Chloé Zhao’s adaptation of Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century took Hollywood by storm, steadily gaining momentum and critical praise through festival releases in a difficult year for Hollywood. With movie theaters mostly closed and many film festivals canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Nomadland became the heaviest hitter of an awards season many pundits view with an asterisk. While we will never know how things would have fared in a “normal” year of competition, the fact remains that Nomadland went on to win Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Director at the Academy Awards.
Still, even as Nomadland racked up awards, a subtle controversy was brewing under the surface. At its heart is how Zhao’s adaptation removes much of Bruder’s pointed commentary about working conditions people like the nomads it depicts face, particularly in Amazon distribution facilities. This disparity became all the more pointed when an Amazon facility in Alabama announced that it would hold a vote on whether or not to unionize (the workers ultimately voted against unionizing), leading to blistering think pieces centered on what Nomadland the movie left out and whether or not these omissions were irresponsible.
Any adaptation for film has to make choices about what to streamline from the original story. A lot of this is for timing purposes—if you include everything you’re going to end up with a ten-to-fifteen hour movie.
People who have a problem with the adaptation of Nomadland are mostly taking issue with what it chose to streamline. Director Chloé Zhao chose to highlight the stories of the nomad community in her film and decided not to focus on politics–a decision that managed to lead to her film’s overwhelming success while simultaneously providing its critics with their most valuable ammunition to use against it.
I’ve done a couple of book vs. movie comparisons before but this one is particularly intriguing to me. The conversation about what was omitted is a big part of that, but I also find it fascinating that Zhao and star/producer Frances McDormand crafted a mostly fictional story for their film out of a nonfiction book. This could have easily been a documentary instead.
So how do the movie and the book compare? And is one better than the other? Let’s find out.
What Nomadland is About
Both the book and the film are about people who for various reasons (most having to do with economic displacement or disenfranchisement) live in vans and roam the United States seasonally, finding temporary work to get by and forming a sort of outlier community to support each other. The primary difference here is that the movie frames a fictional narrative around a fictional character using actual people featured in the book, creating a blend of fiction and nonfiction.
The Book’s Approach
You meet a lot of people throughout Nomadland, but the book uses a woman named Linda May as a sort of entry point to the community. Part of this is because Bruder and Linda May form a bond as they go (more on that in a minute), but structurally it also works because at the time Bruder and Linda May met, Linda May was herself relatively new to the nomad community. Linda May was also the centerpiece of the article Bruder originally wrote for Harper’s Magazine that inspired a publisher to encourage Bruder to expand the concept into a book (the article was called “The End of Retirement“). Despite being a relative newcomer, Linda May is experienced enough to act as our guide into the world of nomads.
If Linda May is our guide in the book, Bruder herself acts as a sort of surrogate for the reader. Like us, she is an outsider learning about how it all works. To write Nomadland, Bruder embedded herself in the nomad community for a long period of time. When she was unable to fully immerse herself in the community by staying in a hotel, she even purchased her own van and learned how to drive it. Bruder is an inextricable part of the story–she does not attempt to extricate herself from the book at all. This is a crucial decision for a nonfiction writer and you can compare it to Matthew Desmond’s approach in the stellar book Evicted. Like Bruder, he spent a lot of time with the people he interviewed. Unlike Bruder, he did everything he could to remove his authorial presence from the story (you only find out how involved he was in the story in his afterword, where he lists instances where an unnamed person in the book was actually him. For example, he revealed that when he referenced someone being bailed out of prison, we only find out in the afterword that the person who bailed them out was Desmond himself). You can read more about Desmond’s decision to use third-person perspective in this blog post.
This is particularly important to the book not just because it means Bruder herself is the spine of Nomadland the book, but because of the deep relationships she forms with the people she meets. There are real friendships that form–particularly with Linda May, who was the centerpiece of the article Bruder originally wrote for Harper’s Magazine that inspired a publisher to encourage Bruder to expand the concept into a book (the article was called “The End of Retirement“). For example, When Linda May is buying land to fulfill her dream of building an Earthship, Bruder goes to inspect the land for her and does a video call with her so she can see what the land looks like.
The ultimate significance of Bruder’s decision to include herself is that Nomadland the book becomes a deeply personal, profoundly human work that is dripping with empathy and compassion.
The Movie’s Approach
The greatest success of the film adaptation is that it understands and values the empathy and compassion Bruder had for this story and masterfully captures it on film. In fact, those are the defining features of the movie and why the film feels so resonant–particularly in such a deeply divided moment of political and economic turmoil.
Again, Zhao deliberately avoided politics in crafting her movie in order to focus on the human story at the heart of Bruder’s book. It’s a jolt to go from the journalistic politics of Bruder’s book to Zhao’s subtle humanism, but there’s no denying that Nomadland is a beautiful movie.
In Bruder’s place as the audience surrogate is a fictional character named Fern, played by Frances McDormand. It feels like the traditional (perhaps obvious) choice in adaptations like this would be for the screenplay to make Fern a journalist getting to know the nomad community as Bruder herself did (or just have McDormand play Bruder). Time and again, this is an approach used when adapting a journalistic work into a movie (think of the adaptations of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, where Matthew Rhys plays journalist Lloyd Vogel as he interviews Mr. Rogers for the article that inspired the film, or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, where Rose Byrne plays Rebecca Skloot as she interviews the family of Henrietta Lacks to gather material for her bestselling book). Instead, Fern is someone who decided to join the van-dwelling community after losing her husband, her job, and her home in quick succession following the economic collapse of 2008. The slow ways in which her profound grief over those losses leaks out over the course of the movie forms the emotional arc of the story, and her backstory highlights the economic difficulties that drive many people to choose (or be forced into) a nomadic lifestyle without directly calling attention to them. It also allows her to be at home in her van and living with the nomad community, eliminating a potential layer of remove from the people who are the point of the whole effort.
Fern’s backstory also allows Zhao to include a section of the book that would have been difficult to incorporate otherwise. Fern lived in the city of Empire, a town created for the workers of the U.S. Gypsum Corporation. She stayed there following the death of her husband from an illness but in 2011, the company closed both the mine and the town, forcing its residents to uproot themselves and relocate. With no job, no home, and no immediate family, Fern became a nomad.
Another fictional nomad played by David Strathairn becomes a quasi-romantic interest for Fern who tempts her back to the “real world,” teasing out the depths of her grief for the audience in the process. But by and large, the rest of the cast is filled out by actual nomads–including Linda May, who plays herself and acts as Fern’s guide into the nomadic community for parts of the movie. Swankie is another nomad from the book who turns up as a mentor and friend for Fern but with the addition of a (fictional) terminal cancer diagnosis. Bob Wells, the sort of spiritual leader of the nomad community and its growth, also turns up to play himself. Wells’ famous Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (depicted in the book) forms the climax of the film.
Here’s the biggest difference between Nomadland the book and Nomadland the movie: in the book, the focus is on the people in the nomadic community specifically as citizens who have escaped the strictures of society, but who remain caught in the grip of that same society through corporations that take advantage of them as well as their basic need for resources. The movie’s focus is simply on the people of the nomadic community, their stories, and the community/chosen family they form along the way.
The nomads in the book are disenfranchised people who by and large either didn’t have a nest egg or lost what they did have, then got creative and found a way to get by. Linda May, for example, ended up on the road because she couldn’t afford retirement and her low-wage jobs and meager social security payments were barely keeping her afloat (as outlined in Bruder’s original article and the book as well). Getting on the road allowed her to feel in control of her life again and like she isn’t a burden to her family, even though getting by is still enormously difficult. That much is portrayed in the movie, but the rest is left out. We’ll get into the Amazon of it in a moment, but throughout the book, Linda May and many other nomads exhibit a constant reliance on the very structures of commercial culture/capitalism they have ostensibly rejected. There’s a fascinating push and pull between their ideals and the realities of the world they live in. A lot of that is telegraphed in the movie but not explicitly stated, making it so subtle that if you aren’t looking for it you could easily miss it. You do, however, see it in moments like when proud, independent Fern nearly breaks down when her van needs repairs (pun only slightly intended) that she can’t afford and she has to turn to her sister for a loan she will likely never be able to repay in order to get back on the road.
Here’s how I think of it. It reminds me of an episode of the podcast Dolly Parton’s America called “Dollitics.” In it, host Jad Abumrad reckons with Parton’s steadfast refusal to make political statements even when the media and/or audiences are digging for her to speak out. On the surface, Parton remains apolitical in order to appeal to a wider audience and not offend anyone. This may seem problematic, but when you dig deeper and pay attention to her music, you find all sorts of political messaging buried in the lyrics. Maybe at the end of the day, Parton actually says everything she needs to say through her music?
It also reminds me of Lonesome Dove, the Pulitzer Prize-winning western novel that calls the very format of westerns and the American mythology it represents into question so subtly that you could easily read it and think it simply, well, a fun western (more on that can be found here).
That, to me, is Nomadland the movie. It telegraphs a lot even though it doesn’t say it outright. After watching the movie, I didn’t come away thinking nomads have easy, happy lives. You can see the exhaustion on their faces after a shift at a sugar beet farm. Worry lines grow deeper when plans start to fall apart or illness looms. The lack of healthcare and a safety net is terrifying and you are deeply aware of it as a viewer.
There’s more to say here but let’s get to the elephant in the room, shall we?
The Amazon of It All
In the movie, Linda May and Fern work a season at an Amazon distribution facility and then move on to other jobs like campground hosting. Missing from that is the context that Linda May deliberately avoided returning to the Amazon facility because the work had been so difficult that she suffered a repetitive strain injury that plagued her long after she clocked out for the season. She had also once missed a day of work (unpaid, of course) because of dizziness/fainting spells. The movie is showing the progression of Linda May’s jobs without giving you the context behind her movement. Many other injuries at Amazon facilities are outlined in Bruder’s book, illustrating time and again that these facilities are exploiting their workers, who have to keep up with a staggering pace set by timers in their scanners that count down the seconds they have to get to the next product on their list in a warehouse so ill-equipped for human presence that repeated, violent static shocks are common.
Now here’s something critics of the movie’s approach to this topic are missing: Amazon is far from the only company exploiting seasonal workers. In an economy that increasingly values gig workers, many companies have deployed similar strategies–the KOA, where many road trippers camp along their routes, also depends on nomadic workers. Amazon is just the biggest company on the list, along with being the one that leaned into the workforce nomadic communities provide the hardest (and therefore being the most egregious example of this economy at play). Campgrounds, fish hatcheries, beet farms, etc. have all pivoted to reach out to nomadic communities for cheap temporary labor but Amazon reshaped its entire company structure around it. It created the CamperForce program specifically to attract people like Linda May, providing Amazon-owned campgrounds for RVs and vans as well as incentives for nomads such as a slight pay increase for workers who return the next year.
Why are nomads so important to companies like Amazon, you may ask? Nomads tend to be older, retirement-age people with precious few job opportunities. As such, they can be hired for cheap and are so grateful for the work that they are unlikely to complain, ask for more pay or benefits, or (gasp) attempt to unionize. They are also easily replaced and the company has no long-term commitment to them. Best of all (for the companies), because nomads tend to be senior citizens and below the poverty line, employers like Amazon get massive tax credits for hiring them.
It’s an appalling practice that only lurks under the surface of the movie despite being a major focus of the book. Even in that original article Bruder wrote for Harper’s, the featured image is of Linda May’s injured wrist wrapped up in bandages. That’s how important this aspect is to Bruder and both her article and book about America’s nomadic communities.
Does the Movie Cop Out on Amazon?
I feel like I should start by reiterating that I love Nomadland the movie and highly recommend it. But while I wouldn’t use language like “cop out” or anything like that, there’s no denying that the book is overtly political and the movie is not. The approach is spiritually the same and yet so different that they should almost be treated as two different entities (I am aware that they literally are different entities, but adaptations have a tendency to be treated as twins. In this case, it’s more like cousins).
There is a contradictory argument to be made here, though–although I doubt it will ease the minds of anyone upset about the adaptation. In Nomadland the book, Bruder talks about how nomads hate being thought of as victims. That’s not how they think of themselves, and they don’t want anyone pitying them or looking down on them. If the movie had leaned into the brutality of their working conditions at Amazon or any other work site, it would have been difficult not to treat them like victims. They would emerge looking beaten down and maybe a little sad. That is not what they want, it’s not what Bruder wanted, and I don’t think it’s what Zhao wanted either. It’s just easier in a nonfiction narrative to walk the line between the two extremes. Film, which is a heavily visual medium, runs the risk of leaning too hard in a direction that could be seen as exploitative.
Remember, at the end of the day I did not come away from Nomadland the movie feeling like van-dwelling was a glamorous or easy lifestyle, and I don’t think most people would either. And the movie does manage to portray the razor-thin line between independence and ruin most nomads live on. It does manage to show the lack of access to healthcare. It does manage to show the sense of isolation that exists within the greater community. It already does a lot. Maybe adding more would hurt the balance?
Still, I can’t help but think it would have been easy to include some subtle nods to the deeper difficulties without getting into the politics of it all. Zhao could have had Linda May make an offhand comment about not returning to Amazon until her wrist gets better. Instead of having Fern casually walk through the Amazon facility in the beginning of the movie, Zhao could have focused in on the timer in her scanner or shown her rushing to the next item–or even had a manager tell her to pick up the pace (which happens frequently in the book).
Which is Better?
I tend to gravitate toward a cop-out of my own here and say that both are good and in a perfect world, you should both watch the movie and read the book. That is true here as well. If you plan to do both, maybe watch the movie first so you can enjoy it on its own terms and not be looking for things that aren’t there.
But if you only want to experience one? Read the book. It’s a much more complete picture. Just be prepared to feel angry instead of uplifted.
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