Film Adaptation Of Katherine Paterson's 'The Great Gilly Hopkins' Draws A-List Actors

Dec 23, 2016

In 1978, children's author Katherine Paterson published The Great Gilly Hopkins. The next year it won the National Book Award. This year Paterson worked with her two sons and an all-star cast to bring the story to film.

The year 1978 was big for Katherine Paterson. The same year she published The Great Gilly Hopkins she won the Newbery Medal for her most famous book, Bridge to Terabithia.

Paterson wrote Bridge to Terabithia for her son David. And as an adult, David turned the book into a screenplay. Disney released the film in 2007.

And now it’s Gilly's turn. But The Great Gilly Hopkins has been a very different experience for Paterson, as she explained during a visit at her central Vermont home.

"It's not too Hollywood," she says. "It's very indie."

Paterson's son David wrote the screenplay for Gilly as well. He and brother John Paterson are both producers on the independent film. Katherine Paterson is proud of their work, but she admits there were some rough patches.

"We all have very strong opinions, and especially the two boys," she says. "And if you’re the mom you just want to [say], 'OK, cool it boys, cool it.' But it has been amazing that they have been able to work together and come up with something we're all very happy about."

Despite their indie budget, the power of the story attracted A-list actors to the project. The story is about an 11-year-old foster child determined to reunite with her birth mother.

"We've got a lot of nerve, offering [accomplished actors] like this a role in our little family movie." — Katherine Paterson

"We have the most wonderful cast," she says, "and they all did it for what you get if you're in an indie. Not what you get if you're an Academy Award winner."

The cast includes Academy Award winners Kathy Bates and Octavia Spencer.

"We've got a lot of nerve, offering people like this a role in our little family movie, which is pretty much what it is," says Paterson.

Glenn Close plays Gilly's grandmother. And Sophie Nélisse, from The Book Thief, plays Gilly. She's a tough-skinned, scrappy foster child who comes to live with with Maime Trotter, played by Kathy Bates. Paterson says she's impressed by Nélisse's performance.

"Sophie starts out as this angry, angry, hurting child," she says. "And in 90 minutes she convinces you that she's learned how to care about someone else. And I think that’s great acting."

'The Great Gilly Hopkins' author Katherine Paterson lives in central Vermont.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

The Great Gilly Hopkins was lauded for taking on racism in the 1970s. And while the story has been updated for a modern movie audience, it doesn't shy away from exposing racial tensions.

Fans of the book will remember the scene where Gilly, who's white, attempts to rile her African American teacher by slipping her an anonymous and offensive card. But Miss Harris, played by Octavia Spencer, shuts her down.

"And I want everyone in America today to see the scene in which she confronts Gilly about her card," says Paterson. "It is the most wonderful thing you will ever hope to see."

Paterson says she enjoyed the creative license that comes with making an independent film. But they didn’t exactly go indie by choice.

"Disney does not speak to us, because they wanted us to do Bridge to Terabithia 2, or Son of Terabithia, or whatever you call the second one," she explains. "And we said, 'There's no sequel.' And they said, 'What?' 'There's no sequel.' And so they don’t speak to us."

Paterson says it's been a mixed blessing.

"There are pluses and minuses," she says. "The minus, of course, is money, which is very hard to come by."

The movie took another blow when the domestic distributor for the film went bankrupt.

"So there we were with a finished movie and no distributor — a European distributor, but not a U.S. distributor," Paterson explains. "So, it was another year before we finally signed with Lionsgate."

That last-minute change meant little to no advertising for the movie, and a release in a limited number of theaters last October. Now the movie is out on DVD and is available to stream on-demand.

Katherine Paterson humbly asks her fellow Vermonters, "If you see it and you like it, please tell all your friends."