‘Sweetbitter’ Author Stephanie Danler on the Challenges of Bringing Her Novel to TV (VIDEO)
Stephanie Danler’s first novel, Sweetbitter, made its television debut on Starz on May 6, and the transition was quite a process for the author. Not only did she have to relinquish some creative control, but also learn how to re-imagine her characters and add some new scenes and dialogue for a TV audience.
“There were moments where I wanted to push back because I got scared we were going too far away from the original vision of the book,” she admitted.
The series follows Tess (Ella Purnell), a 22-year-old woman who arrives in New York City in 2006 friendless and jobless until she’s hired at at top Manhattan restaurant. There, she encounters a diverse group of people who completely change her life.
For Tess, there are long nights of hard work, drinking, drugs, and romances (can we swoon over bartender Jake, played by Tom Sturridge, for a moment?), but her most fascinating and complicated relationship is with Simone, played by Caitlin Fitzgerald, who becomes her mentor.
Danler spoke to TVInsider.com about developing the series, and if she considers Simone a villain.
What was the biggest challenge in adapting your book for the screen?
Stephanie Danler: Something I was concerned about was how to get the voice of the book into the show. And by the “voice,” I mean Tess’s voice.
I think what makes the character interesting is the quality of her thoughts she’s having, not necessary how she’s behaving. I think that discrepancy especially in young women is really interesting. In the first episode we use voice-over, but beyond that we realized it was going to fall on Ella to give us that depth of feeling and not just play Tess as a slightly vapid, superficial millennial.
What was an aspect you found less stressful about the transition than you originally anticipated?
Writing. I was so in love with our writers and it was not hard for me to let go in the way that I thought it would be. There were moments where I wanted to push back because I got scared we were going too far away from the original vision of the book but you work in a room with these seven brilliant people and I ended up feeling great.
TV Tess and Book Tess have been described as “cousins.” How are they different in your mind?
Ella brings so much natural energy and rebelliousness and backbone to Tess that she doesn’t have in the book. In the book, she’s much more passive and quiet. Tess in the book doesn’t really talk which is important to me because that’s a very real experience when coming into a new workplace.
But for show, when Tess starts to push back when she’s selling her car — that scene is not in the book but it’s very Ella. She was the only person I saw in over 200 very talented young women that I would believe would get up in the middle of the night and move to New York City and survive.
What did you talk about in your first meeting with Ella?
We talked about food. [Laughs.] And she was like, “Oh my god, you’re Simone,” because I ordered a glass of wine.
But the most important thing we talked about was that as young women our entire life we have been trained to be likable, to make ourselves palatable, to make ourselves small for other people, to apologize when it’s not necessary and I told Ella I don’t want you to feel any pressure to make Tess likable. It’ll be the death of this project and I meant it.
It’s hard to pin down Simone’s true intentions. Would you consider her character a villain?
No, she’s not a villain. What Simone feels for Jake and Tess is very pure, and I think that she’s damaged and flawed and cannot always be her best self. I think that in the book, Simone ultimately frees Tess from the restaurant, which at the time is a mixed blessing. But I think Simone sees herself as helping Tess.
In my experience, my relationships with women have formed me and shaped me and challenged me in very different and much more permanent ways than my relationships with men. I think Tess and Simone have a love story, whether attracted to each other emotionally or physically, and want to be close but don’t know how to be. What’s interesting to me is that toxic, maternal familial relationship they have.
What’s happening with Season 2?
Our writers room opens in two weeks, and it’s 10 episodes and we are back to work. Season 2 will cover much more time and focus on other characters. We’re not tied to Tess’s point of view at all.
What do you like to watch on TV?
I just finished Wild, Wild Country. I can only watch Handmaid’s Tale when I’m feeling tough. I can’t watch it when I’m winding down for the night because it makes me sick to my stomach.
I also love this 30-minute drama space that Atlanta, Transparent, The Girlfriend Experience, Insecure do so well. They’re so inventive in those minutes, and that’s really inspiring for me.
Watch this exclusive clip of Tess and Simone from Sweetbitter below:
Sweetbitter, Sundays, 8/7c, Starz