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What the film Women Talking loses (and preserves) from the 2018 novel

The plot is based on a horrifying true story from 2011, but the resistance philosophy goes back to St. Augustine.

A group of women in Mennonite garb sits on hay bales.
Women Talking takes aim at the patriarchy — but differs in some key aspects from its source material.
Courtesy of TIFF
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

At the start of Women Talking — both the film and the novel from which it’s adapted — we’re told this is a work of “female imagination.” The question then is: What story is being imagined?

Maybe it’s obvious. The story springs out of a horrifying true story from 2011, in which seven men from an ultra-conservative Mennonite colony in Bolivia (populated by the descendants of the Eastern Europeans who settled there in 1874) were convicted of drugging and serially raping over 100 women from their community. (An eighth was sentenced for providing the drug, a cow anesthetic derived from belladonna.) Author Miriam Toews, who grew up in a Mennonite community and considers herself a “secular Mennonite” despite having been excommunicated, took the story and ran with it. She imagined a scenario in which the women of the community decide whether to do nothing, to stay in the community and fight, or to leave.

The resulting novel has often been taken as a cry of desperate defiance, in a metaphorical sense for the struggles of women everywhere, whether or not they’re from an oppressively patriarchal religious community. That it was initially released in 2018 — less than a year after the #MeToo hashtag became a movement and a byword — certainly adds to that reading.

For the film, writer and director Sarah Polley, who has written recently about her own experiences with destructive behavior by men, did what every good adaptation should do and found her version of the story inside of the original. With a cast that includes Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Ben Whishaw, and Frances McDormand (in a tiny but thematically crucial role), she tells a story that’s about learning to unlearn oppression, about embracing freedom after violence. It’s a skillfully made, conversation-forward movie that unpacks various ways women have responded to violence and abuse over centuries and across the world: living with subjugation, fighting it, fleeing it, or trying to reform society from within. It imagines a feminist future.

Yet, reading the novel closely reveals some extra layers — layers that disappear in the movie. The novel’s explicit backbone has to do with a figure from ancient Christian history: St. Augustine, who is mirrored in the book’s narrator, August Epp, as well as in the women’s conversations about the flow of time, the nature of memory, the meaning of faith, and more that feel drawn out of Augustinian thought. In the film, August Epp and the conversations remain, but this reference is gone. That has ramifications for the movie, though an Augustinian thread still binds them together.

In the novel, August tells us that his mother’s name was Monica, and that his family was excommunicated from the colony when he was a child, he thought at the time for a sinful act he committed: stealing pears. Readers of Augustine’s seminal book Confessions know that as a boy Augustine famously did the same thing, stealing a load of pears with his friends simply to enjoy the wrongdoing. He credits his mother Monica (herself the patron saint of mothers) with having been the force guiding him back to faith.

In one of Augustine’s most famous texts, City of God, written following the fall of Rome, Augustine proposes the notion that people inhabit either the City of God, marked by those who search for the truth, or the City of Men, inhabited by those who only seek after their own pleasure and the cares of this world. Many of the women’s conversations, in both book and film, echo this concern, although it’s easy to miss without the Augustine markers. The City of God is characterized by love of others; the City of Men is about love only of self. And the City of God, Augustine says, is the one that will not crumble.

The women recognize this truth easily, and one of the women, Ona, proposes the women pursue “a new religion, extrapolated from the old but focused on love.” In the novel, when the women discuss the community they dream of building, they are discussing building the City of God on earth. (They are, emphatically, not wanting to recreate another city of men.)

The women’s ability to come to similar conclusions as a church father gives the distinct sense that they don’t need to be led to truth by men; having experienced suffering and spent their lives in more or less forced service, when they’re given a modicum of freedom to talk with one another, they arrive at the same place as the greatest minds.

Underlining all of this is the novel’s naming of a character named Peters, who functions as leader of the colony and thus its lead villain. Even if he didn’t rape the women himself, he is complicit in the act, and has sheltered the men who did it. “Peter” is the name of the apostle on whom Jesus said he would build his church, and Peter is often considered the first Pope. The implication is damning.

Much of this is eliminated, more or less necessarily, in the film version of Women Talking. Many of the conversations are preserved, but in abbreviated form and largely focused on the question of staying, fighting, or leaving. Peters isn’t named, nor is Monica. August is no longer the story’s narrator, though he remains a character. Other elements from the books disappear, too: an incident with two brothers from a nearby community and two teenage girls; the suggestion that the women could be heading straight into a literal raging fire; the knowledge that not only are the women illiterate, but that they can’t even speak Spanish, the language of their neighbors, having only been taught the low German of their ancestors.

Those omissions don’t really harm the film itself, but they do change the nature of what’s being imagined. Women Talking, the novel, is about knowing that the men who hurt you, who perpetrate evil in the name of God or themselves, will never get their comeuppance in this life. Scars remain. Children born of rape enter the world. Memories do not go away. So how do you imagine a future? What world can the women imagine for themselves? Can they conceive of a life outside this colony?

One last piece from the novel — the revelation of the identity of August’s actual father — brings this reading together, and leaves the story in a not-entirely-comfortable place. The women have left, but they might be headed straight into catastrophe. August knows he must stay in the colony, but he’s not sure how he’ll carry on. The book doesn’t end with a note of triumph. It’s a sense of impending calamity.

The movie’s ending is more upbeat. There’s no fire looming, for one, though there are dangers. We aren’t quite aware that August sees in himself a reminder of the violence, and of the heroic act of staying. And, of course, the Augustinian layers disappear. Women Talking, the film, is about leaving in search of a better life; it’s a story of feminist defiance, of cutting off the patriarchy at its knees.

Yet both versions of the story do lean on the same Augustinian question, which is what ties them together. Because what animated Augustine’s writing across his entire life was wrestling with the problem of evil (sometimes called “theodicy”), most succinctly stated in a familiar question: If God is good, why do bad things happen? Or to put it another way: How can you believe in an all-powerful, good God when that God doesn’t stop the evil in the world? How can you make sense of this contradiction?

For some of the women of the colony, the answer is to refuse. McDormand — arguably the biggest name in the film — is cast in a nearly silent minor part precisely to show the diminishment that happens when we decide we simply must go on without talking at all. You keep waiting for her to have a big revelation, to change, and … she simply doesn’t. Not all women want to overturn the order of things.

But honestly, when I think about Women Talking’s ultimate approach to the question, I get chills down my spine. How do you make sense of evil? The women’s answer stems from a long Augustinian answer, which is: You don’t.

As Augustine writes, evil wasn’t created by God; it is a perversion of the created good. And though we wish to live in and fervently work toward a world without evil, we’ll never achieve that in this life. Making “sense” of evil, explaining it, would diminish it. In both book and film, the women understand this.

Augustine’s solution is deeply Christian in nature — to believe in the eventual conquering of evil by a God who endured it himself on a cross — but one needn’t believe in that (and it’s not clear the Women Talking characters do either) to see how the story responds. At the end of both stories, August is charged with making a list of everything that is good in the world. Sun. Stars. Pails. Birth. The harvest. He includes Flies. Manure. Wind. And Women. Augustine suggested that humans are defined by what they love and what they desire, and August notes in the novel when he finishes the list that “My list is listing, listless. The origin: liste, from Middle English, meaning desire. Which is also the origin of the word ‘listen.’”

And that might be the greatest gift of seeing Women Talking translated from page to screen. In the shift of medium, we are no longer reading. The women talk, and we are listening.

Women Talking premiered at the Telluride Film Festival and played at the Toronto International Film Festival. It opens in theaters on December 2, 2022.