A Literary Legend: a talk with author Katherine Paterson about The Great Gilly Hopkins

by Andrew Parker

In the world of young adult literature, few writers have amassed a career of bestselling and emotionally resonant works as Katherine Paterson. Since the early 1970s, Paterson has created some of the most iconic, widely read, and critically celebrated works of young adult literature of the 20th century. The Chinese born American author has always imbued her sometimes fantastical efforts with a great deal of personal detail. Although she’s best known for winning countless literary awards for bestsellers like Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved, she’s more known for the deep, complex characters she creates within her stories.

Her 1978 follow-up to Bridge to Terabithia, The Great Gilly Hopkins, is no exception, and as such has become one of her most beloved and widely adapted works. Speaking over the phone from her Vermont residence, 84-year old Paterson remains humbled and still in a perpetual state of disbelief that the legacy of Gilly Hopkins lives on as a beloved character of literature. And upon the release of the latest cinematic adaptation of The Great Gilly Hopkins (now available in Canada on VOD and DVD), she relishes the chance to share the story with a new generation by way of a retelling that she’s quite proud of.

The Great Gilly Hopkins tells the tale of the titular troubled pre-teen, played here by Canadian actress and rising star Sophie Nélisse. Gilly has been bounced around between foster homes, all while dreaming of what life would be like if she could just live with her biological mother (Julia Styles) in California. Her latest trip through the system finds her in the care of Maime Trotter (Kathy Bates), a kindly Christian woman who won’t give up easily on Gilly, despite the young lady’s constant sass, sarcasm, and boorish, borderline bullying behaviour. Gilly tries to do everything in her power to get away from Trotter and her younger foster brother W.E. (Zachary Hernandez), and to keep any potential schoolyard chums at a distance by being as resolutely independent and standoffish as possible, always plotting just how she might mount a quick getaway to the west coast and the mother who left her behind.

With a script penned by Katherine’s son, David Paterson, The Great Gilly Hopkins is a thoughtful and complex family film that feels true to the author’s intent and emotions. It’s a film with an all star cast (including Viola Davis as one of Gilly’s teachers and Glenn Close as the young girl’s estranged grandmother) borne from a story Paterson created from some of the feelings she felt as a foster parent. For the still active novelist, translator, public speaker, and literary ambassador, everything she writes needs to feel real and speak to the everyday fears, concerns, joys, and sorrows that young people face and that older people tend to not want to think about.

It was a joy to catch up with Katherine Paterson this past week to chat about the film, her work, past big and small screen adaptations of her novels, and how Nélisse and Bates were perfect choices for the material.

Katherine Paterson

Throughout your career, you’ve seen several of your books turned into films, TV specials, and TV movies, so generally what has your experience been with having your novels adapted into this kind of medium? How do you feel about people approaching you wanting to adapt your work, and do you have some specific considerations when people come to you wanting to adapt your novels and stories?

Katherine Paterson: I know first of all that when the approach me that it’s a long way from when they approach me to actually having a film made. (laughs) It may never, ever happen, so don’t get excited. That’s the first rule. A lot of people will approach you, but you have to remember that. Bridge to Teribithia got many, many approaches and it took 17 years to get the movie made. (laughs) I’m always super cautious.

In the case of Bridge to Teribithia and The Great Gilly Hopkins, my sons were involved, and that made a huge difference to me because I knew they would be fighting to keep the story close to the book. I knew it was never going to be the book. It wouldn’t be a good movie if it were too close to the book, but they know the heart of this story and they want to keep true to that. I feel really good about that.

I’ve had various experiences, you know? Most of them have been made-for-TV, and the first After School Special version of Bridge was not bad, but the problem was that you didn’t have time to fall in love with the character of Leslie before she died.  It was all very, very, very quick, and not really meaty enough, if you know what I mean. The first version of Gilly Hopkins, which was also an After School Special, was actually a lot more faithful to the book, even though it was less than an hour long because it had ads. That was remarkably well done, and the acting was quite good. But even then, a lot of stuff was cut out. Still, I wasn’t embarrassed by it. Should we say that? (laughs)

There was one that I was initially excited about, though, which is something one should never do (laughs), and it was when this British company that worked with the BBC wanted to do Lyddie, which is set in New England just before the Civil War. When they were finished with it, it was set in Canada, Lyddie was Irish, and the slave she helped run away to Canada in the book was already IN Canada where he didn’t have to hide. (laughs) Needless to say, I’ve never recommended that to anyone, and if I know it’s on CBC I get very nervous. (laughs)

I actually forgot that I had even seen that one until you brought it up.

Katherine Paterson: Good! Good, Andrew! (laughs) Please keep on forgetting! I just thought to myself, “Well, I guess they just don’t know American history if they think the story is that portable.” (laughs) Oh, man. All of the factories that drove the story were also located in Canada, which made just as little sense. Oh, well. It’s always cheaper to film in Canada, anyway. (laughs)

But I am very excited that The Great Gilly Hopkins is coming to Canada because Sophie Nélisse… You’ve seen the film, right?

Yes, I have

Katherine Paterson: Well, you can see how wonderful she is. I was blown away by Kathy Bates because I’m a big fan, and Maime Trotter is my favourite character in all my books, so I have to have Maime Trotter done right. But when they were trying to cast for the Gilly part, I reminded everyone to remember that she’s not a naughty child. She’s a hurting, angry child, and that’s quite different, and a lot of kids want to play her as naughty and mischievous. That’s not what’s going on there. She’s angry, and she’s hitting back.

I’ve watched this movie fourteen times now, in various stages of development, and I watch Sophie turn from this truly angry, hurtful, hurting child into somebody who can reach out to someone else who needs loving. I think she has done that in ninety minutes, and she’s convinced even me that she’s done it. I think that’s a brilliant piece of acting, myself. She’s captured it, and I am very grateful.

A lot of your characters, like Gilly Hopkins, is a very complex, layered, and nuanced character to try to adapt. Do you think that kind of nuance and attention to detail in your characters has helped your works stand the test of time?

Katherine Paterson: Let me say that no one is more surprised than I at the kind of response I have gotten to my work. You know, you do the best you can, and I think that’s what all writers do. No writer sets out to make a poor book. They always set out to make the best on they can. I really discovered a long time ago that if you want people to respond deeply to your work, then you have to go deeply inside yourself and expose parts of yourself that you ordinarily would rather not. You can’t write a book that people are going to respond to on a deep level unless you’re willing to do that. So when the book is out there, I’m always wondering, “Who is going to understand this?,” and it’s just staggering to me how not only people understand, but they bring their lives to the story and enlarge the story I’ve written in a way that I could never have done alone. That’s what I love most about being a writer; this co-writing between you and the reader, and every reader is going to be a different partner because every reader’s experience is different. Feelings are different, and imaginations are different, so it’s thrilling to me to see how readers enlarge what I’ve written. And mostly, I’ll never completely know about that. People write to me, and I know what they said to me, but when you see an actor do it in front of your eyes, that’s magical.

I’m really happy to hear you say that Maime Trotter is your favourite character from your books because she was always one of mine. So what was it like being a fan of Kathy Bates and hearing that she was going to be playing your most beloved character?

Katherine Paterson: I wrote to her, and I said, “Kathy, I have to tell you what I’ve been telling everyone else, which is that Maime Trotter is my favourite character in all my books, but I could never think of her again without seeing her the way you revealed her.”

And I got a beautiful reply to that, which if you want to hear it, I could go and find it and read it to you. I just don’t want to misquote her.

If you want to and would like to, I would love to hear it!

Katherine Paterson: I would love to. Just give me one minute.

[Returning to the phone with the letter] Here it is, what I got from her after I wrote to her with what I said, she said:

“Dear Katherine,

Thank you for your kind words. It means a lot to me that you are happy with my interpretation of a truly heroic woman. Especially in these terrible times, it is important to realize that one right minded, compassionate, and determined person can make a difference by shaping the destiny of a child. We need more examples of this love in our world.”

It tells you a lot about Kathy Bates. (laughs) And it tells you a lot about Maime Trotter.

When you look at what Sophie is doing with the character of Gilly and how the film balances her ability to do kind things and her ability to do potentially hurtful things, do you think that was one of the key elements to conveying Gilly as a character? That’s a hard balance to achieve, but I think the film does that nicely.

Katherine Paterson: She’s a complicated character, and a child who has suffered, and has had to go through all of these situations no child should have to go through as she’s being sort of tossed about and made to feel as though she’s disposable and that no one really cares about what happens to her. She’s the kind of person who has learned at a young age that she has to fight every battle for herself. Some of the things she does as a result aren’t all that noble, if you think about it. For example, when she makes that paper airplane for W.E., she’s doing it in order to win him over so she can use him to help her steal money. Somehow, in doing the right thing for the wrong reasons – and you can really see this in Sophie’s actions after she sees how thrilled W.E. is with the airplane – there’s a softness about her, and it turns into such delight for those around her. It’s like watching an iceberg melting by itself. She wants to be so hard, but she can’t help but somehow be moved by it herself, which Sophie really conveys. I mean, no one is all bad (laughs), and the love and caring that she’s being surrounded by is getting to her.

When the book first came out, and indeed when Bridge to Teribithia came out, and even somewhat today, some of your books have been among the most challenged titles in school libraries, with people calling them out for their use of language and the themes being depicted. Do you think that’s because – to some degree – adults don’t like to think of children as complex people in the way that you depict Gilly Hopkins?

Katherine Paterson: I think you’re onto something. They picked on the language in Gilly Hopkins, and they picked on it in Bridge to Teribithia, but I also think in the latter case a lot of that was because people are naturally scared of death. They won’t say that, though. They would pick something else out in hopes that it would all go away. In this one, I think people don’t want to believe that children could suffer or feel that deeply, so they pick on the language. Language is very evident and very powerful, and people just pick on that when there’s something else that’s bothering them that they can’t quite admit. I mean, that’s just my five cent psychological analysis, for what it’s worth. (laughs)

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