Books Starring Octavia Spencer

Ashley: Plenty of great movies are based off of even better books (hey, I’m an editor at a reading subscription service for a reason). Once these books get picked for the Hollywood treatment, publishers often make new movie tie-in editions, putting movie stars’ faces on the covers. After seeing multiple books with the same actors on them, I thought it would be fun to put a spin on discussing book-to-movie adaptations through the lens of these shared actors.

For this inaugural column, I’ll start with Octavia Spencer, who currently graces the cover of Hidden Figures and has been nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in the film. She’ll also have a major role in the forthcoming adaptation of The Shack, but since I couldn’t will that movie into theaters early, I went with The Great Gilly Hopkins as the second book-to-movie choice instead.

Hidden Figures

When Octavia Spencer first read the script for Hidden Figures (nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award), she assumed it was a work of fiction. A story about black female mathematicians working for NASA in heavily segregated Virginia in the early 1960s? And these women were integral to the success of the space program? It goes against the common retellings of history and stereotypes we have based on both racial and gender lines. 

But the story is true, and Margot Lee Shetterly was inspired to write about these women precisely to challenge our preconceived notions of history. Shetterly’s father also worked at NASA at the time, so for her, the reality of a community of black scientists and engineers was simply the norm.

While Hidden Figures the book and Hidden Figures the movie are both great on their own, they are still shockingly different from one another. Admittedly, I saw the movie first, and constantly wondered how the book compared, because the film is narrative biography and obviously takes some liberties with its well-timed and well-delivered speeches and one-liners denouncing racism and sexism. It elicited more than a few sniffles from the crowd (okay okay okay, I got all emotional, too). People even clapped and cheered at the screen at the end, one of those rituals I find super strange, considering, you know, Spencer and crew can’t hear our cries of jubilance. 

Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, who works as acting supervisor to the all-African American group of female human computers in NASA’s West Area Computing Unit. Throughout the film, she argues with her supervisor, Vivian Mitchell (a made-up character for the movie played by Kirsten Dunst), to give her the raise and title she deserves. In one of their interactions, Spencer delivers one of the most cutting lines of the film. Mitchell tells Vaughan, “Despite what you may think, I have nothing against y’all,” to which Vaughan replies, “I know. I know you probably believe that.”

The film has a narrower cast than the book, focusing heavily on the stories of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), and Vaughan. While the movie orbits around Johnson’s story and how she’s the one whom astronaut John Glenn personally requested to double-check his launch calculations before attempting his orbit around Earth, in the book, it’s Vaughan’s story about slowly working through the ranks, from teacher to computer to self-taught programmer of new computer technology, that anchors the narrative. 

In fact, more than half the book goes by before Sputnik shows up on the radar and the space race gets more than a brief mention. Shetterly dives deep into the backgrounds of Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughan, while also providing more details on the US and global political climate that made their accomplishments necessary, remarkable, and mundane all at the same time. More time is spent talking about airplane technology and NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) than of space and NACA’s successor, NASA. 

As the likes of The Martian and all those other Matt Damon–infused space flicks prove, America’s really obsessed with the unifying and healing power of conquering the stars; I don’t blame the film for focusing on that instead. In fact, I’d really recommend both reading the book and watching the movie, as the differences only make each version stronger.

The Great Gilly Hopkins

Written by Katherine Paterson, best known for Bridge to Terabithia, The Great Gilly Hopkins follows 11-year-old foster child Galadriel Hopkins as she gets shuffled to yet another home, all the while scheming for a way to reach her biological mother. In the movie version, Spencer plays Gilly’s new, kind-but-strict teacher, Miss Harris.

Unlike Hidden Figures, The Great Gilly Hopkins movie is surprisingly very faithful to the book (I read the book first for this one). I say surprisingly because the book takes place in the 1970s and has plot point based around a joke that insinuates the N-word, along with dropping the R-word a couple of times. Gilly initially feels disgusted to have to eat with a black neighbor who happens to be blind and that her teacher is black. In 2015, when the movie was made, I thought for sure that those things would be deemed too offensive to include (even if they are condemned by the narrative). But aside from an awkwardly added slavery joke, the movie handles these issues with the same grace as the book.

Indeed, Spencer’s most powerful scene is confronting Gilly about her cruel prank. Gilly writes a poem on a card she leaves on Miss Harris’s desk that goes “They’re saying ‘Black is beautiful!’ / But the best that I can figger / Is everyone who’s saying so / Looks mighty like a —” (in the movie, it’s left blank; in the book, it continues “person with a vested interest in maintaining this point of view”). With a cool, composed calm, Miss Harris explains how she and Gilly are much alike — so smart yet so angry. She goes on to say that she cursed creatively in the teacher’s lounge for 20 minutes over Gilly’s hurtful card. This lack of punishment, this empathy, baffles Gilly, and starts veering her off her troublemaking path.

Overall, The Great Gilly Hopkins is a heartbreaking children’s story that will leave you sniffling. What I’ve learned is that Spencer is in movies that make you cry quietly, apparently. Her characters earn your respect by standing strong and maintaining a no-nonsense attitude in the face of racial prejudice. While in the end I’d recommend Paterson’s book over the movie, the film deserves more attention than it got.

Also available as an audiobook.

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