Tom Perrotta on the origins of Election, Tracy Flick’s legacy, and adapting his own work
Twenty years ago, Reese Witherspoon and writer-director Alexander Payne introduced filmgoers to a firebrand high schooler named Tracy Flick. Or rather, re-introduced: Tracy first appeared in Tom Perrotta’s 1998 novel Election, on which the 1999 film was based. But even Perrotta agrees that Witherspoon’s tour de force performance has become the defining version of the character.
“I only went out there onto set once, but to see Reese Witherspoon just vibrating with energy, you just felt it when you saw her,” Perrotta told EW. “Something amazing is happening here. Twenty years later, it’s still this iconic portrayal of a female politician that has become a kind of watchword in the culture now.”
That iconic portrayal has helped Election go from critically-acclaimed box office bomb (it grossed $15 million on a $25 million budget), to all-time cult classic over the course of two decades. Tracy Flick is still a go-to reference point for a certain type of politician (just ask Hillary Clinton) and the story’s themes remain painfully, palpably relevant. For those unfamiliar, Election tells the tale of high school teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), who bitterly resents overachieving student Tracy Flick for having an affair with his best friend, another teacher. (The teacher was fired, Tracy suffered no consequences.) When Tracy is poised to run unopposed for student body president, Mr. McAllister decides to intervene, and the election quickly descends into chaos.
Though he didn’t work on Election‘s screenplay, Perrotta has since helped adapt his novels Little Children and The Leftovers for the screen, and is currently overseeing a TV adaptation of his latest book, Mrs. Fletcher, for HBO. EW chatted with the writer about how he came up with Election, the genesis and legacy of Tracy Flick, and the experience of adapting his own books.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Talk about the genesis of Election.
TOM PERROTTA: It had two or three main ingredients. One was my obsession with [the 1992 presidential] election, which came at a moment in my life where I was unemployed and found myself obsessed with politics for the first time in my life. And it was pre-Internet, so you had to really work to be obsessed with something. It just structured my life. And I think the decision to write a political novel sort of came out of wanting to continue thinking about that election.
Looking back now, it felt like a very different election from other ones because I think it was just the beginning of that moment when the candidates’ private lives became a really important part of the political discussion. And I think as a novelist, that really struck me. This sense that the private behavior of these people was now part of the political discourse, and we had to decide as an electorate if we thought that there was a distinction between public and private. Because that was the whole point of the critique on Clinton, which was, if you cheat on your spouse, how can you ever be honest with the American people? And I remember just feeling, “Oh, this is new.”
Also, I had been teaching at Yale, and was realizing that there was this new generation of really smart, ambitious, powerful young women that had appeared. And, of course, there were smart and powerful and ambitious women when I was in college, but it just felt like there was now a critical mass, and that these young women were sort of aiming really high. And I could just sense the discomfort that they were provoking in men. So that was part of it as well.
And then there was an article about a principal, I believe in Florida, who learned on prom night that his students had elected this pregnant girl prom queen. And he felt like that was not permissible, and he actually torched the box of votes. [Laughs] I remember being surprised at how upset I was at the idea that you could tamper with an election even for something as trivial as prom queen. And I realized I did actually think an election was kind of a sacred thing, which surprised me, because I was pretty cynical.
Was there anything else that went into creating Tracy specifically?
The other new thing [at the time] was that sexual harassment was becoming codified. When I had been an undergraduate in the early ’80s, it was considered a misdemeanor if a professor slept with a student if it was consensual. Because there was a feeling of, well, a college student is an adult and has sexual agency. And there was this new critique that has definitely become the reigning ideology, which is that there’s a power relationship there, and relationships of unequal power are on their face sexual harassment.
And I remember that the Tracy in the book is more sexually powerful and grown-up, I think, than the Tracy in the film. And I think Mr. M. was giving voice to a certain kind of male point of view on this, which was, Tracy was the powerful one. She was young, and she was sexy, and she got to make the choice to have an affair, and she got to make the choice to ruin the life of the teacher she’d had the affair with. And so I think I was also exploring different ways of conceiving of the power dynamic. And admittedly, that was very early days for thinking about that. I’m not endorsing Mr. M.’s theory, but I think a lot of men felt that way at the time. Like, whoa, whoa, who’s powerful, the hot young girl, or the sad, middle-aged man?
Can you talk about how the film adaptation came about and any memories you have of that process?
It was such a central moment in my own career, and it felt like that crazy Hollywood break. Because the book was unpublished. I had written it in 1993, and my then-agent said, “I can’t publish this,” and it just went into a drawer. And I was at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and I read from [my novel] The Wishbones. And a screenwriter named Janice Shapiro was in the audience, she said, “I think The Wishbones would be a really interesting movie. I know these producers who might be interested.” And they called me a couple weeks later on Janice’s recommendation.
The Wishbones was actually in progress at the time, and I said, “Yeah, when I’m done, I’ll send it to you.” But I just had this weird impulse. I said, “I have this other book, it’s just sitting in a drawer, about a high school election.” And I thought of it as a failure at the time. I was a little bit ashamed that I had spent a year writing a book and couldn’t get it published. And they were like, “Oh, let us see it.” And they loved it, and they got it to Alexander. It all happened very quickly. Because it was my first brush with Hollywood, I had no idea what a charmed process it was. I just thought, “Oh, this is what happens.” You mail a manuscript out there, and in short order, it’s in production.
Why do you think Tracy has had such a staying power in the culture?
Well, the first thing I’ll say, because I have tried to figure it out myself, is, I couldn’t name another pop culture female politician. And maybe I’m missing something, but I think in a way she was kind of a new character. And then I think Reese just gave such an indelible performance that a lot of people felt like, oh, that is a type. I still get people coming up to me going, “I was Tracy Flick in high school.” It’s a shorthand for a certain kind of ambitious woman. I guess there are different kinds of shorthands for ambitious men, but it’s much more taken for granted that a guy would be ambitious. So Tracy identified a type that existed but didn’t have a pop culture representation at that point. And it’s funny, because I think a whole bunch of other ones started emerging around the same time. It wasn’t like I was the only person noticing this.
And then the film itself, on a similar note. Why do you think it has also stuck around? Obviously, the themes are still pretty resonant in today’s society…
Well, that’s what’s been interesting, right? The movie and the book, I think, came out at the beginning of a political era that’s still with us now. It really was a Clinton-era book and film, and really the Clinton era did span these past 20 years.
So that’s part of it. But then I just think the film itself is a real work of genius. And I just remember seeing it for the first time, and just being so moved and thrilled that this adaptation had been made from my book. I don’t know that there’s another movie that does multiple first-person voice-overs so elegantly and comically. I think everybody felt like, the studio’s gonna say you’re gonna have to make a choice: Whose story is it? And then really focus on that main character. Because it really was an ensemble book with alternating narrators. And Alexander and Jim Taylor, his screenwriting partner, they just said, “We’re not picking. They’re all the main character.” It isn’t such an innovative novelistic structure. But it is very unusual in film. And it’s done so stylishly and with such comic genius.
And I will say, it’s a very faithful adaptation of the book in terms of story, but tonally, I think they tweaked it in a really interesting way. I think the novel is comic, but it’s ultimately a work of realism. And I think the movie is much more of a hard-edged satire than the book is. I’m not always a fan of satire, because I think it tends to put the storyteller and the audience in a superior position to the characters. But the great thing about the movie Election is that it is so fair. It satirizes everyone, pretty ruthlessly.
The movie has something that is kind of common in your works, which is this exploration of this darkness and sort of depravity at times lurking under the surface of suburban life. Is there something that attracts you to that idea?
It’s really more a vision of humanity than a vision of suburbia. This is how I think people are, and this is their suburban variety. I grew up in the suburbs, I have spent most of my life in the suburbs. And that’s sort of where my imagination resides. I think my characters are all trying to live sort of decent lives, and think of themselves as good people. But they all have dark secrets that they’re trying to manage. And for the most part, they’re not super depraved, right? They’re just people who are sinners in a kind of ordinary way. They wanna cut corners to get ahead. They wanna grab some sexual pleasure that they’re not supposed to grab. They will do and say mean things that they’d prefer not to be held accountable for.
What can you tease about the upcoming adaptation of Mrs. Fletcher?
Today’s actually our last day of production on season 1. So I can say that we’re here. We made season 1. We have an amazing cast. Kathryn Hahn plays Mrs. Fletcher, and she is truly one of the most extraordinary actors working right now. And it’s been an amazing experience to see what she’s done with this character. And we had [Can You Ever Forgive Me director] Nicole Holofcener directing, and Liesl Tommy, who’s a brilliant theater director who’s just turned to TV. Carrie Brownstein, and Gillian Robespierre, who did Obvious Child. It’ll be interesting to go into post and really start to put it together. But I’m very excited by what we’ve done.
How does that experience of helping shape the adaptation compare to handing it off to someone else?
In the past, I’ve worked with collaborators who were first and foremost filmmakers. And I’m, for better and worse, first and foremost a novelist, [but] I’ve become very interested in film and TV. I think the filmmakers kind of defined the adaptation, and so I was sort of imagining that I would see what it would be like to tell this story my way. But I have felt even so that it’s been a collaboration. Kathryn Hahn has really done a huge amount to kind of define what the Mrs. Fletcher TV show is, and these great directors have done that too. But it’s personally nice to be able to say, at a certain point, if there’s a disagreement, I get to make the call. And hopefully I’m making the right calls. But it just felt like the one thing left for me to do. It turned out to be a really big and all-consuming job.
Could you see yourself ever directing?
Somebody asked me that recently. I’m not feeling a huge attraction to the idea, but maybe someday. I know a lot of writers end up doing it, and some of them actually go all the way into it. And I love those writer-directors. I mean, they seem to be the real novelists of the film world. They get to create that whole story.