Book or Movie?

Book or Movie?

Reviewing Book & Movie Pairs for Women's History Month
Meggers with family

William Meggers with his family watching a homemade movie.

Credit: Joseph S. McCoy, Jr., Washington Post.

Because of the pandemic my free time has definitely shifted to indoor activities, which has given me a great excuse to catch up on my reading lists and watch lists. Now, for the most part these lists are fairly separate. I am always cautious of any movie or TV series which is based on a book. The two genres each have their own merits, but when it comes down to it, I’m usually Team Book. I’ve just been betrayed too often. (Ella Enchanted anyone?)

However, I went out on a limb this month and watched some recent films which are based on, or pair well with, various books about the history of women in the physical sciences. My evaluations below are based on my expertise as a historian of women in physics, but also my very decided opinions about what I do and do not like when it comes to the media I consume! I encourage everyone to watch these movies and read these books and form their own opinions. Whether you’re Team Book or Team Movie, I hope you’re also Team History!

Movie poster next to the book cover of Radium Girls

Credit: Juno Films and Sourcebooks, Inc.

Radium Girls (Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher & Ginny Mohler) and Radium Girls (by Kate Moore)

  • Release Dates: Book in 2017, Movie in 2018
  • Movie Platform: Netflix
  • Description: In the early twentieth century, Radium was used for all sorts of things that we wouldn’t dream of using it for today. Particularly around the First World War, a market exploded for watches whose dials were painted with luminescent radium paint. Companies, like the Radium Corporation, employed teams of female painters to hand-paint the numbers on the dials. Painting tiny numbers on small watch dials required a very fine-tipped paint brush. The painters were instructed to use their mouths to create the fine point, causing them to ingest radium which collected in their bones. The painters suffered excruciating health problems, which were eventually traced back to their employment. Their story has had a lasting impact on both workers’ rights in the U.S. as well as our understanding of the biological effects of radiation.
  • What the Movie Left Out/Changed: Some characters are clearly, one-to-one, based on real people, while others are composites. I found it puzzling sometimes why one person’s name was changed but not another’s. In what I suspect was an attempt to make the movie more relatable, the main characters were unmarried, and the central figure miraculously escaped ill effects from the use of radium. In reality, nearly all of the women involved were married and all suffered horrific side effects. Movie makers, especially when making movies about history, have a tendency to “prettify” the characters, making them physically attractive to modern standards. Not only were the characters wearing fairly contemporary makeup, they all somehow managed to keep their medical sufferings not-too unattractive. The movie also added what I felt were unnecessary side plots and dramatic elements while cutting down the main story.
  • Noticeable Movie Mistakes: The scientists in the movie tested the women for radioactivity by using a Geiger counter, but those had only barely been invented and were not in common use. In reality the women were asked to breathe into a tube which was then tested for radon.
  • What the Movie Does Well: Using clips of period advertisements and performances it gives the feel of how the twenties felt on the cusp of the future and how radium fed into this bright future.
  • What the Book Does Well: It is impossible not to feel for the women and the unjust hand that was dealt them by a callous industry. You get to know the women and their families through their own words and the memories of their families, become invested in their stories, and then are devastated at the slow moving but inevitable tragedy. The righteous vindication, when it finally comes in some form, is incredibly satisfying. A movie doesn’t have the space to do this in, and this movie in particular felt like it didn’t represent the women on their own terms, instead giving us what they thought a modern audience would want to see.
  • Book or Movie? Book.
Movie poster next to the book cover of Radioactive

Credit: StudioCanal and HarperCollins

Radioactive (Dir. Marjane Satrapi) and Radioactive (by Laura Redniss)

  • Release Dates: Book in 2010, Movie in 2019
  • Movie Platform: Amazon
  • Description: The book follows the lives of Marie and Pierre Curie, while the movie focuses primarily on Marie Curie and her relationship with Pierre. The book, a graphic novel, plays with line and color and text to tell a story, interspersing other scenes from related histories as though pasted in in a scrapbook. The movie also intersperses a handful of cut scenes of future applications of radioactivity including a radiation treatment for cancer, the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, and the meltdown at Chernobyl.
Marie Curie stands in her laboratory.

Marie Curie stands in her laboratory.

Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

  • What the Movie Left Out/Changed: The movie shapes the chronicle of Marie Curie’s life tightly around her relationship with Pierre - her narrative begins when she first meets Pierre and decidedly declines after his death in 1906. Most of her adult life after WWI is simply left out. The story is Janus-faced, the love story and a biography of radium each the other side of the other. (Which makes sense considering that the full title of the book on which it’s based is Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout, but the book has a wider narrative, less focused on the tragedy of the love story.) The movie’s overall effect is similar to that of the movie The Red Violin, where an object born of tragedy is seemingly cursed to spread that tragedy wherever it goes. And whereas the style of the graphic novel allows for multiple avenues of storytelling, and each flip of a page makes for a more natural scene transition, the movie suffers from a heavy-handed script and the cutscenes are jarring.
  • Noticeable Movie Mistakes: The movie claims Marie Curie did not attend the awarding of her first Nobel prize, however both Curies went even though only Pierre gave the lecture.
  • What the Movie Does Well: Rosamund Pike as Marie Curie, hands down. And some scenes are composed straight out of historical pictures like the one above.
  • What the Book Does Well: The visual elements are extremely creative and beautiful.
  • Book or Movie? Book. Although Rosamund Pike is an excellent actress.
Movie poster next to the book cover of Hidden Figures

Credit: 20th Century Fox and William Morrow & Co.

Hidden Figures (Dir. Theodore Melfi) and Hidden Figures (by Margot Lee Shetterly)

  • Release Dates: Book in 2016, Movie in 2016
  • Movie Platform: Available to rent on multiple platforms.
  • Description: Labor shortages during WWII opened the door for Black female mathematicians (known as “human computers”) to be hired into the aeronautical industry. After the war, NASA employed Black women as computers but segregated them in the “West Computing” group. The book and movie chronicle the lives of a handful of these women through the Cold War, Civil Rights Movement, and the Space Race. 
  • What the Movie Left Out/Changed: The book is based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s extensive interviews - she personally knew many of the people whose names have now been recognized and quite a few who are still not as well known as they should be. Many more people are included in the book whose experiences were left out or composited in the movie. The book also features Christine Darden’s story in depth, in addition to Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughn, while the movie focuses only on the latter three. The timeline covered by the book is also much longer (pre-WWII to post-Apollo missions) than the movie’s (mostly Mercury and Apollo missions).
  • Noticeable Movie Mistakes: In the movie the NASA Langley Director Al Harrison (not a real person but a fictional composite) breaks down the “Colored Bathroom” sign with a crowbar after a revelation that Katherine Johnson had been running back to the West Campus to use the segregated bathroom there. This never happened. In reality Katherine Johnson just used the bathroom designated for white women whenever she needed to, and no one took a crowbar to a sign. In fact, if any signs were being removed, it was by Black mathematician Miriam Mann who removed the “Colored Table” sign from the cafeteria every day even as it kept mysteriously reappearing.
  • What the Movie Does Well: The acting is excellent, the music is excellent, and the story incredibly compelling, if occasionally drifting into tropes of the white savior.
  • What the Book Does Well: Although there are many books about Marie Curie, and even more than one book about the radium girls, there is only one book about the West Computers. The extensive interviews make this book chock-full of incredible stories. Essential reading for anyone interested in the history of NASA or women in science. 
  • Book or Movie? Both.

Bonus Pairings:

  • The Babushkas of Chernobyl (2015) and Plutopia by Kate Brown (2013)
  • Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017) and Hedy’s Folly by Richard Rhodes (2011)
  • Madame Curie (1943) and Madame Curie by Ève Curie (1937)
M. Granger Morgan examines movie films of lightning discharge

M. Granger Morgan examines movie films of lightning discharge.

Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection

About the Author

Joanna Behrman

Joanna Behrman

Joanna Behrman was the Assistant Public Historian at the Center for History of Physics (CHP). She holds a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University and specializes in the history of women in physics. At CHP she was in charge of education and outreach projects. One of her favorite works in the collection is Dorothy Weeks’s unpublished memoir.

Caption: Madalyn Avery, Household Physics Laboratory Manual (New York: Macmillan Company, 1940), page 8

See all articles by Joanna Behrman

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