There are stories that need to be read and there are stories that need to be viewed. There are stories better told through written words on a page, and stories best suited for the screen. Of course, some overlap, some are appropriate for either medium, but there are certain stories that can reach a whole new depth when the creator chooses the correct canvas to paint it on.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is a story built for the screen.
Why? I’ll tell you, but first, an example: Atonement is an outstanding film directed by Joe Wright and adapted for the screen from an equally-impressive novel by Ian McEwan. There’s a scene in both the novel and the film where the main character, Briony—a nurse during World War II—tends to a wounded soldier moments before his death. She has never met him before, but she’s keeping him company until he breathes his last breath. In the book, we are given the character’s inner thoughts. I remember reading the moment when the boy, confused and incoherent, asks if she loves him and she says yes with the accompanying explanation, “No other reply was possible. Besides, for that moment, she did. He was a lovely boy who was a long way from his family and he was about to die.” A simple, seeming inconsequential thought, but this passage stuck with me as a reader. It amplified the entire scene. It gave it even more weight than a scene with a dying soldier would on its own. And although the movie did employ the use of narration at times, there was no narration in this scene. We’re asked to watch Briony watching a man die and we, as viewers, are supposed to come up with our own ideas of what must be going through her mind. In the novel, we don’t have to ask—we just know. Would I have assumed she’d reach the same realization about his family at that moment on my own? Maybe not. Do I need it to appreciate the scene? No. But that moment alone was what made it memorable for me. This particular scene functioned better in the novel than it did on the screen because the event is so emotionally charged that the character is thinking multiple thoughts at once. We need and want to know Briony’s specific thoughts. We need to be steered in the right direction or else risk not imagining her thinking what the author intended us to.
Eleanor Rigby, on the other hand, is a character entirely shut off. Her “disappearance” is both literal and metaphoric. She is emotionally withdrawn. Film works best for her story because she doesn’t want to share what she’s thinking, she doesn’t even know what she’s thinking, she doesn’t even want to talk. She’s pure evasion. We’re better clued into her inner turmoil by watching her, not by hearing what’s in her head. Her thoughts are intentionally sparse which is why her story is so well suited for the screen. We gain more access to her by watching her because she’s unwilling and incapable of giving us anything more.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (directed by Ned Benson) follows the lives of a married couple, Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) and Conor (James McAvoy), whose relationship has just lost the final thread it was hanging from. Once blissfully in love, things have taken a turn for the worst—Eleanor has disappeared and Conor is desperate to find her and fix the relationship in whatever way he can. We, as the audience, are intentionally kept in the dark. We know something major happened to propel the downward spiral, but we don’t know what—mostly because both characters refuse to talk (or think) about whatever it is that went horribly wrong.
Eleanor is all about avoiding. She moves back home to live with her parents following a failed suicide attempt and we learn very early in that she doesn’t want to talk about whatever it is that made her jump from that bridge. She wants to escape. She’s disappeared not only literally from her old life, but inside her head as well. The number one rule of storytelling is that each character has to change. They need to progress, they need to start at one place and end up somewhere else. The filmmakers know that in order for us, as the audience, to see Eleanor’s growth and progression we need to be treated just like everyone else in her life who try to help her but can’t. We need to be in the dark. We need to try to find clarity and fail. We need to feel we’re making headway and then hit a dead end. We need to feel just as helpless as she does in order to understand her journey. For that reason, the filmmakers intentionally and artistically keep us in the dark. We have no idea what Eleanor’s thinking. And it’s awesome.
This approach to storytelling is what makes this film fascinating. Eleanor won’t give us her interior thoughts, she refuses therapy sessions, she doesn’t want to talk, she avoids any situation that may make her discuss what happened. To heal, she needs to just exist. We have to feel aimless with her, but we also have to feel a slight progression. We have to feel her getting out of her hole. But she can’t tell us anything to give us any clues that she is progressing because that’s her whole problem—that she can’t pinpoint her pain or her recovery. We have to watch her struggle, but we also have to see her evolution. So we’re left to map her progress in different ways—in brilliant subtle cues. Slowly, we get more and more details. We learn that she lost a son and that this is what set her off, this is what she can’t recover from. We gain insight not from what she speaks, but from how she interacts with her nephew, the telling glance at a photograph she spots hidden away in a closet, what she chooses to tell her equally-damaged professor (Viola Davis), and what she does the few times she willingly pops back into Conor’s life. It’s slow and it’s calculated, but every small action she makes deftly shows us where she is at mentally.
The story is impeccably underwritten in the very best way. You feel smart when you watch this film, you feel like you’re in on the secret, like you solved the puzzle and it’s because the filmmakers trust that the audience is clever enough to read their subtle cues without needing Eleanor to have one major outburst, or one telling therapy session that will articulate everything we need to know. They force us to do the analytical work. We don’t need all the fluff. Eleanor isn’t about the fluff. She’s real. She’s passive, but she’s actively passive and we just need to wait it out with her.
The beautiful realization you come to when watching this film is that healing is not always about talking. It’s not always about doing. Sometimes, it’s just about time. Sometimes, it’s just about waiting it out. There is no recipe for grief. Eleanor never really comes right out and shares her story, her struggle. She talks to no one. She listens to Professor Friedman and that seems to help her more than anything, but Friedman has no idea what she’s actually going through. The only one she talks to is Conor and perhaps that’s because she doesn’t have to share much with him—he knows the details without her having to communicate because the loss was theirs together. She admits to her father when she refuses the therapy he’s set up for her, “I don’t want a reminder that something is wrong” and she tries constantly to avoid any such reminder. So she floats. She meanders. She doesn’t know how to fix herself. We don’t know what she needs either, but we watch as she gradually is able to pull herself out of her funk. She needed to disappear, she needed to just exist. And ever so slowly, ever so subtly, and ever so seamlessly we’re left with the feeling that maybe, just maybe, she’s through the worst of it.
And for the viewer, that progress is more than enough.