The cover of Julie Murphy’s novel “Dumplin,’” a simple female figure in a red gown with her arms outstretched on a black background, consistently grabbed my eye. But the book never quite made it into my shopping cart.
Then I saw the trailer for Netflix’s adaptation of the book, starring relative unknown Danielle Macdonald as the titular Dumplin’ and Jennifer Aniston as her former beauty queen mother, and I immediately reserved a copy at the library.
“Dumplin’” centers on Willowdean Dickson, an unapologetically fat teenager living in small-town Texas. She’s grieving the loss of her beloved aunt, dealing with the growing distance between her and her best friend, contending with a budding romance with her co-worker, and doing her best to survive another pageant season, run by her svelte mother (who wears the dress she was crowned in as a teen every year as a point of pride).
The novel is sharp and authentic, the issues Willowdean deals with are honest and at times raw. She’s grown up fat and has worn her weight proudly until the romantic interest from her attractive co-worker Bo pushes her self-esteem into a downward spiral. The distance that builds between her and her traditionally attractive best friend is heart-wrenching in its realness.
Eventually, Willowdean decides to mount a bit of a rebellion by joining her mother’s pageant and proving anyone — no matter their body type — can compete. Several school outcasts sign up as well, and they sort of band together.
Willowdean’s love of Dolly Parton and an effort to connect with the aunt she’s lost brings the band of misfits to a drag show, where they all learn a thing or two about how to put on a show. All this before the beauty pageant grand finale.
So, which is better: the book or the movie?
The movie is sweet and fun. Macdonald acts the major emotional beats believably, and her fellow pageant rebels are charming. An unaged Aniston is downright amazing (my housemate, a Texas native, found her portrayal of a Southern mother to be authentic), and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” alum Ginger Minj was a delight as Willowdean’s drag queen ally.
But internal struggles so deftly explored in the book are lost through the medium. Bo is practically nonexistent in the movie, while in the book his involvement in Willowdean’s life is a crux of her struggles. The fight with Willowdean’s best friend also loses a lot of its effect in the movie. Both seem to have been sacrificed to place greater emphasis on the pageant.
What the movie hits is the dynamic between mother and daughter. The two can’t quite connect and weight plays a part in their strained, distant relationship (Dumplin’ is a hated nickname given to Willowdean by her mother). The movie does know how to play a Dolly Parton song for effect (Willowdean’s talent show performance is particularly memorable), and the montage of drag queen lessons for Willowdean’s group is a treat.
I’m sure if I hadn’t read the book first, I wouldn’t be so critical of the movie. It’s fun fare, with a cathartic ending between mother and daughter, so please tune in. But read the book for a more poignant exploration of a teenager dealing with the changes that come with growing up.