Kiernan Shipka/Photo © Shutterstock/Phil Stafford
Welcome to Word & Fim’s Casting Call, where we exercise our creative muscles by focusing our attention on extraordinary characters from exceptional books – either fiction or nonfiction – and make the case for how we’d cast those roles if given the chance. Note that, here at Word & Film, we’re not casting directors, nor are we producers, agents, or anyone else who has any say in how a film will be cast; we’re simply ardent fans of books and movies who can’t help ourselves from such musings.
When The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker’s bestselling debut, came out last year, nary a review ran that didn’t point out just how ripe the book was for a film adaptation. Marrying bildungsroman with sci-fi dystopia, the novel tells the story of eleven-year-old Julia, whose gentle preteen existence is rocked one normal Saturday morning when the earth’s rotation inexplicably begins to slow. As a result of this mysterious phenomenon, days and nights extend into achingly endless stretches of light and dark, gravity is disrupted, animals and plant life start dying off, and the lives of ordinary people, like Julia and her parents, are dramatically altered — not simply because of the changing physical surroundings but in deeper, more personal ways.
The novel moves back and forth between tightly drawn, intimate moments of Julia’s prepubescent suburban life and grander descriptions of the global implications caused by this environmental calamity. As the slowing grows worse and days continue to elongate, tensions build between Julia’s parents, and the previously well adjusted — if shy — protagonist becomes increasingly isolated from her peers.
The novel has the kind of delicious high-concept premise that Hollywood loves. And sure enough, before the novel had even made it to bookstores, the film rights for The Age of Miracles had been snapped up by River Road Entertainment (the folks who made “Brokeback Mountain” and “Into the Wild”) with Seth Lochhead (who penned “Hanna”) on board to write the script.
But if the story was made for the big screen, bringing Julia to life presents a more difficult challenge. First of all, she’s young — she turns twelve toward the end of the book—and while many of her classmates are grappling with issues and desires far more mature than their parents (and many readers) would prefer, Julia is by her own admission an unworldly eleven. She wears “practical outfit[s], white canvas tennis shoes double-knotted beneath plain jeans” to her peers’ miniskirts and baby tees. Where her classmates, brimming with hormones, chatter boy crazily away, Julia tightly guards a secret crush on the brooding Seth Moreno. Second, unlike other more brazen or precocious young heroines of genre fiction, Julia is reserved and almost skittish, with a quiet interiority that will be tough to translate to film. She spends most school lunches alone in the library “land of the friendless” and her evenings staring out on her changing world through the shiny silver telescope given to her by her father. While The Age of Miracles centers around a young adult, it’s not written as a YA story; so to bring its surreal, lyrical quality to the screen, the actress who embodies Julia will need to read young, but possess a quiet, emotional maturity.
Willow Shields, who plays Primrose Everdeen in “The Hunger Games,” shows promise, but we’re not sure she’s ready to carry a whole film. Academy Award nominee Quvenzhané Wallis certainly proved with “Beasts of the Southern Wild” that she’s got the chops, but her performance as Hushpuppy is too adorable, too exuberant to work for shy, tentative Julia — besides at only ten, she’s still a little young. Hailee Steinfeld is sadly too old.
So we turn to a trio of our favorite young actresses of the small screen. Hadley Delany, who plays Louis C.K.’s older daughter Lilly on FX’s “Louie,” has an authentic kidness and just the right amount of uncomfortable preteen awkwardness necessary for Julia. While Maisie Williams’ portrayal of Arya Stark on “Game of Thrones” is feisty and tough, the way she captures the character’s quiet longing for home and family would translate brilliantly to Julia’s hushed lovesickness. But ultimately, our choice for Julia is thirteen-year-old Kiernan Shipka, who plays Sally Draper on “Mad Men.” We’ve watched Shipka grow up in this role, transforming from bratty kid to gawky preteen to graceful beauty on the cusp of young adulthood. Through it all she’s held her own, grappling with difficult, mature storylines and keeping up with her grown-up counterparts to make Sally a fully realized character.
And speaking of “Mad Men,” Shipka’s onscreen dad, Jon Hamm, would be perfect as Julia’s dad, Joel, the handsome obstetrician whose levelheaded stoicism in the face of the crisis almost tears the family apart. As his wife, Helen, a former actress who deals with the slowing with anxious, blustery agitation, our choice is Amy Adams, who could provide a frantic, nervous energy as counterpoint to Hamm’s preternatural calm.
And finally as Seth Moreno, the cool, enigmatic skateboarder who is the object of Julia’s affections, our choice is Max Burkholder. Seth has a poetic intensity coupled with a mean temper, and as Max, a young man living with Asperger’s syndrome on NBC’s “Parenthood,” Burkholder has shown that he has the range necessary for this role.
So that’s The Age of Miracles as we imagine it. We’re hoping to soon find out how our choices stack up against the filmmakers’ vision, but in the meantime, let us know how our casting decisions compare to yours.
Listen to an excerpt from the audiobook for a peek at the story.