Box Office Hours: ‘The World to Come’ with Jim Shepard

Lily Goldberg

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Last year, after watching Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the critically acclaimed 2019 French historical romance which brought renewed attention to the “white lesbian period piece” genre, I made two promises to myself. First, though I myself occasionally yearn for women, I promised I would never again watch a film whose primary plot point was women yearning for other women — maybe I was just being naggy and cynical, but I’d found the longing glances in Portrait to be a paltry substitute for substantive diegesis, and I feared other films would be equally overwrought while employing worse cinematography. If in the future I did engage with another “yearn-core” film, my second promise was that I wouldn’t watch it the way I’d watched Portrait: sitting pin-straight next to my best friend and his middle-aged mother praying that the caresses would cease before I evaporated on the spot. 

For the reasons listed above, I did not intend on seeing what I presumed to be the latest iteration of the “white lesbian period piece,” a romantic drama called The World to Come about two neighbors who fall for one another in 1800s upstate New York. But while sleepily skimming a review of the film on an online arts blog, a line caught my eye: Professor of English Jim Shepard, who had taught a couple of my friends over the years at the College, had written the film’s screenplay. This screenplay was adapted from Shepard’s short story The World to Come, the eponymous short story of a collection Shepard published in 2017. While many professors have provided insightful commentary on films throughout the history of the “Box Office Hours” series, never before had a faculty member actually written the movie of interest. So, I would be watching the film after all. 

In The World to Come, a mousy farmworker named Abigail (played with quiet intensity by Katherine Waterson) strikes up a friendship with her new outgoing neighbor Tallie (a sassy but troubled Vanessa Kirby) while still grieving the loss of her young daughter to diptheria. The isolation of rural New York makes Abigail and Tallie’s friendship all the more poignant, and Shepard cites this isolation as a starting point for his original story. 

“I was reading weird stuff, as I often do — in this case, a farm wife’s journal from the mid-19th century — and I came across this line: ‘My friend has moved away. I probably won’t make another,’ Shepard told me. “I was floored by the isolation in the line; the loneliness of it.” 

Abigail’s husband, Dyer (a gentle and excellent Casey Affleck), is unable to provide solace for her maternal grief. Tallie’s husband, Finney (Christopher Abbott, the very picture of frontier villainy with his stern moustache) thumps his Bible and detests Tallie for her inability to conceive a child. Away from the prying eyes of their husbands, Abigail and Tallie’s friendship quickly transcends the platonic before circumstances rend the lovers apart.

Shepard wrote the screenplay for The World to Come with Ron Hansen, a friend and fellow writer who introduced Shepard’s story to producer Casey Affleck. “Ron told Casey about my story, Casey read it and loved it, and asked Ron and I if we would write the screenplay,” Shepard said.  “Once we delivered the screenplay to him, he found the director, and together they rounded up the rest of the cast.  So I was privy to the process all the way along.”  

The World to Come isn’t the first time Shepard’s work has been adapted for the screen. Shepard’s award-winning 2015 novel, Project X, was made into a movie called And Then I Go in 2017. But The World to Come will likely make bigger waves than And Then I Go; the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival, one of the film industry’s “Big Three” festivals (alongside Cannes and Berlin), and won Venice’s Queer Lion trophy, an award for outstanding LGBTQ+ themed films. Like many other festivals this year, Venice went virtual, denying Shepard and his family the exciting opportunity to reap the full benefits of their celebrity status: “My kids are still sad that they missed out on wearing cool clothes on the red carpets at Venice and Sundance,” Shepard said. 

The World to Come is a lush and lived-in film, thanks largely to its rugged scenery and the sense of intimacy Abigail’s narration creates. “It was disconcerting at first to see the film company use Romania and the Carpathian mountains for western New York and the Adirondacks, but on the other hand, I also got a free trip to the Carpathians,” said Shepard. 

In Romania, Shepard served as an adviser on set, where he was received positively by the cast and crew. “It was very cool to hear actors I hugely admired not only saying my words, but telling me for the entire shoot how great I was,” said Shepard. “Just sitting around receiving hyperbolic praise from movie stars: that’s something you can get used to.” 

Much of the film’s dialogue comes directly from Shepard’s original story, meaning characters (Abigail especially, who narrates both the original story and the film) speak in elegant literary prose. The literary language makes some dialogue unwieldy, but these phrases blossom best when Waterson speaks them alone: I was moved when, describing past feelings of anxiety, Waterson murmured, “I grew like a pot-bound root, all curled in on itself.” 

Watching The World To Come, however, one would be compelled to view Tallie and Abigail’s union as “inevitable.” This is a shame, because it feels anachronistic — that which is “inevitable” must first be in the realm of the “possible,” and in the 1800s, it would be radical for our protagonists to consider lesbian extramarital love as an amorous possibility, much less to act on it. Part of the poignancy of the situation, I would assume, was the fear on the part of anyone experiencing such feelings that they might be in a tiny minority, if not alone,” Shepard said. 

Disappointingly, there is no trace of this fear in Kirby’s Tallie, who doggedly pursues Abigail with a seductive low voice and sultry gaze. Waterson portrays her ambiguous emotions better than Kirby, but any nuanced feelings she seeks to portray towards Tallie are undermined by the film’s aggressive score. The first time Abigail invites Tallie into her home, clarinets soar triumphantly as the camera pans over Tallie’s glistening eyes, beautiful hair and delicate hands. Later, after the pair kiss for the first time, the clarinets return loudly as Abigail closes her eyes in elation. I marveled at their lack of doubt. The first time I kissed a girl, there was confusion rather than clarinets, and that was in 2016, when there was likely more acceptance around lesbianism than in the 19th century. Tallie and Abigail do eventually engage in a guarded conversation about living in cages, but this conversation feels like an obligatory and cliched nod to the historical circumstances of queerness in a film that handles its other themes — isolation, gender, expectations grief — with more subtlety and deftness. 

As for Shepard’s take on the finished film? “You’re not the one with the final say, when it comes to any number of aesthetic decisions, he noted. “I like a lot of scenes, and think a lot of scenes could have been improved.” I tend to agree — while I greatly enjoyed immersing myself in The World to Come, it wasn’t the exception to lesbian ‘yearn-core’ I hoped it might be. Following a predictably steady course towards the sexual fulfillment of its protagonists, The World to Come emphasizes Tallie and Abigail’s erotic tension at the cost of more nuanced character development. Did Abigail’s husband sense anything was going on when his wife was in hysterics about her lover? What does it mean to fall in love with the only other woman you know? The filmed adaptation of The World to Come abandons the shrewd quietude of Shepard’s original story for melodrama, a move that lets us see Abigail and Tallie make out and wail  but which pigeonholes the specificities of their relationship into the trope of ultimately doomed passion. Perhaps if reckless passion wasn’t always the driving narrative force pushing queer characters towards imminent tragedy, there might be more room for new ways of depicting historical queer relationships, for stories of love that remain tender and interesting even if gratification is left unfulfilled.  It’s fun to see women kiss (when you’re not sharing the couch with your best friend’s mom, of course), but I was left wondering: would The World to Come perhaps be a better film if these women never did?