She stalks her lover, begins an illicit affair with her neighbor in the room next to her sleeping children and walks in on her husband masturbating with a bra strapped around his head. The character of Sarah Pierce — the protagonist of “Little Children,” played by Kate Winslet — epitomizes the dysfunction, frustration and obsession at the heart of suburban domesticity. And Sarah, it turns out, is an Eli at heart.
Created by alum Tom Perrotta ’83, Sarah is a composite of several of Perrotta’s Eli acquaintances, a specimen of the ultimate unfulfillment Perrotta perceived among his female classmates when he reunited with them after college years colored by a “high-water mark for feminism.”
“A lot of the women that I went to college with imagined that they would be working and would have unconventional marriages, if they had marriages, and maybe wouldn’t have kids, and had ideas about how they were going to reinvent gender roles and the institution of marriage and child bearing,” Perrotta said.
Twenty years later, however, at a Yale reunion, these women’s lives hadn’t played out according to plan.
“A lot of these same women found out they ended up in more traditional domestic arrangements than they anticipated,” Perrotta said. “Most were fine with how it turned out, but there were some who felt a little guilty about it. The character of Sarah is kind of like those women.”
Soon after this reunion, Perrotta set to work on his fourth and most-successful novel, “Little Children,” published in 2004, and soon began to adapt “Little Children” with director Todd Field (“In the Bedroom”) for the big screen. The pair was nominated for a Golden Globe, a Writer’s Guild Award and, now, for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards.
The success of “Little Children” demonstrates that viewers connect with the characters penned by Perrotta, a writer whose work uses his keen observations of society — including and especially observations made during his time at Yale — as fodder for satirical commentary.
Perrotta felt out of place as soon as he got to New Haven. Coming from a “mediocre” public school in working-class New Jersey, he spent his first two years at Yale feeling like he ended up there “by accident.” In fact, his third novel — the follow-up to “Election,” which was turned into a cult classic starring Reese Witherspoon — was “Joe College,” a semi-autobiographical novel about a “guy who grew up in the world where I grew up” and wound up at Yale.
After majoring in English at Yale, Perrotta studied under Tobias Wolff at the Creative Writing Program at Syracuse, returned to Yale as a Writing Tutor in JE and taught at Harvard. But after leaving Yale, Perrotta found a “big gulf” between himself and others, even in a highly educated suburb, a frustration that he articulates in “Little Children.” In one of the most memorable scenes of the film, Sarah, who has a doctorate in literature, attends a female book group discussing “Madame Bovary” and has to put up with abrasive Mary Ann’s skewed perception of the book.
“Mary Ann is much more in the school of resisting literature,” Perrotta said. “Maybe there are some of those people at Yale, but I think most people are serious — a small class where people are thoughtfully discussing literary work. If I have one romantic image of college life, it’s that one.”
“Little Children” provided an entirely new Hollywood experience for Perrotta, both because he was intimately involved in the screenwriting process and because he filmed a short cameo as “Little Man.” By contrast, he said “Election” — which he was not involved in adapting for the screen — was almost like a magic trick.
“I sent off a stack of paper, and this amazing film came back,” he said. “Everything about it was a revelation for me.”
Even though he knew more of what to expect when he first viewed “Little Children,” he still felt some of the “awestruck feeling” he experienced with “Election.”
“There’s still some magic about this image being on the big screen,” he said. “Even though I had written the script, there were things I couldn’t have predicted, like how great Kate Winslet was in that role or what the film would look like.”
As for the Oscar chances of Winslet and Jackie Earle Haley — nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor, respectively — Perrotta said he believes it’s an “uphill battle.”
“This award season has certainly picked its favorites early,” he said. “They’re both worthy of winning, but it doesn’t even matter because they’re still two amazing performances whether they win or not.”
As for his own chances, Perrotta doesn’t want to say too much, although he did say he will be putting his prolific pen to use before the show to write an acceptance speech.
“When I was at the Golden Globes, I didn’t have anything prepared because I didn’t think we’d win, and I thought I’d just get up and say thanks to the people who needed to be thanked,” he said. “But at that show, Hugh Laurie and Meryl Streep got up and did such funny, eloquent speeches, and I was humbled. You have to have something interesting.”
While doing the awards circuit, Perrotta is working on his next novel, “The Abstinence Teacher,” about “sex, religion and the culture war” that is “very much a reaction to the political situation of the past ten years.”
“I’m sure there’s Yale stuff buried in there,” he said. “But I’m not entirely sure where it is.”