If you’ve ever lived in a city that has an active public transportation system, you may be able to sympathize with a growing issue I have been facing lately – the overwhelming and keen possibility that I am going to miss my subway or bus stop because I have my nose buried in a book so engrossing that I have significant, measureable trouble putting back in my bag when it’s time to move about like a normal person. Published back in September, “Burial Rites” is Aussie Hannah Kent’s first novel, a historically based tale of murder and mystery in isolated Iceland that may sound dry and wonky, but is one of the most enthralling novels I’ve read all year.
Based entirely on my personal experiences reading it slack-jawed on the 6 train, it’s entirely unsurprising that Kent snapped up a hearty seven-figure deal from Little, Brown for the book (seven figures! That’s like movie money!) and that it’s now set to hit a movie theater near you with some big name talents attached.
While it’s easy to get upset when a cherished novel or series is bought by Hollywood and sent on the highway straight into adaptation town (tween me still reels from the nightmare of The Babysitters’ Club film), the newness of Kent’s novel means that personal attachments aren’t quite as strong, giving the film project a bit of fan flexibility. And, in my case, I haven’t read a word of the book without already imagining its rumored leading lady – Jennifer Lawrence – in the main role of convicted murderer Agnes Magnusdottir. While Lawrence doesn’t exactly meet the physical description of the wounded and wily Agnes – Kent’s book makes frequent mention of her inky locks and thirtysomething age – picturing Lawrence in the role has only added a significant level of depth to the character. Basically, Agnes is a wonderful fit for Lawrence and the sort of role the Oscar winner should do quite well by.
Lawrence and director Gary Ross’ attachment to the novel was announced back in October, when it was just part of a longer story about the pair going whole hog on literary adaptations, including a two-part version of John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden.” Lawrence is no stranger to big screen adaptations – in fact, a large swath of her film career as of late has seen the actress starring as characters lifted out of books, from Winter’s Bone to Silver Linings Playbook to her upcoming turn in Serena. Oh, and a little something called The Hunger Games (three books, four films, all Lawrence, all the time).
Kent’s book is inherently cinematic – from its large selection of characters to the gradually unfolding mystery at its center to its fluid use of different narrators – this thing just leaps off the page, and the prospect of it working that same kind of magic on the big screen is both exciting and very easy to imagine. Kent’s book comes complete with a uniquely compelling leading lady that Lawrence should be able to use her full skillset to embody. The complicated Agnes is in line with other standout Lawrence roles, like Ree in Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen, a survivor with plenty of secrets to spare.
Set around the year 1828, Kent’s meticulously researched novel tells the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person to be publicly executed for a crime in Iceland. Magnusdottir’s supposed crimes were heinous – the participation in two gruesome murders of her employer (and perhaps more) and a friend in the dead of night. She was convicted alongside two others, one of whom was also executed and another who was “saved” from death by a sentence to a textile prison. The root of Kent’s story takes place after the murders and the trial, when Agnes is sent to a farm (that she has surprisingly personal connections to) to be held until the time of her execution. The complexities of her crime and her life are revealed over the course of the book, as Agnes spills the truth of her life to both the inhabitants of the farm and the young priest she has chosen to be her spiritual guide.
The book is almost excruciatingly engaging, as Kent has a deft sense of when and how to reveal things for maximum interest and impact. “Burial Rites” may be hard to put down, but it’s not a book to race through just to learn the next big twist. It takes its time. It gives things to its reader. It rewards. It is also built like a fine mystery movie, and it should prove an easy enough adaptation, as Kent’s work here doesn’t beg for restructuring and rejiggering.
Agnes is the driving force of the novel, and even though she does not always narrate the proceedings, the entire thing is focused on her and her experiences. It is a role that begs for a tough, talented actress and Lawrence, even without dark hair and thirty years under her belt, is a wholly appropriate choice who should settle in to the role quite well. She’s perfect for it and in a way that we don’t often see, making “Burial Rites” one of the few books I’d love to see rushed into production as soon as possible, Hunger Games commitments and subway safety be damned.