When Kara Holden read Carrie Pilby, a novel about a teenage girl who navigates first forays into dating and sex armed only with her own neuroses and stiff morality, she knew she wanted to make it into a movie.
A screenwriter who got her start selling a script called “The Inner Bitch” to Paramount, Holden is interested in young adult stories and stories that shine a light on their character’s flaws, allowing them room for growth. Carrie Pilby, a young adult novel with a quirky, genius heroine, is that kind of story.
“I got the book, I read it, and I was just blown away by it. I love that the character started out thinking she knew what the world was, and over the course of the book she learned that the world is so much more complicated,” Holden told HuffPost. “She kind of had a black-and-white mentality, and discovered that there was a lot more grey in the world. I’m a big fan of J.D. Salinger, and Franny and Zooey, so obviously I was never going to adapt Catcher in the Rye, but when I read Carrie Pilby, I thought, this is the closest thing to it.”
I love that the character started out thinking she knew what the world was, and over the course of the book she learned that the world is so much more complicated. Kara Holden
Like Salinger’s protagonist Holden Caulfield, Carrie Pilby has a few grating tics ― she displays her intelligence by name-dropping authors, she approaches the world chin-out, asserting her beliefs. And, as with Caulfield, we’re charmed by Pilby’s naivety; she is 19, after all.
Holden’s film adaptation of Carrie Pilby screened at Toronto Film Festival this month, and was warmly received ― for the most part. One notable commonality among the less forgiving reviews: they focused on the protagonist’s “likability,” rather than how she fits into the context of the film and how she grows over the course of it.
“Although she apparently has an IQ of 185, curmudgeonly Carrie hasn’t quite worked out that she’s a massively entitled brat,” reads a Hollywood Reporter review.
“Its naval-gazing [sic] protagonist [is] not nearly as unusual or delightful as we’re meant to think,” a Variety reviewer writes. “Carrie is a young woman who too often annoyingly thinks and acts like a bratty teen, complete with an ‘Ewww’ attitude toward all things sexual.”
The question of “likable” protagonists was a buzzy one in the book world a few years ago, when Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs, spoke out against those asking her about the unsavoriness of her woman protagonist. In a Publisher’s Weekly response, she cited works featuring characters with questionable motives — Notes from Underground by Dostoyevsky, Sabbath’s Theatre by Philip Roth.
“These books I love, they’re all books by men ― every last one of them,” Messud wrote. “Because if it’s unseemly and possibly dangerous for a man to be angry, it’s totally unacceptable for a woman to be angry.”
Is this what’s at play in critical takes of “Carrie Pilby”? Holden thinks so. “It’s so true,” she said. “And what do we want? In a film, you’re watching it because you want to see someone learn something. And hopefully you’re learning something, too ― you know, in an entertaining way, obviously.”
In addition to a Salinger construction, Holden likens her character to classic cinematic curmudgeons: John Cusack in “High Fidelity” and Hugh Grant in “About a Boy.”
“Hugh Grant can get away with it,” Holden said. “And ‘High Fidelity,’ I mean, John Cusack’s character is a mess, but you love him. You love him. I feel like, you know, that’s another way that gender equality needs to come in. We need to allow women characters to have all facets. To be flawed, to be wonderful, to be frustrating, to be inspiring. Because we are all those things. Period.”
The portrayal of women on screen isn’t the only gender-related issue in Hollywood that Holden has encountered personally. She’s found that her successes have resulted from submitting her work to studios with women executives ― of which there are few.
We need to allow women characters to have all facets. To be flawed, to be wonderful, to be frustrating, to be inspiring. Because we are all those things. Period. Kara Holden
“The decision-makers sometimes pick the people who reflect them, and so if most of the decision-makers are men, it makes sense that they feel comfortable hiring men,” Holden said. “I love working with men, I love working with women, but I do think we need to have more women. They bring something unique and special to films that we need.”
Holden has also found that, in spite of her longtime interest in action movies, she has been “balked at” for proposing that she write one herself.
“People think that women write one thing,” she said. “[But] men write great female characters and male characters. If you’re a writer, hopefully you can have both of those voices in your repertoire. I love adventure films and I love action as well as romantic comedy. I hope that I’ll be able to write those in the future.”
She found solace from gender-based discrimination, however, while working on “Carrie Pilby,” a film written, directed and produced by women.
“It was absolute heaven, to be real,” Holden said. “There was just a wonderful atmosphere of collaboration and a really calm way of problem-solving and all wanting to be on the same page. There was something a little special about the fact that we were all women. It sounds cliché, but there was a nurturing feeling around the room. Everyone wanted to encourage each other. And that encouragement, I feel, lead to something great.”