Our Chemical Hearts author Krystal Sutherland on why the film adaptation is 'different tonally'
When beloved books are adapted for film or TV, there's always the worry that it won't be done "right." Through script changes, casting choices, differences in creative opinions from the original author to the director or producer, a story can evolve in crucial ways throughout the adaptation process — sometimes for better, sure, but oftentimes for worse. So while Our Chemical Hearts author Krystal Sutherland does admit that the Amazon YA film adaptation Chemical Hearts starring Lili Reinhart is different from what she wrote, she promises that director Richard Tanne "did such a wonderful job of capturing the spine of the story."
"Books are very horizontal in the way they tell their stories; they can spread out so far," Sutherland tells EW. "Films are much more vertical; they have to boil down the message or the themes of a book. He had really hit the nail on the head with the way that he boiled this thing down to its most potent form, and really just focused in on the two main characters and their story. It's different tonally to the book, but thematically it's very similar, and it feels like a very gracious adaptation. He stuck very closely to the source material."
Below, the author dives deep on what it was like seeing her debut novel brought to life with all the "Hollywood magic" onscreen, how much she was involved in the process of adapting her book into a movie, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What has it been like seeing Our Chemical Hearts the book become Chemical Hearts the movie?
KRYSTAL SUTHERLAND: It is very surreal. I do keep thinking that I'm like, in The Matrix or in a dream or something and I'm just going to wake up. It has this feeling of unreality because this is what you allow yourself to dream about when you're writing the book, and you're not published yet, but deep down you know that it's not going to happen. And so when it does happen, it feels wrong somehow [laughs]. But I'm super stoked that it appears to be real. When I was writing it was always a very cinematic thing that I saw in my head but then it was just about translating these cinematic set pieces that I had in my head into book format. It's then been super interesting to see what I had in my head and put down in words then be re-translated back into images by the director and the actors. You often don't get to see what's going on in someone's head when they read your work, so this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see inside your reader's mind.
What was your level of involvement when it came to adapting the book into a film?
I had a really great relationship with Richard, the director. He approached me early on in the process, and he and Lili really wanted to get this made. Richard very strongly wanted me to be involved and come to set, and he didn't have to do that. It was really important for me to understand that this was somebody else's creative project. I wanted to really make sure I gave him, and everyone else who was involved in the project, the space to create something that felt like their own. But I read the script and gave some feedback, I got to visit the set and see some amazing things being shot which was pretty incredible.
What did you think of the casting of Lili as Grace and Austin Abrams (Euphoria) as Henry?
When I read a book and then I see the adaptation when characters are really well cast they replace the characters that I had in my head when I was reading the book for the first time. The casting of Grace and Henry, that is just how I imagine them now. I can't quite remember what they looked like in my head before because they embody the characters so fully and the casting was just so spot-on, and the performances are really heartbreaking. There was this moment when I was watching the movie for the first time, I just thought, what a horrible situation these people are in. It's really grim and heartbreaking. And then I remembered that I wrote this story. I did this to these poor people! [Laughs] I think that's an indication that they really nailed it when even I, as the original writer, was taken out of the moment and just fully immersed in the story. You can't ask for better than that.
Have you seen the film yet?
I watched it a couple of months ago. I was so, so nervous to watch it that when they sent me the link, I didn't watch it right away. I waited two weeks, and by the time I actually sat down to watch it the link had expired. [Laughs] And so it was really embarrassing because I then had to email the director and say, "I actually haven't watched it yet, can you send me another one?" I reckon he was like, "You have better things to do with your time in lockdown than watch your own movie?" But he sent me another link and I drank another bottle of champagne and then finally sat down to watch it.
So it's two weeks after you've been putting it off, you finally sit down to watch it... what did you think?
For the first two minutes, I was just screaming and fanning myself, and then I really sank into the story and was swept up in the story. A good strategy that I came across was that I didn't reread the book. I haven't read the book since I finished writing it in early 2016 and so it was like rediscovering this old story that I felt familiar with but don't know the ins and outs of anymore because it's been a while — it was like rediscovering this old, cozy blanket. It feels like an old school, '80s/'90s teen movie where things were a bit heavier and themes were a bit darker. It's like a John Hughes throwback and I actually watched those movies while I was writing the book so it all has come together in this really nice, neat way where Richard and I were inspired by the same things when we were creating this same story.
What do you hope fans of the book take away from the experience of watching the adaptation?
I hope that they enjoy a young adult story told in a different way, which is what I was hoping to do when I wrote the book. There are a lot of tropes that we're used to seeing in young adult literature and in young adult movies that are really fun but with the book I wanted to do something a little bit different and play with those tropes and twist them around a little bit. The movie does a really good job of subverting expectations as well. You think that it's going to go one way and then it goes another way, and you think it's going to end one way and then it ends a different way. Ultimately I hope viewers enjoy something that feels a little bit different to a lot of stuff that's out there at the moment.
What was the most important thing that the adaption needed to include to appropriately capture the spirit of what you wrote?
The most vital and cinematic scene is the scene with the fish, it just had to be in the movie and Richard very much felt the same way. It’s the climax of the story — the fish are there on the front cover of the book! And so when I timed my visit to set, I actually went and watched the three nights that they were filming on that incredible set. They had this empty warehouse and they had created a huge pool and filled it with koi fish, and they had a fish wrangler on set, they had a guy in a scuba suit who was pushing the fish on camera to get them in the right spot, they had animal rights representatives there to make sure the fish were treated properly. It was wild, and it was so beautiful to see the way they had transformed this empty space into this whole moment. For me as the creator that was the most surreal part of the whole experience to wander around this space and watch the characters inhabit it in a way that had only ever existed in my head up to that point. It was amazing.
What inspired you to write Our Chemical Hearts in the first place?
I was a student at the time and I was going through my first real breakup. Everything around me, all of the media that I was consuming were these great love stories where everyone ends up together in the end and they ride off into the sunset with a beautiful rainbow. And it just didn't gel with the reality of what was happening in my life at the time. I remember thinking that even when I was a teenager, if you don't get married to this person, what a waste of time. That is so not true. You need those early relationships that don't work out in order to have a fruitful and real relationship later on down the track, and by discounting those early loves and infatuations we really do ourselves a disservice. We have so many expectations that are set by the media that we consume, the books that we read, the movies that we watch, about the way our relationships should play out, about the way you're supposed to fall in love, and the way that you're supposed to be together forever, and the way that relationships only tend to matter or be important if they last. And I just didn't feel that way and I didn't have access to movies or books that reaffirmed that feeling, so I set about writing something that was in contrast to a lot of the young adult and romance books that I was reading. It's a subversive love story, an anti-love story I called it in the beginning, but I don't necessarily think it is that. It just celebrates a different kind of love.
Chemical Hearts debuts Aug. 21 on Amazon Prime Video.