The Lost Daughter: From Book to Screen

Elena Ferrante’s book The Lost Daughter (2006) is a harsh look at motherhood, shattering the romantic view associated with the word like maternal love and sacrificial nurturing. The protagonist Leda is torn between the demanding duties of caring for two young daughters and her own academic career. Overwhelmed and feeling suffocated, she abandons her children Bianca and Martha, 7 and 5, for three years.

Years later, Leda has become a successful academic and divorced. Her two daughters are now grown up and living with their father in Toronto. While taking a working holiday at the Ionian seaside, a boisterous family disrupts her peace and solitude on the beach. Though annoyed by their rowdy interruption, she’s drawn to a young mother, Nina, who has to constantly attend to a clingy three-year-old daughter Elena. Memories gush out from her own experience as a young mother, and with that, guilt. However, her guilt may not be so much about her abandonment of her daughters but that she “felt amazing without them.”

For a short while on the beach, Elena is lost. Nina and all the family are frantic in search of her. Leda finds her and brings her back to the fold. Just as she does this good deed, she hides a doll that Elena is attached to dearly. The family is now frantic in finding the lost doll as Elena is inconsolable. She later admits to Nina that “I’m an unnatural mother.” Is that enough to excuse herself?

While Ferrante doesn’t offer a psycho-analytical explanation, she does drop hints as to Leda’s own family background in Naples, her father coming from violent and vulgar association. Her mother had threatened abandonment verbally to her children but never did. To Leda, her mother was better off escaping and disappeared. “How ashamed I was to have come out of the belly of such an unhappy person,” she laments. 

Leda left her family at eighteen to go to Florence for more cultured and academic pursuit, determined to sever an undesirable family tie. While the little girl Elena is lost for a short while on the beach, Leda herself could well be the lost daughter that had never been found.


Olivia Colman as Leda in The Lost Daughter directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal

The Lost Daughter movie adaptation is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut. She has a strong cast, notably Olivia Colman (The Favourite, The Crown) as Leda. Colman slips into the character perfectly and gives a natural and nuanced performance. Jessie Buckley as young Leda is another appropriate choice. The talented singer actor plays an exhausted mother convincingly. While away from her daughters and husband at a conference, she has an affair with a prominent academic, Professor Hardy, played by Gyllenhaal’s husband Peter Sarsgaard, whose performance carries traces of another role he’d played years ago as the smooth seducer David in Carey Mulligan’s breakout feature An Education (2009).

Other supporting cast is also strong with Dakota Johnson as Nina and Ed Harris as Lyle the seaside rental caretaker. It’s interesting to see his short interactions with Leda reveal Leda’s unreliable perception of others. Paul Mescal plays Will who works at the beach, reprising an understated performance as in Normal People (2020, TV series), adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel.

Gyllenhaal has mastered the story idea aptly, developing the screenplay like a character study which it ought to be. The effect of a handheld roving camera adds immediacy and suspense as we follow Leda in her short but eventful seaside vacation. Patricia Highsmith comes to mind. Gyllenhaal has altered the Neapolitan protagonist and the rowdy family into American, Leda from Cambridge near Boston, and the disruptive family as American tourists.

The present is interspersed with flashbacks seamlessly to depict Leda’s early years as a young mother torn between the constant demands of child-caring and her personal needs and ambition. Professor Hardy during his lecture in the conference mentions a quote by Simone Weil: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” At the time, to a young and rising academic, the relevance had not sunk in for Leda.

Overall a stirring screen adaptation with superb performance. However, one crucial element in the book has been left out and just replaced with a few dialogues and that’s Leda’s own family background and a mother who had always wanted to abandon her children. The lack of a more solid backstory about Leda’s own upbringing stirs up questions as to her present behaviour. Of course, as a two-hour movie, Gyllenhaal has the difficult task of choosing what to leave out from the book. The missed component of Leda’s own lack of maternal attention while growing up could have stripped off a deeper layer in the storytelling.

The ending is reaffirming. It’s good to know that Leda’s two daughters are forgiving young women, as they care for their mother and check up on her via long distance while she’s by herself on a seaside vacation in Greece. It’s good to see too that ‘bad mothering’ doesn’t need to perpetuate. 

~ ~ ~ Ripples

The Lost Daughter is now streaming on Netflix.


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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.

6 thoughts on “The Lost Daughter: From Book to Screen”

  1. Hmmm. I’ll watch it because of the buzz but not, I think, my kind of a movie. And to be honest, Ferrante’s work is far from my favorite; maybe it’s the translations but I found them annoying and boring, though I’ve not read this one. But Colman is always worth a look, no matter what. And it’s on Netflix so no excuses for me!


    1. I’m afraid it may not be your cup of tea, but as you mentioned, Colman’s performance is worth looking at, albeit not a likeable character. And I think many viewers might judge the film by the ‘bad’ character. I’ll wait for your ripples. 🙂


  2. Arti,
    Yes, as always you get to the deep heart of issues and interpretations of Leda’s story in your movie reviews. Your depth and perception are spot on.

    The quote, “ Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” was extremely significant to me. And not only in hearing it in the movie, but realizing this is a great truth in raising or teaching children. To listen and “see” a child with your pure attention—like they are the only person in the room for that minute—is a profound gift!

    Pondering this truth over my own decades of mothering and grand parenting, I’m seeing that I finally mastered the “undivided attention giving gift” as an elder (and grandmother). Just not as well when I was a young woman with so many things on my plate. Like the book says, “It takes a village” to raise a child.

    Like you, I also noticed that if we had a bit more backstory as to why Leda may have made her choice to leave —because she wasn’t raised well herself (as a lost daughter) we may have had a bit more understanding and compassion for her character.

    And while I think it was a brilliant character study and directorial debut by Maggie Gyllenhaal, no director can offer every story detail up in only two hours time.

    I read an interesting essay recently (by a caring mother) in another blog, which addresses some of the intimate and telling moments of the Lost Daughter movie with compassion— and the writers thoughts about “what”may have driven this character to make her fateful choice. Leda chose to leave for her vivid and passionate love affair — over the day to day tasks of mothering. She just couldn’t stick with it. (Btw did this choice she made also bring to mind the movie, “Sophie’s Choice.” It did for me.) The background information of not being mothered well enough may be the key to her choice-making process. For Sophie it was the Nazis, for Leda she had a terrible role model mother, and while she may have been a brilliant intellectual she didn’t have this bit of wisdom in her cache.


    1. Heather,

      Thanks so much for your ripples! Much appreciate your thoughts gleaned from your own experience. Indeed, that attention quote applies to all relationships. In the film, we can see Leda’s husband is left to deal with her abandonment as well. The book has raised many issues but I can see Gyllenhaal needs to choose which ones she wants to focus on in a two-hour movie. Leda isn’t a likeable character, with a subtle meanness considering her action towards a three year-old little girl. Mind you, even a backstory still cannot justify or excuse her present action. However, Gyllenhaal has successfully handled it by making the film a character study. We’re to watch and ponder, rather than judge and condemn. An unlikeable character doesn’t make a ‘bad’ movie. Again, thanks for throwing in your two pebbles. 🙂


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