Usually, I am a firm, unshakeable subscriber to the belief that the book will always be better than the movie adaptation. I mean, with so much evidence to back this up, I don’t understand how there are still those people that will only watch movie adaptations, and not even give the books a chance. They are content in their ignorance, I guess.
However, there are those few, unique instances where the book and the movie are equals. The story of Philomena Lee and her lost son is one of those instances. Here the movie and the book serve as perfect compliments to each other. And one must experience both to get a complete story.
*This post is spoiler free.
Let’s start with the book.
The Lost Child of Philomena Lee: A Mother, Her Son and a 50 Year Search, by Martin Sixsmith, follows the story of Sixsmith as he attempts to track the movements and whereabouts of Lee’s only child, Anthony.
Lee grew up in a small, conservative, Catholic town in Ireland. But when she was 18, she met a man at a carnival and spent a night with him. She was then sent to Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea where unwed mothers birth their children and must work to pay off their debt to the Abbey for taking in the mothers and their bastard children. However, we later learn that the Abbey has been essentially selling the children to American families under the guise of adoption, with what seems to be coerced consent from the mothers. The mothers essentially give up all form of claim to their children and promise never to search them out.
Anthony is adopted, along with another little girl, Mary, by an American couple with three other children. They rename him Michael Anthony Hess and he goes to live a comfortable, yet somewhat turbulent life, in America where he eventually becomes a prominent government official with the Republican Party.
The book, while making mentions of Lee’s experiences in the Abbey, mostly focuses on the life of Michael Hess. Sixsmith researches, in extreme depth, everything about Hess’s life from his personality, personal struggles, relationships, failures and successes. The book is essentially a coming of age story about a boy, uprooted from his biological home from toddlerhood, who is constantly searching for who he is and where he belongs. We see Hess struggle with religion, sexuality, politics, personal vices and the way he maneuvers his personal relationships, both good and bad. Hess’s story is an extremely interesting one, filled with philosophical questioning and moral struggles and the one overarching theme of who am I meant to be?
Through all of it, Hess is wondering about his mother and striving to find her. Yet he is met with resistance from almost every angle.
Sixsmith does a wonderful job of taking the reader through Hess’s life and detailing all of the politics surrounding the Abbey’s actions both when Hess was adopted and when he returned to find his mother. This is a wonderful and important read that I would recommend to anyone and everyone.
Now, for the movie.
While the book focuses on Hess, Philomena focuses on Lee’s experiences in the Abbey as well as during Sixsmith’s search for Hess. Sixsmith and Lee travel to America to search for Hess and find out his story. This part of the journey is only briefly mentioned in the book toward the end, so I liked that it was the focus for the movie. I think it helped to tell the story in a more comprehensive way, while also tapping more into Lee’s emotions throughout the entire experience.
Steve Coogan did a wonderful job of playing Sixsmith and, of course, Judi Dench was the perfect person to play Lee. I don’t think anyone else would have done the character justice. Their chemistry was wonderful, filled with the right amount of European manners and passionate tension in the face of horrible injustice.
I think the way the film uses true photos and video of Hess gave the story its authenticity in a very unique way and allowed the viewers to see that yes, this story is true, it did actually happen. And there’s the man it happened to. Later we see images of Lee, which only served to strengthen my emotions about the whole thing.
If you want to strengthen your faith in the Catholic church, this is not the story for you. I was so angry the first time I watched this movie (Yes, I watched the movie first. Sacrilege!) I actually read the book to see how authentic the movie was. And they were both so moving, the story sticks with me to this day. I don’t think this is a story I’ll soon forget. And that’s why it’s so important.
Five stars for both.
I would recommend you read the book and watch the movie. But if you don’t do anything else, at least watch the movie. Please, it’s important.
What did you think about the book or the movie? Do you think they compliment each other? What do you think could have been done better? How do you feel about the church’s actions? Let’s talk.