Most novelists do not have much of a say in how their book gets adapted for the big screen.
Justin Torres is an exception. The gay author of We the Animals — a 2011 novel inspired by his upbringing in a mixed white and Puerto Rican household — worked closely with director Jeremiah Zagar (In a Dream) in the adaptation of his story.
In this collaboration, Torres advised on casting, storylines, and even set decoration of the fictional family’s home. A lamp on the kitchen table, for example, surprised Torres’s own mother with its similarity to the one in their old home in a Rust Belt town in upstate New York. "I kept forgetting that I was in a movie theater," she told her son after a recent screening.
“Most novelists feel resignation or outright hatred towards the adaptation of their [work], but I love it,” Torres said of We the Animals, which is out this Friday. “Jeremiah wanted my involvement every step along the way. He wanted to get it right.”
As faithful as Zagar was to the details, he also succeeded in creating “a proper film,” praised Torres, that stands on its own as a work of art. “I think that's the most interesting kind of adaptation,” said Torres. Critics have agreed. The film won the Next Innovator Award at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, and it boasts a 95 percent rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Indiewire called it "this year's Moonlight" for its artful depiction of a queer coming-of-age story.
Much of Torres's story is intact. But fans of the book — a queer classic in its own right — will recognize a few key differences made for the film adaptation of We the Animals. The novel begins when the unnamed narrator turns 7 and follows him into his teens. In the movie, the protagonist, now named Jonah, celebrates his 10th birthday, and events do not extend beyond that year.
According to Torres, one reason for this creative decision was to keep the talented young actors who portray Jonah (Evan Rosado) and his brothers Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel) for the duration of the film. (Looking's Raul Castillo and Argo's Sheila Vand play their “Paps” and “Ma,” respectively.) The filmmakers feared that casting actors of different ages might disrupt the viewers' emotional connections to the characters during the 94-minute runtime.
Second, the young protagonist is now a visual artist in the film. Animations of his sketches — bodies in flight, or in pain, or in the throes of passion — come to life and become “a very cinematic way of addressing the interiority of the book,” said Torres, as well as the rich, complicated, interior world of the lead. The film’s animation visually expands the book's “sense of wonder and awe and strangeness” about childhood into the realm of magical realism. A breathtaking vision at the film's conclusion marks another departure from the novel, which ended with the protagonist being institutionalized.
The family in We the Animals is loosely inspired by life events experienced by Torres and his family. Like Jonah, Torres has two brothers, a white mother, a Puerto-Rican father, and a tumultuous journey coming to terms with his sexuality and masculinity.
However, Torres considers the characters in his novel to be a “mythic family” of archetypes. This is not just his story — this is humanity's story. To this end, Torres praised how the film’s scenes of magical realism, such as a character defying gravity, serve “to break the audience's habit of thinking that this is the story of this particular one family and this particular one place. ... This is about love. This is about childhood," Torres said.
Pictured: Justin Torres
What hasn’t changed between the book and novel is the story’s queerness. “The book is queer, the film needs to be queer, and it needs to stay queer,” Torres remembers telling the director, who is straight. This presented some challenges for the adaptation. In the book, the protagonist has a sexual experience with an older man at a bus station as a teenager. In contrast, the film’s 10-year-old Jonah finds a “love interest” with a teenage neighbor, who invites the young boy and his brothers to watch pornography in his basement.
Given Jonah’s age, Torres found the storyline to be “provocative” but also an “interesting” departure from his novel. “I just don't think that the fact that children have sexuality is dealt with very often [in film],” said Torres. “There's stuff going on, and bubbling, and sometimes you're exposed to stuff early. It's just the reality of life, right? Experimentation.”
“Nobody wants to sexualize children,” stressed Torres. Yet the author questions the taboo filmmakers have placed on this issue, which he found to be rooted in “puritanical ideas,” “outmoded thinking,” and a “fear of harm" by addressing it in art. He pushed back against this fear. “There [are] terrible things happening in the world. Sure. But art is rarely a cause,” he said.
In a larger sense, adults may be in denial about the full complexity of young people — what they experience and how they experience it. Childhood is “a time of extreme joy, and beauty, and grace, and all kinds of things,” Torres said. “But there's also terror there. The world is a strange place, and childhood is hard for a lot of people, especially if you feel in some fundamental way misunderstood. I think that we [adults] survived that, and then we immediately go about convincing ourselves that it was a time of innocence.”
“They don't want to behold the complexity because then nobody would have children, right?" Torres continued. “If you could really remember how scary and intense at all that is, you wouldn't be like, I don't know, I’ll bring some children into the world and be the monster.”
"The monster" in We the Animals is a complicated subject. As the film demonstrates, Ma and Paps clearly love their sons, but they also make decisions that endanger them. One moment, Paps is leading the family in a joyous dance in the living room. The next, he takes off in the night after hitting Ma. The family reels from acts of domestic abuse and abandonment, which leave the three brothers to occasionally forage for their own food by stealing from a neighbor's garden and a convenience store. Jonah's artistic endeavors and his budding queerness are also at odds with a toxic model of masculinity.
But there are far greater evils in the world. The family faces systemic challenges due to racism and classism. The title, We the Animals, is in part a commentary on the dehumanization of marginalized communities — young people, poor people, Latino people, queer people. Torres, 38, published the book seven years ago (after several years of writing it) and has stood at these intersections. He now sees this film's message as sadly resonant in the current political era.
“I didn't foresee Trump, and I especially didn't foresee Trump scapegoating the Latino community to the extent that he has,” said Torres. "I just didn't see children in cages coming down the pipeline and the horrible hurricane in Puerto Rico."
However, Torres knows firsthand that these bigoted views did not begin with the current administration. "I wasn't surprised either because I did grow up in this," he said. "It's all there. Those resentments and that racism, that was all nascent where I grew up. It's not like everybody was a monster where I grew up, but there were enough."
It is clear that recent xenophobic policies have not helped matters. A recent estimate put the death toll from Hurricane Maria at over 1,400, with the mayor of San Juan blaming the fatalities on the inaction of the Trump administration. The Republican-led government has also cracked down on undocumented immigration in alarming ways, among them ICE raids of Latino communities and the family separation policy, which led to thousands of children being taken by their parents and placed in detention facilities. Through it all, the president has modeled disrespect and outright racism, such as referring to people of color and immigrants as "animals."
Latino art, said Torres, is "responding intensely to this contemporary moment … to the dehumanization of Latino people. The movie now enters into that moment. And what's nice about it is that it is very affirming of these lives, right? It's a very humanizing film, even if it's about violence, and even if it's about just this family.”
After years of being marginalized, queer art is also "rightly coming into the light," said Torres. Moonlight won Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 2017 — and the past year has seen a number of prominent queer films that were adapted from books, such as The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Call Me by Your Name. Torres sees We the Animals and this other queer art as the blossoming of seeds that were sown by prior generations of activists. "It's the hard work of many, many people who've been fighting [for visibility and equality]," said Torres. "Now we get to be ... inheritors and benefactors" of this movement.
Beyond speaking about marginalized communities, the title of We the Animals also has a small audience in mind. As Torres prepares for the release of the film in theaters — the culmination of events in his own life, which led to a book and now a film — he reflected on how it was his own separation from his family members that first inspired the story.
"By the time I started writing it, I was especially estranged from them," Torres said. "I found it really difficult to engage with anybody, and I think I wrote it ... [because] I think I missed my family. I missed being in a family."
His mother has seen the film — but he is not sure what his father's plans are. "I hope he sees it," Torres said. "I think it's very generous and loving portrayal of a father who is in over his head ... even though he is violent at times. It was important to me that he not be a monster."
The title has a universal meaning as well. It references the preamble of the United States Constitution, conjuring that vision of "a more perfect union." And by speaking in the first person, it is also a unifying phrase, "a reminder that we're all animals. Actually, that's what connects us," Torres said.
"We're all animals — the animal that exists inside of whatever it is that makes us human."
We the Animals comes out Friday in theaters. Watch the trailer below.