The adaptation of the international best-seller will introduce the Chilean novelist to a new generation of fans.
Author Isabel Allende is making a bit of a comeback. She just published her new book, “In the Midst of Winter,” scored a (super fun) cameo in Season 4 of Jane the Virgin, and is now set to executive produce a television series adaptation of her iconic debut novel “The House of the Spirits.”
According to Deadline, after lots of competition among studios, FilmNation landed the rights to the 1982 novel, the adaptation of which will stream on Hulu. The writer and director have not yet been chosen.
Upon its release, “The House of the Spirits” became an instant best seller, earned critical acclaim, and made Allende an international literary star. Translated into over 37 languages, it is one of the most popular pieces of Spanish-language literature in modern history.
“The House of the Spirits” tells the story of the Trueba family across four generations, foregrounded amidst the sociopolitical revolutions of Chile, Allende’s native country.
The novel’s emotional authenticity is counterbalanced with magical realism, a common device in Latin American fiction in which fantastical elements are blended into everyday life. The novel’s careful blend of passions both personal and political made it an irresistible hit; it’s required reading in most every Latin American literature class.
In response to the massive success of “The House of the Spirits,” filmmaker Billie August wrote and directed a film adaptation of the novel in 1993. He enlisted an all-star cast including Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close, Winona Ryder, and Antonio Banderas. It features the same setting and characters as the novel, but with one ridiculous divergence: everybody is white. (Jeremy Irons plays a character named Esteban Trueba in brown face for God’s sake.)
The film’s whitewashing — among many other faults, which include its blandness, pretentiousness, and lackluster production — made for an awful and disrespectful adaptation. It was not only critically panned, but also a box office flop — with a budget of $40 million, it made just over $6 million.
That’s why Hulu’s attempt to adapt the novel properly is so important: it’s a shot at redemption for both the novel’s content and its intention.
A long-form television series will better honor the novel’s premise, which is sweeping in its scale, spanning multiple generations and political regimes. Truly capturing it in its entirety — magical realism and all — requires a serialized form and a patient approach.
Faithful casting will also honor the novel’s creative and cultural intention. It’s simple, really: Latinx characters must be played by Latinx actors. You know something is not quite right when Winona Ryder is playing someone named Blanca Trueba. As the casting process beings, there is an overwhelming pool of Latinx talent to choose from — I can already see Diane Guerrero as a far more appropriate (and more authentically performed) Blanca.
Most Latinx actors are chronically underutilized, often sidelined to white protagonists or cast in stereotypical roles; in 2016, only 5.8 percent of speaking roles in film and TV were Latinx. “The House of the Spirits” provides lots of meaty melodrama that would be elevated by the right actor. Why not have some fun dreaming up our perfect cast — Demián Bichir, Pedro Pascal, Catalina Sandino Moreno, and Salma Hayek would round out a star-studded ensemble that could pack the right emotional punch.
Of course, telling the story authentically also requires the right people behind the camera. Latinx stories must be told by Latinx writers. In the search for filmmaking talent, there is again a wealth of options, including Linda Mendoza (who has over 100 directing credits, including episodes of 30 Rock, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Brooklyn 99) , Zetna Fuentes (who has directed episodes of This Is Us, Shameless, and How to Get Away with Murder), and Valentina Garza (a staff writer and producer on Jane the Virgin).
Hulu has already proven it knows how to adapt beloved, women-centric novels into a television drama; The Handmaid’s Tale is excellent and truly radical. With The Handmaid’s Tale, the studio made all the right staffing decisions, hiring a largely female directing slate and writers’ room; it shows in the storytelling’s authenticity. The series also shows a true reverence for and mastery of its source material, in both the way it remains faithful and diverges from the details of the novel.
Margaret Atwood’s role as supervising producer for The Handmaid’s Tale has certainly had a positive, grounding influence on the project; we can only hope Allende’s presence as an executive producer will have the same effect.
With the right cast, competent directing, and a profound understanding and appreciation for the source material, Hulu’s upcoming series could not only be a hit, but also the adaptation that “The House of the Spirits” deserves.