Adapting ‘Eat, Pray, Love’: Erasing the Moral Complexity of Individual Philanthropy

Last summer I decided to indulge in some non-academic reading after a year of intense graduate film study. The endeavor involved several Joyce Carol Oates tomes, the Hunger Games series, and Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. While all of these books were indeed escapist indulgences, and more than one had by then already been adapted for the screen, I found myself particularly engaged in a complex web of attraction/repulsion with EPL. While I appreciated the book’s frank portrayal of its protagonist’s struggles with depression, I also had serious problems with it.

I’m not the first to read Ms. Gilbert’s book from a critically detached perspective. Indeed, as I read, I became increasingly flippant and dismissive of Ms. Gilbert and what I saw as a lack of self-awareness on her part in writing a book about self-discovery through a kind of touristic imperialism, establishing a binary that posits non-America as an array of exotic locales rife with “authenticity” in which a white, privileged, upper-class, slender, heterosexual person can “find herself.” Many critics have already pointed out the same issues—inherent to her colonialist, globetrotting, and rather essentializing “journey.” Numerous articles, blog posts, and online forums have delved into these issues admirably, and Wendy Molyneux’s comedic parody “Brag, Build, Banana” in The Rumpus’s “Funny Women” series manages to embody them hilariously. Sandip Roy’s Salon article “The New Colonialism of Eat, Pray, Love” also does an excellent job of highlighting some of the most overt and problematic issues and contradictions in the film.

After finishing the book, I was eager to watch its film version, in part because I am not well versed in the complexities of filmic adaptations of literary material. I thought this could be a good opportunity to dip my toes in, particularly since my engagement with the book was so conflicted. After viewing the film, one omission stood out, and I have thus far been unable to find a mention of it—perhaps the most glaring difference between the book and the film—in any writing about Eat, Pray, Love. The elision involves Liz’s friendship with Wayan, the healer she befriends in Bali during the “Love” portion of the story.

In the book, Gilbert solicits donations from her friends to try to support Wayan, a single mother whose divorced status leaves her socially and financially vulnerable in Bali. Gilbert raises $18,000 and offers the money to Wayan so that she can buy a piece of land and build a permanent home. Liz becomes confused when Wayan does not immediately buy a piece of land. In fact, after weeks of back-and-forth, Wayan claims that the thousands she has been given are not quite enough. Frustrated and hurt by what she sees as a kind of scam, Gilbert writes, “The Western expatriates around here—hearing that I’m trying to buy land for Wayan—start gathering around me, offering cautionary tales based on their own nightmarish experiences.”1

EPL teems with Gilbert’s collected “Western expatriates,” people much like herself who seem unable to stay in one place for long and revel in consuming cultures not their own. The notion that these (mostly) wealthy expatriates had to endure “nightmarish” experiences purchasing real estate seems laughably obtuse given the descriptions of the actually traumatic and violent experiences that some of the local Balinese characters have endured. Liz asks her new expat boyfriend, Felipe, if Wayan is stalling in order to squeeze more money out of her. Felipe responds in the affirmative, giving Liz his breakdown of what happens when a tourist and an outsider gives so much to a local. He explains that, given so much already, it would be illogical for Wayan not to attempt to get more money out of Liz, and that Liz should put her foot down. Liz is understandably upset and confused by what she sees as Wayan’s betrayal and thankless behavior. When Liz lets Wayan know that the people who donated the money are getting impatient with her indecision and think she may be treating them unfairly, Wayan immediately purchases land and apologizes.

To me, this was the strongest and most ethically compelling portion of EPL, and was the point in the book at which Gilbert vocalizes and acknowledges her status as an outsider beyond simplistically consuming. Of course Gilbert’s gift is a kind and thoughtful gesture that will change Wayan and her children’s lives for the better. However, single gestures like Gilbert’s tend to deny the harmful and exploitative nature of international imperialist tourism. They also deny the inherent structural and institutional inequality that exists between the two divorced women, one Balinese and one American. Individual philanthropic gestures make it seem like inequality can be ameliorated by one person rather than by governmental and institutional policy. Gilbert’s gift is clearly an expression of and an attempt to alleviate her own white guilt, akin to the adoption at the center of the film The Blind Side. Gilbert’s frank discussion of Wayan’s attempt to get more money from her, her own confusion and sadness about being somehow “taken advantage of” in her generosity, and her eventual confrontation and peacemaking with Wayan do convey the problematic facets of their unequal relationship. Wayan is not simply a smiling, content Balinese woman acting as an empty vessel for whatever meaning Elizabeth Gilbert would place in her. Rather, she comes across as a real human being in dire circumstances who responds rather realistically to Gilbert’s gift of money. However, Gilbert does not go so far as to really question her own imperialism and exploitation, including the problematic nature of her individual gift.

Now let us consider the same plot point in the film version. Gilbert’s gift to Wayan is used in the film as a kind of spider web, bringing all of Gilbert’s experiences in Italy, India, and Indonesia together through her friendship with Wayan and her daughter Tutti. This is cleverly done with the double meaning of the spoken form of the word “tutti,” which in Italian means “everyone.” Gilbert, portrayed by Julia Roberts, says the following when soliciting donations:

Dear friends and loved ones: My birthday’s coming up soon. If I were home, I’d be planning a stupid, expensive birthday party and you’d all be buying me gifts and bottles of wine. A cheaper, more lovely way to celebrate would be to make a donation to help a healer named Wayan Nuriyasih buy a house in Indonesia. She’s a single mother. In Bali, after a divorce, a woman gets nothing, not even her children. To gain custody of her daughter, Tutti, Wayan had to sell everything, even her bath mat, to pay for a lawyer. For years, they’ve moved from place to place. Each time, Wayan loses clientele and Tutti has to change schools. This little group of people in Bali have become my family. And we must take care of our families, wherever we find them. Today I saw Tutti playing with a blue tile she’d found in the road near a hotel construction site. She told me: Maybe if we have a house someday, it can have a pretty blue floor like this. When I was in Italy, I learned a word—it’s “tutti” with double T, which in Italian means “everybody.” So that’s the lesson, isn’t it? When you set out in the world to help yourself, sometimes you end up helping Tutti.

As Liz says, the idea is that, through her journey of individual discovery in foreign countries, Liz is able to help one woman, and in doing so help everyone. It’s a clever wordplay that implies the false idea that in her journey of self discovery, by making an individual philanthropic gift, she’s somehow helping “everyone.” This wordplay also, to me, seems to almost anonymize or generalize the struggle of Wayan and her daughter—Tutti is, by name, “everyone,” while Liz is Liz. The local people of color that this American writer interacts with become “everyone” within her own narrative of self-discovery. In the film, the viewer sees Liz present Wayan with the thousands of dollars she solicits and sees Wayan’s happiness and excitement. Later, we see a montage of Bali that includes a shot of Wayan and her daughter standing in the construction site of what will be their future home.

The film version of EPL entirely erases the limited complexity of Gilbert’s gift as it is portrayed in the novel. Wayan’s character accepts the gift thankfully and fades into Gilbert’s past as the film comes to an end. I was confused and disappointed at this alteration from page to screen. I found articles on The Huffington Post, NPR, and Moviefone.com, as well as a list of plot differences on a site called Thatwasnotinthebook.com, but neither these sources nor any others I could locate discussed the difference between how Wayan accepted Liz’s gift in the book and how she does so in the film.

Certainly films based on literary sources must by nature make changes (not least of all because film is an audio-visual medium, while literature is composed of the written word), but there is an art to adaptation that is thoroughly theorized in cinema and media studies. Why make the EPL change about Wayan? We can only speculate. Yet the result of the alteration is clearly a gross simplification of one of the best and most self-aware moments in the entire book. Perhaps the filmmakers were concerned that, in showing Wayan’s attempt to get more money from Gilbert, they would be seen as somehow demonizing her or making her seem greedy to a primarily white American audience. Individual gestures of philanthropy are often tied to white guilt, but this gesture to me seems symptomatic of the same. The film purports to show some kind of “reality” of what it means to be a poor, divorced single mother in Bali, but instead succeeds in producing a character who acts to embody Liz’s own conceptions and expectations of that reality.

For, truth be told, neither the book nor the film are concerned with exposing structural inequality, American imperialism, or the complexities of neo-colonialism. Instead they both serve as escapist white guilt fantasies about “finding oneself” in a foreign place, perhaps deigning to “help” one or two locals with gifts, and imagining that you are helping countless others with your tourism dollars when, in fact, you are most likely putting money in the pockets of oppressive forces.


NOTES:

1. ^ Eat, Pray, Love Kindle version, pages 306-307


Author Bio:

Linda Juhasz-Wood graduated with a Master’s in Cinema and Media Studies from UCLA’s School of Film, Theater, and Television in Spring 2013. Her research interests include feminist film theory, postcolonial theory, and Hindi-language cinema.

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