though Leda’s relationship to her daughters and ex-husband is largely the same onscreen as it was on the page, the book contains some meaningful nuggets of information that are absent from the movie. In the book, Leda recounts memories of a character named Lucilla, her then-husband Gianni’s colleague’s wife, who would occasionally visit Leda and Gianni’s house with her husband. On these visits, Lucilla loved to play with Leda’s daughters and win their affections away from their mother. Leda’s recollections of these incidents are scathing, and it’s clear that—whether accurately or not—she saw and continues to see Lucilla’s behavior as an indictment of Leda’s own worth as a mother. (We eventually learn that later on, after Leda left, Gianni and Lucilla had an affair.) In the film, Lucilla is never mentioned.

We also learn in the book that Leda’s daughters—now 23 and 25—have only recently moved to Canada, where Gianni now lives, to be closer to their father; the vacation during which the story takes place is Leda’s first since the girls have moved away, and she spends much of the trip reckoning with the conflicting feelings of freedom and loneliness she’s experiencing now that her children no longer live at home. This detail is missing from the movie. Even without it, however, Leda’s deeply complicated sentiments about motherhood are written all over her face, from the film’s first frame to the last.

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