Mrs. Fletcher on HBO covers some very familiar territory – a forty-something, recently-divorced woman navigates her post-marriage single life after her son goes to college. But not in the way that novelist and writer Tom Perrotta has covered it. Like many good TV series, good writing begins by drawing from your personal experiences.
Tom Perrotta, also known for his work on The Leftovers, Little Children, and Election (which put Reese Witherspoon on the map), decided to write the novel for Mrs. Fletcher when his children were leaving the family home to attend college. “Empty nest is a time of loss, but also a time of opportunity in every parent’s life.”
Perrotta was also feeling the subsequent turmoil in society around the subjects of sex and gender (especially in college) around 2013, which spawned the initial idea for Mrs. Fletcher (Kathryn Hahn). “College was often the source of the redefinition of these terms that were causing my turmoil.” The screenwriter did some soul searching until becoming an empty nester and sexual politics came together.
Eve Fletcher’s (Kathryn Hahn) son Brendon (Jackson White) also has his own journey in the series. Brendon learns about sexual consent as society is pushing back against toxic masculinity and hook up culture. Perrotta is also interested in how internet porn has changed sexuality. “I explored internet porn a little bit in Little Children within the world of becoming a parent,” he recalled. “Exploring internet porn from a female perspective was interesting and provocative,” declared the TV writer. That was the hook that made his novel and TV show unique.
“Internet porn is fantasy in one sense, but also true in another, because what you see on the screen affects how people behave sexually in the real world. When an entire generation decides not to have body hair, the porn world and the real world start to merge.”
Perrotta wanted to portray Eve Fletcher as more sexually extreme than typical divorceé characters, but also portray a real woman who is living in a small suburban town working an unglamorous job in a senior center. “It was a character study as well as a sex story. Any story that goes deep enough into a specific character will avoid the pitfalls of familiar television territory.”
Tom Perrotta took great care to make Mrs. Fletcher very specifically about one person rather than a broad demographic of empty nesters to fine-tune the show. “I really wanted to make this character’s frustration palpable. It’s easy to think about frustration in terms of thinking ‘the world won’t let me live my life in a way that makes me happy.’” The writer brought Mrs. Fletcher into focus early on – she has an ex-husband Ted Fletcher (Josh Hamilton) who left her for a younger woman and she resents him. ‘That’s a familiar story, but Ted’s character adds a new dimension to the show.”
Ted could have easily become the villain – Mrs. Fletcher’s nemesis. Instead, Ted Fletcher remarries and now has a son on the autistic spectrum. “Ted is suddenly consumed with love and tenderness for this child and becomes a really good father in this new marriage.” This poses a specific conflict for Eve Fletcher as Perrotta mines this deeper rejection. “Ted couldn’t be a loving father in a marriage with her, but can in his new marriage. He has become a decent person which makes it more frustrating for Eve to hate him.”
Adapting Novels vs Original Screenplays
Tom Perrotta is in an enviable position of having many of his novels turned into films or TV shows. He is wary of writing an original screenplay without source material.
“I have never been able to write an original screenplay which has had near the depth of my novel adaptations. I spend a full two years in a novel and fully immerse myself in that world and the characters.” Writing a completely original screenplay from scratch means that the world feels more superficial than in a novel adaptation. Having a novel as the source material allows the adapted screenplay to be populated with richer characters who make more reflective choices.
Although Perrotta won’t readily consider writing an original screenplay, he appreciates the “built-in length constraint. When you’re writing a novel, you can let the story expand to fill the length. TV shows allow you to enjoy this expansion.” Furthermore, a screenplay constrains screenwriters who want to get deeper into the characters’ thoughts.
Adapting a novel into a TV series is also a process in itself. “We stayed faithful to the novel, but the show ended up not covering a certain portion of the book.” It wasn’t simply a matter of condensing the novel while the TV series was written. With the advent of the MeToo movement, “we had a heightened awareness of the story of Mrs. Fletcher’s sexual journey written by a man.”
Tom Perrotta realized that the TV series couldn’t simply be his version of the story. His original vision was challenged in the TV writers’ room. A collaborative voice contoured the TV series in the room. “We brought the perspectives of multiple women into the show in a way that would feel authentic.” Most TV writers were women as were the directors. “My vision of the story was challenged, expanded, or enriched by these other female perspectives.”
A particular bone of contention in the writers’ room was deciding what kind of porn women prefer. Many TV writers were younger than both Tom Perrotta and Eve Fletcher. “Certain porn is more palatable from a feminist perspective,” he mused. The age and gender differentials of the writers also defined what porn Eve Fletcher would watch. “We had writers in their sixties and writers in their mid-twenties.”
Tom Perrotta prefers the ‘sole creator’ status that novelists enjoy over TV writers. “Writing television often means writers are in a collaborative situation where a bunch of people is arguing with each other.” This writing by committee format that occurred during The Leftovers turned out to be a long term argument between Tom Perrotta and Damon Lindelof because they’re such different writers with different points of view. “It initially felt like someone was winning and someone was losing until we finally got to a place where we trusted each other. It wasn’t a zero-sum game because The Leftovers had its own identity rather than having two different writers fighting for supremacy.” This hybrid of voices created a wonderful show.
Standalone episodes were often used as fillers in the case of production snafus. More recently, they allow the audiences to spend a few intimate moments with the main characters, away from the main event. The Leftovers experimented with a standalone episode with Reverend Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston).
Perrotta is a big fan of standalone episodes. He cites Damon Lindelof who created the long-running TV series, Lost as an example. “One of the most extraordinary things about Lost is that Lindelof would stop the story to go back in time and explore the backstory of one of the characters.” This might be considered a disruption to the natural flow of storytelling, but not if it’s done right.
“In The Leftovers, the standalone episode was signaling that a minor character was worth getting to know. It builds the world in a powerful way. Reverend Matt Jamison, who disappeared early in the series was an important part of the world. The episode also strengthened the conflict between the people in the town and the cult.”
Long-form TV can also create a community in a large cast of characters. “I also think about Vito Spatafore (Joseph Gannascoli) in The Sopranos. He hung out with the gang and only had a few lines. Then he took on more importance in the later seasons.”
“Apart from bringing background characters into the foreground, standalone episodes also tell the audience to be patient. This is an entire world we’re bringing you. Not just a story.”
Tom Perrotta wrote the novel for Election in 1993 and the film was produced in 1999. “This was a turning point in my writing career because I was a ‘guys’ writer’ until then. My early work was about male friendships and growing up as a young man. In Election, I started to write female characters and catch up to the present moment.” Election represented a blueprint to Perrotta’s subsequent work. “Election marks the middle stage of my writing evolution and I think I’m still in it.” Election was more of satirical comedy compared to his later work which was more dramatic.
Perrotta is fortunate enough to be able to maintain a writing career by following his life and his obssessions throughout the various stages of his life. This provides a deep well from which to generate stories. Little Children was about new parents. The Leftovers was about kids in middle school and Mrs. Fletcher was about an empty nester. “There’s a shadow autobiography in there as my work follows my life cycle.”
Tom Perrotta’s strong interest in contemporary politics also informs his work. “Election was my response to President Bush #41, The Abstinence Teacher was my response to Bush’s #43 re-election in 2004. The Leftovers was more personal because my father died in a car accident and I explored that grief. With Mrs. Fletcher I explored my own fascination with internet porn and how it transformed sexuality.“