The key to a good adaptation is keeping the themes. A book-to-movie adaptation can change plot points, merge characters, and reinvent tone, but the core is always the theme of the original novel. Endings can change, but only as long as they are true to the characters and message that was called for. The film adaptation of Tell It to the Bees relies heavily on a last moment turn around. It changes the optimism of a protagonist at the end, making it a wistful goodbye kiss, instead of a tale of finding freedom.
This isn’t a fight of “the book was better!” This is the truth that the book and movie are made to exist in very different worlds. Fiona Shaw’s original Tell It to the Bees novel is a safe place for queer readers. It is a lesbian romance that ends with a train ride into the sunset together, but it is wholly earned. Annabel Jankel’s film adaptation, however, pulls a much more pessimistic belief on love. It says that love is less clear on the outside, and deliberately bends character motivations to force a separation.
It’s the story of Lydia (Holliday Grainger), a single mother going through a divorce, who brings her son Charlie (Gregor Selkirk) to a female doctor, Jean (Anna Paquin), in a quaint 1950s fishing village. The two grow close, originally by lending books, and eventually move in together. There, they fall in love, and must hide from the insular village as well as Charlie. When the secret gets out, the two women are shamed, but decide to flee to mainland Europe together. The book allows them to do so, while the film decided that Jean has chosen to stay behind and work.
In short; the film adaptation is a heterosexual lens on a queer romance. It presumes the tropes of tragedy, and forces them upon a story originally free of them. The idea is that every great romance should end apart, following the models of Titanic and Romeo and Juliet. The problem is, this isn’t one of those stories. This is a romance on an intimate scale, that is dedicated to Jean and Lydia finding a world where they can be happy together.
The power of the book’s ending comes from Charlie. He grows up, and decides to visit his father after years living away with Jean and Lydia. Charlie’s father does not inquire as to her whereabouts, as her homosexuality has made her dead to him. He answers himself, choosing to announce that they “still sleep in the same bed.” He is not ashamed of what his mothers are, a far cry from when he told the whole town before. It’s a lovely way of saying that it gets better, it shows that people can come around and change their minds and accept with open hearts. And that’s why it’s in the original lesbian novel; it is meant as a comfort.
Instead, we never see what becomes of Charlie. Instead, we have Jean reenter society, most likely still with the effects of her shunning. She apparently wants to help people, but for some reason can only do this if she stays in town. This ending removes any imagination, and any hope. Lydia leaving and Jean staying is a textbook betrayal, one that violates the trust established ninety minutes before. This is not safe, this is painful, and not how it should be.
It’s a shame the film departs from the source, as so many moments of the film are so filled with love and truth, the same truth that is in the pages. It has a rare depiction of same-sex domesticicity, even if the two women hide exactly how they are raising a child together. Jean and Lydia slow dance in the kitchen when they invite a male friend over, often letting down their guard. The first kiss and sex scene is delicate and kind, draping the women in clean white sheets as they consummate their infatuation. They do everything In their power to protect Charlie from the situation, and even if he hates his mother at times, she will give the world for him.
So much of the gentle safety within the book is lost. Lost may be too gentle a word, scribbled on may be more fitting. The book does not contain scenes of rape, and graphic assault is kept to a minimum. While not an adaptation change, there is a scene of a forced abortion presented in full graphic sound and detail. It is only briefly told in the book, instead providing.horror with context. The film seems to be trying to trigger audiences, to give anger and gore to the sensitive topic. There is a scene of teenage female lovers where they are torn apart, one seems to be about to be assaulted. Lydia is attacked violently and is almost raped on-screen before the onset of supernatural bees. Also, not in the book.
The sad truth is that the film is not meant for queer audiences. It gives the women immense trauma tied to their sexual orientations that did not come in the source material. They are dehumanized and belittled, not just by those in their village, but by the screenwriter. The women are not given time to process or cope together. The overall understanding of sexual assault is quite upsetting, using trauma for sock value purely. Lydia’s trauma is not dwelt upon in the slightest, she simply bounces back into the world.
The supernatural bees are a touch that, while not from the book, work wonderfully in the film. On paper the bees are a silent listener for Charlie, while they do his bidding in the film, attacking in swarms when needed. This gives Charlie some agency he loses with the increased absence of his father in the movie, allowing his perspective to be seen through the hive. Bees are used to divide the acts as well, zooming in on the honeycomb to signal a shift in story. It’s a whimsical visual that contrasts the film’s bleaker tone. The “telling of the bees” revolves around beekeepers telling secrets to their hives, and here the bees get to have a voice too.
This brings up the question of whether happy endings are realistic. After all, wouldn’t media from an actual queer perspective show greater truth of the matter? Shaw’s source material does allow her lovers to run away together, but this is done with great sacrifice. They give up everything they have in their village, so the happy ending is earned because they do slightly suffer for it. “Because of the turn my own life had taken, I was determined that my central female characters should have a happy ending: be able to make a life together as a couple. And from my research, I knew that this would have been far more difficult for them to achieve in Britain back then. They would almost certainly have faced a professional and legal whirlwind, stigmatised for their love, with drastic consequences. Jean would have lost her livelihood as a GP – and Lydia would have lost custody of her son,” Shaw says for The Conversation.
So little lesbian romance comes with happy endings, but a happy ending doesn’t always make sense. Ending with two lovers apart can be powerful and far more faithful to the love, but only if the story is about both the beginning of the relationship, its end, and why. Take Céline Sciamma’s period romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire for example; it is about the memory of love, and we know this from the beginning. It begins by telling us that we are watching a flashback as Noémie Merlant’s character remembers the love affair, and it again breaks into narration at the end to tell us where the lovers are left, as well as suspending reality multiple times to show how the memory of it all has seared in. The film is about letting go of a lover when it is best to move on, using the Orpheus and Eurydice myth to do so. It knows the impossibility of the two women being together in the end, and it even acknowledges that they would make themselves miserable trying to fight society, so its parted reflections at the closing are earned.
Tell It to the Bees is not structured for this, even in the film’s reworkings. By having Jean turn around and choose her career over the women she has fallen in love with, it goes against the whole film showing her learn to live for more than just her work. She kisses Lydia at the platform knowing she will not follow, and it cheapens a powerful moment. We see the two women risk everything during a kiss in the crowded train station, but it’s steeped in a falsified promise that shatters the illusion of radicality. The whole point of Jean always running from her lesbianism and anyone who brings consequence for it is that this time, it is her last moment of running. This time, she chooses to run because she is in love, and now has a new home within her heart.
By staying, Jean stops running. And this is what fits the heterosexual tradition in film. The straight romance abides by the idea that for a revelation to occur, one must reverse what has burdens them. This is not true, in queer fiction there is no need to perform some sort of idelogical conversion therapy upon one’s convictions. Even though it follows her pattern of damaging behavior, it is deeply more radical to have Jean choose to run for a reason instead of staying to break a trope. The former is a story while the latter is a logic puzzle. A true queering of a story is to be able to take the given and make it anew, and that’s why the book’s allowance for Jean to run one last time is so powerful.
It’s a film for heterosexuals who thought the reunion at the end of Carol was unearned. It’s a film for those who saw The Children’s Hour on Turner Classic Movies late at night, and believed that that world still extends, even in an era with less film censorship. It’s a film for people who saw Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and didn’t understand why Marianne needed to see Héloïse for the last time in two different ways. Annabel Jankel adapts lesbian love to fit the parting glances of heterosexual romance tropes, yet the film is still sold as by lesbians, for lesbians, even with Fiona Shaw’s tale twisted to near irrecognizability. It becomes a queer story for a straight audience, and it’s sad to lose a lesbian literature gem in this way. The key here is the telling of a marginalized story from a privileged point of view. The Tell it to the Bees film is lost in its determination to find a straight audience. It masks its lesbian love too deeply, trying to portray how hard being gay is in an ultimately pedantic, cruel matter. It dismisses the LGBT audience expecting the same positive representation of life for them, and in doing this, the film is a betrayal. By fitting the trope of the tragic romance, it is rewriting to make a new story. The new tale about two women and some bees still bears a strong semblance of the original. Those strong shreds of memory shine through, as does the chemistry between Grainger and Paquin, so that positive love grows even more likely before we are met with crushing defeat. This is a new approach to the novel, the idea that we can change the meaning and it almost feels like an entirely original piece of art. It appears that the audience was taken into no consideration, as the film quietly disappeared on VOD, almost like it’s hiding. It’s as if this lesbian film was made for everyone but the lesbians, yet we are still sucked in by empty promises.