Brooklyn: From Book to Film

Director John Crowley’s movie adaptation of Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín has aptly answered my query (last post): what elements in the book make movie materials? Potentially, a lot. The trick is not to turn them into cliché moments on screen, for this isn’t an unusual story: a young woman leaving home and finding independence and love in a new land. While the film has its flaws, Crowley has crafted a beautiful and stylish transposition.

Author Nick Hornby has done it again following his Oscar nominated screenplay for An Education (2009) adapted from Lynn Barber’s memoir, a film that launched Carey Mulligan’s breakout role and Oscar nod, also a coming-of-age story.

Here in Brooklyn, Hornby tells his story by linking up succinct scenes that just about cover all key episodes in the book. They are short, to the point, and well-paced. The editing too is seamless, driving the film on without delay. After all, they only have about 120 minutes, and they’ve done a smooth job doing that.

Brooklyn Movie Poster

Tóibín’s seemingly simple narration of young Eilis Lacey’s journey of emigration from Ireland to America in the 1950’s is transposed onto film with sensitivity and nuance. The ‘mundaneness’ of daily living – working in a department store, dinner back at the boarding house, night class several days in the week – is transformed into vivid scenes by a lively cast of actors. To their credits, the already animated dinner table banters at Mrs. Kehoe’s (Julie Walters) rooming house as described by Tóibín have now come to life. Indeed, Julie Walters embodies Mrs. Kehoe, and Jim Broadbent as Father Flood is well cast.

Crowley, or is it Hornby, had softened Tóibín’s shrewd descriptions of some of his characters, presenting them in a sympathetic light, making them more likeable. The mood is less serious than the book but evoking empathy just the same. Although two weak spots I find. First is the glamorous and confident older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) is not depicted as such, lessening the effect that is to come later. Secondly, Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson) is absent at the beginning but appears only in the last part of the film, hence there is not much for character contrast or development.

While most of the supporting characters are well played, the film belongs to Saoirse Ronan, the young Irish actor who first drew notice from Joe Wright’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2007). Her performance as 13 year-old Briony sent chills up my spine. With that role Ronan became one of the youngest Academy Awards nominees. In the most recent Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) she sends out very different vibes. As of now for Brooklyn, Ronan has a Golden Globe Best Actress nom. I anticipate she will go all the way to the Oscars.

Cinematographer Yves Bélanger is apt to let the camera linger on Ronan close-up many times, for she acts without speaking. Her facial expressions representing the spectrum of Eilis’s emotions and thoughts are spot on. It is a delight to watch her.

Another animated scene is dinner at Tony’s (Emory Cohen) Italian family home. Here, we see the characters jump out of the book, especially the kid brother, 8 year-old Frankie (James DiGiacomo), whose infamous line is “We don’t like Irish people.” But of course, the whole family welcomes Eilis and supports Tony, who has interpreted his literary version well: respectful, authentic and transparent, as Tóibín writes,”he was as he appeared to her; there was no other side to him.”

Domhnall Gleeson as Jim Farrell has a hard role to play for its very short appearance in the last part. He has not much material to work from but just hangs around with Nancy (Eileen O’Higgins) and George (Peter Campion) who try to set him up with Eilis. Not much to launch a lightning courtship.

Colours play a major role in the film, albeit I feel a pinch of contrivance; watching the colourful 1950’s costumes is like looking into the window of a candy shop with all kinds of macaroons. However, the colours may well set the mood and setting for the film: The overall greenish tone of the first part in Ireland, to the stark green coat Eilis wears as she leaves home on board the ocean liner to the cheery bright yellow cardigan after she has met Tony. Towards the last part, it’s back to the greenish hue of Enniscorthy, only the newly returned Irish/American gal wearing her bright colours. Too explicit a visual translation? Maybe, but I like macaroons, and I won’t hold a Ripple against the colour treatment.

Another visual imagery is at the beginning, right after Eilis has landed in America and gone past the immigration line, she opens the door to head out. We see her step out into an overwhelming brightness of white. Too heavenly? Or maybe just the right sign to boost the confidence of our seasick and insecure heroine?

How do you translate Tóibín’s quiet descriptions on screen? His signature depictions of a calm surface that hides tumultuous billows of emotions? Crowley gives us silence. Indeed, there are cinematic moments that are devoid of sound; the most memorable one is close to the ending when Eilis reveals her secret to her mother (Jane Brennan), sending shock waves and despondence on her face. Yet she restrained her emotions. Mother and daughter embrace in utter silence with tears flowing, saying possibly a last goodbye to each other in their lives and releasing a determined letting go for both.

Brooklyn is a beautiful adaptation worthy of its literary source, among one of the best films I’ve seen in 2015.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples 


Update Jan. 14, 2016:
3 Oscar Nominations – Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay


Related Review Posts:

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín Book Review

Atonement: Book Into Film

The Budapest Hotel: A Grand Escape

Ex Machina (2015) 

Published by


If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

11 thoughts on “Brooklyn: From Book to Film”

  1. You know how much I want to see this. After reading your review I want to see it all the more. Beautifully written and incredibly enticing. I’m so glad you liked it. Four ripples? That says it all!


    1. Jeanie,

      Get ready for this. I’m sure you’ll love it. Hopefully after the Christmas rush is over, you can have some time to savour CT’s writing. 😉


  2. One of the things I liked about Game of Thrones was how grimy everything was. I do find it jarring when you get all these bright colours. Maybe it really was like that, but with the different fabric and dye techniques available at the time, I don’t think it was!
    Your review brings out the reasons why someone might want to take this not-so-obvious book to film.


    1. Denise,

      Its colour scheme is nostalgic, pastel, not stark bright. Quite pleasing in a way despite the obvious intentions. Check it out. You should have it even before us, hope you can still catch it. 😉


    1. Yes, I’ve enjoyed his screenplays, several of which were based on his novels like Fever Pitch, About A Boy. Best I like is An Education based on Lynn Barber’s memoir, which has a similar coming-of-age theme with Brooklyn.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Finally got to watch this film 2 days ago. I thoroughly loved it. I love this simple story of a simple Irish girl and her immigration experience. I love all the major and minor characters in the story from nasty Mrs. Kelly, to the cute and obnoxious Frankie. Btw I enjoyed your review, which is as always spot on. I agree with everything you said, the wonderful screenplay, the direction and most of all the top notch acting especially that of Saoirse Ronan, without which the film would not have been as effective. There are so many scenes I find memorable but I just want to mention that I particularly
    love watching the old fashion (by today’s standard) courtship of Tony and Eilis – sweet, simple, gentle, comfortable and proper. Yes, the ending was so very gratifying, but bitter sweet for me. If she had decided to stay in Enniscorthy, I probably wouldn’t blame her. I can’t help but wonder if it weren’t for the little chat she had with Mrs Kelly, would she have chosen to stay.
    Anyway Brooklyn is one film I will definitely watch again, a nice one to start my new year of movie going.


    1. Yinling,

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your two pebbles. I think you’re right in thinking about the scenario where, if Mrs. Kelly didn’t find out Eilis’s being married in America, whether Eilis would have stayed in Ireland. I think that’s exactly the point. While reading the book, I’d the feeling that Eilis is passive and easily directed by others in Ireland living with her mother and with a strong personality like her older sister Rose such that when she got back from America, even originally planned a short sojourn, ended up delayed and delayed. As a reader I’d so much wanted her to be more decisive and not so easily swayed by her circumstances and other people. In the movie, she’s being presented in a more positive and amiable light. So, yes, I think her talk with Mrs. Kelly is the main reason she so abruptly reveals her secret to her mother and goes back to America,


      1. Ah, the subtleties of the book! Yes, I think that was partly the point i.e. that Mrs Kelly’s talk forced her to make a decision when she was prevaricating. There’s the whole issue of Tony’s manipulation of her before she left to try to ensure she would return. It’s a complex story of ordinary human behaviour and motivations.


  4. I’m sorry I didn’t manage to read the book before seeing the film. It’s not something I feel I must do, but is something I like to do with books I really would like to read (if that makes sense). I enjoyed your commentary therefore on how close the film is to the book. I wondered whether the Julie Walters character (and indeed the whole boarding house scenes) were a little caricatured, and whether the Jim Broadbent character was too good to be true. They were wonderful to watch though, regardless of my questions. I think we didn’t really get to grasp the sister’s relationship. In fact, it seemed so intense I was half expecting Rose to turn out to be her mother! You know how those things sometimes went in those days.

    I felt there were subtleties the movie couldn’t achieve – given Tóibín’s writing – but nonetheless the film felt authentic, was beautiful and engaging to watch, and spoke to genuine issues.


    1. WG,

      While the plots may look similar, the tone and the styling of the two are quite different. If you’re still interested in exploring further, especially with the Oscars coming this Sunday, you may like to read my article on Shiny New Books the online magazine.
      Another news you might be interested in: a new TV series based on Mrs. Kehoe’s Brooklyn rooming house is on the drawing board. Nowadays, the lines sure have blurred and many crossovers between the big and the small screens. If Woody Allen is making a TV series for Amazon, you know there’s a paradigm shift.


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