It’s not easy to successfully turn
a book into a screenplay—to take a few hundred pages of descriptive narration and turn it
into about a hundred pages of dialogue and action, while leaving out none of the
important details or explanations and changing as little of the story as possible. Few,
in fact, do it well. And most of those who try end up buried in hate mail sent by fans
of the book, who are upset about the things that were changed/left out/added.
Girl with a Pearl Earring was adapted from Tracy Chevalier’s novel
(see my review)—a
novel that I loved, both because it took place in a city that’s practically my second
home and because the story was so skillfully crafted. So while I was excited to see the
movie version, I was also a bit apprehensive.
Scarlett Johansson stars as
Griet, a young girl in seventeenth-century Delft, a small town in the Netherlands. Her
father has gone blind and can no longer make money as a painter, so Griet is sent away to
support the family by working as a maid for the painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth).
Vermeer’s demanding and perpetually pregnant wife (Essie Davis) orders Griet to clean her
husband’s studio. Eventually, Vermeer begins talking to her—he shows her his paintings,
explains the use of color, and teaches her to mix his paints. He even sends her on the
occasional errand without his wife’s knowledge. Meanwhile, outside the Vermeers’ home,
Griet reluctantly begins a relationship with Pieter (Cillian Murphy), the butcher’s
son—with some prodding from her parents, who believe he’ll do a great job of supporting
As she continues to work for the Vermeers, Griet deals with the
suspicions of Cornelia (Alakina Mann), Vermeer’s mischievous daughter, and tries to avoid
the advances of Pieter Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), Vermeer’s patron, who has a
reputation for cornering maids. She also struggles with her intensifying feelings for
her master—who, with Van Ruijven’s encouragement, is painting her. And the more electric
her relationship becomes with Vermeer, the more she finds herself running to
As an adaptation of a book, Girl does a relatively good
job—considering the constraints. But, as can be expected, there are definitely parts
missing. Viewers are thrown right into the story without being given much background
information—which might be a bit confusing if you didn’t read the book. And several
characters and side plotlines from the book are missing, but that doesn’t really matter.
What matters is that the filmmakers stuck rather closely to the original story—so fans of
the book shouldn’t be too disappointed. At least I wasn’t.
As a movie on
its own, Girl is spectacular—well deserving of the Academy Award nominations it
received. The cinematography is stunning, and Johansson and Firth play their roles
flawlessly. Griet is timid and innocent, Vermeer is dark and brooding, and the
relationship between them is so filled with tension that it will literally take your
Whether you’re a fan of Tracy Chevalier’s novel or not,
you’ll love every breathtaking minute of Girl with a Pearl Earring.