After three rounds of release-date delays, Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette finally arrived in theaters, albeit with a few polarizing changes. Fans of Semple’s best-selling novel will recognize handfuls of dialogue and a few key plot points, all of which help define the film’s title character, an enigmatic and elusive former architect, mother and wife (played by Cate Blanchett) who’s become a “menace to society” during a creative rut in Seattle. But this version (by credited writers Linklater, Holly Gent, and Vincent Palmo, Jr.) is assuredly and compellingly Linklater-like. It takes brief exchanges previously the length of an email and reimagines them into long conversations between friends and foes. It takes the mysterious disappearance baked into the book’s name and renders it more existential than literal, even when Bernadette ventures to Antarctica. To learn what other big changes were made, read on, but spoilers follow:
Bee the Storyteller
In the book: Maria Semple constructs the story of Where’d You Go, Bernadette as the work of its 15-year-old narrator Bee, who has gathered various emails, faxes, articles, and even an FBI report to tell the tale of her missing mother, Bernadette. Bee adds her own perspective to the chronologically organized correspondence, reflecting on on her mother’s experiences from a daughter’s perspective, sharing her own memories and feelings along the way. Her story begins with the perfect report card that prompted her parents to agree to a trip to Antarctica, and ends on that very continent. It’s only later in this book that we learn how Bee obtained all her information — it was sent to her by her family’s neighbor and her mother’s one-time enemy, Audrey Griffin. Bee starts working on the book after Bernadette goes missing (and remains missing for roughly 100 pages), and Bee completes the book with a final letter from her mother — marking Bernadette’s reappearance of sorts.
In the movie: Bee’s voiceover bookends the film, and comments sporadically throughout the story, but the point of view of the movie largely belongs to Bernadette, whose misanthropic tendencies have isolated her from the world otherwise. Even when she finally disappears and Bee frantically wonders where her mother has gone, the moviegoer is aware of Bernadette’s whereabouts, rendering the daughter’s insight less useful. Instead, some of the correspondence from the book plays out like monologues, such as the scene in which Bernadette unloads on her architect peer Paul Jellinek (Laurence Fishburne), or the scene in which her husband Elgin (Billy Crudup) discusses Bernadette with a shrink named Dr. Janelle Kurtz (Judy Greer).
The incident with Audrey’s non-broken foot
In the book: Bernadette was just minding her own business, following the motion of pick-up traffic outside Bee’s Galer Street School, when she refused to stop for an approaching mother, Audrey. Incensed by the snub, Audrey proceeds to claim that Bernadette ran over her foot, and she makes her version of the event widely known — not just by writing to her friend and fellow parent Soo-Lin about the incident, but by prompting the head of school, Gwen Goodyear, to send notes home with each student about pickup safety. The scene helps set the stage for the tension between Bernadette her peers (Audrey, Soo-Lin). As Bernadette explains to Manjula, the other mothers are gnats — “Because they’re annoying, but not so annoying that you actually want to spend valuable energy on them.”
In the movie: The same sort of scenario occurs, but in more detail: Bernadette drives away from an encroaching Audrey (Kristen Wiig) in the pick-up area of Bee’s school. She’s too busy to stop because she’s in the middle of a mission — a mission to rescue their dog Ice Cream, who’s somehow locked himself in a cabinet back home. Audrey dives to the ground as Bernadette screeches off, exclaiming that Bernadette ran over her foot.
In the book: Bernadette’s virtual assistant from India appears in email exchanges, and is made to seem very accommodating when responding to Bernadette’s long-winded requests. Overall, the book gives the impression that Manjula is a very real presence in Bernadette’s life; she may not have any friends in Seattle, but she has someone in Delhi she can talk to.
In the movie: Manjula is once again a virtual assistant from India, but in the film, the virtual assistant from India never outright responds to Bernadette’s screeds, dictated in stream-of-consciousness voice notes on her phone. But we are made to believe that Manjula is taking care of the mountainous tasks delegated to her — she does in fact secure all the gear Bernadette needs for their trip to Antarctica. In the end, however, Manjula proves to be no Manjula at all. Instead, “she” is a front for a Russian scamming network attempting to defraud Bernadette and Elgin, as is the case in the book.
In the book: Bernadette fashions her own fortress of solitude out of an Airstream trailer that’s been lowered by a crane into the backyard of their home. Bee gave the trailer its name, Petit Trianon, a reference to Marie Antoinette’s mini-estate in Versailles, and it’s Bee who informs us that “it’s where [Bernadette’s] computer is, and where she spends most of her time.”
In the movie: Though Bernadette is shown to value her isolation, there is no Petit Trianon. Instead, she disappears into the various rooms of the former school turned home she now occupies, known as Straight Gate.
Bernadette’s architecture backstory
In the book: Among the book’s assorted documents, we’re made aware of an email between Paul Jellinek and one of his students, which includes a not-yet-published article in Artforum titled, “Saint Bernadette: The Most Influential Architect You’ve Never Heard Of.” The article tells of Bernadette’s rise from Princeton as a “a young woman practicing solo in a male-dominated profession,” and of the only house she built “which no longer stands.” Interviews with different professionals in Bernadette’s orbit paint a picture of how she preferred natural resources for her projects — she turned discarded glass into furniture inside the Beeber Bifocal Factory, and used only materials that could be sourced within a 20-mile radius for the Twenty Mile House. After Bernadette received a MacArthur Genius grant and completed the Twenty Mile House, her gauche neighbor and British TV host named Nigel Mills-Murray purchased the for-sale structure under his business manager’s name and demolished it while Bernadette was celebrating in Europe. The article concludes with the only known project Bernadette has entertained since: an offer to build a customized treehouse as part of a Galer Street auction, which received no bids.
In the movie: During a rare trip outside of the house, Bernadette encounters a random architecture fan who informs her of a video essay (available on YouTube) highlighting her under-appreciated backstory. When Bernadette returns home, she watches a portion of the video essay, featuring interviews with some of her former peers (including her friend Paul Jellinek). When images of Mills-Murray appear on screen, Bernadette becomes overwhelmed and closes her laptop. Later, Bee opens up Bernadette’s computer and watches the remainder of the essay in an attempt to piece together the mystery of what happened to her mother.
Bee’s boarding school
In the book: After Bee is accepted to Choate Rosemary Hall, the director of studies writes to Elgin suggesting that Bee enter their school in the fall as a tenth grader, skipping ninth grade. At first Elgin resists, but eventually he relents and requests that Bee attend the school sooner than later, in January, the following month. When Bernadette disappears, Bee goes to Choate, allowing Elgin to grow closer to his co-worker (and a mother at Bee’s school who’s allied with Audrey) Soo-Lin. But Choate quickly proves to be a bad fit for Bee — especially when she becomes fixated on piecing together a story from Audrey’s collected documents.
In the movie: Linklater’s film treats boarding school as a theoretical plot point. Bee gets accepted into Choate early on, which unsettles Bernadette’s already fragile state. But on the way to Antarctica with her father to find her missing mother, Bee decides that she does not want to go to Choate, and so she never attends at all.
In the book: Soo-Lin starts off as a type of mole; she works at Microsoft with Elgin, and gossips about what she learns about Bernadette over email with Audrey. But Soo-Lin gets progressively closer to Elgin, especially after Bernadette disappears and Bee heads off to Choate. She writes to Audrey often about her growing feelings for Elgin, and the kind of fairy tale into which she thinks she’s stepped. After a drunken hook-up with Elgin, she discovers she’s pregnant, which we learn not long after Bernadette is revealed to have gone to Antarctica. But Soo-Lin plays a large part in the initial international search party for Bernadette, understanding that Elgin still loves his wife.
In the movie: Soo-Lin’s significance is progressively minimized throughout the script. There is no threat of a romantic relationship between Soo-Lin and Elgin, especially as the third act hunt for Bernadette is framed like a more wholesome father-daughter bonding experience.
In the book: The intervention that inspires Bernadette to flee America is considerably more tense in Semple’s book, starting with the the aggressive tone Elgin takes with his wife, deflecting Dr. Kurtz’s instructions to address Bernadette with love. Elgin goes so far as to call Bernadette’s traumatic incident with Nigel Mills-Murray “selfish” and “self-pitying.” Present during the intervention is Detective Driscoll, who Bernadette claimed to have noticed following her on four different occasions. The meeting of unlikely characters comes to a chaotic head, with Elgin damaging his eye in some blackberry brambles trying to run after Bernadette, and Dr. Kurtz resigning from her practice. The one shred of levity comes from Audrey, who was aware of the intervention plans before it happened. Audrey sneaks Bernadette down a ladder, away from the fracas and into her own home. There, she presents Bernadette with a complete dossier of all the documents that have so far informed Semple’s book.
In the movie: Overall, Linklater’s take on the intervention is more melancholy; Crudup’s Elgin expresses more heartbreak than anger at Bernadette’s current state. The exchange ends in a similar but slightly altered way: Bernadette sneaks out the first-floor bathroom window and shows up at Audrey’s front door, begging for refuge.
In the book: Audrey Griffin is a Christian woman who experiences a personal crisis parallel to Bernadette’s, exacerbated by a mudslide that destroys her home during a Galer Street event for prospective parents, forcing her to relocate to a hotel, where her son Kyle’s drug problem becomes more apparent. When it comes to Bernadette, Audrey has a complete change of heart after learning of a classified FBI dossier in Soo-Lin’s possession, which lists the incident with Audrey’s non-broken foot as evidence that Bernadette has harmed others. In a fax to her husband Warren, she writes that “I knew that my more complete story would absolve Bernadette,” and “There was no way Bernadette was going to get hauled off to a mental hospital because of my lies.” Audrey then hacks into Soo-Lin’s email with the help of Kyle, obtains all the correspondences involving Elgin, his brother Van, Soo-Lin, and Dr. Kurtz, and learns about the intervention that Bernadette will soon be walking into, electing to save her.
In the movie: Kristen Wiig’s version of Audrey comes around to Bernadette after the intervention, when a shell-shocked Bernadette shows up at Audrey’s door. Bernadette explains her plight — that Elgin is advising she skip the trip to Antarctica and be checked into a mental health rehab center — and when Soo-Lin drops by to ask Audrey if she’s seen Bernadette post-escape, Audrey opts not to say anything. The two mothers end up bonding over the realities of domestic life, before Audrey drives Bernadette to the airport. Audrey is also the one who tips off Bee that Bernadette is headed to Antarctica.
Bernadette’s Voyage to Antarctica
In the book: In the third act of Semple’s story, Bee and Elgin travel on the Allegra from Argentina to Antarctica, in search of Bernadette, who’s ventured to the continent in hopes of speaking with her husband and daughter on their planned trip. Bee spends the first couple days dealing with seasickness, and the two get in a fight; Bee says that Elgin’s relationship with Soo-Lin caused Bernadette to run away. Elgin drags Bee outside to show her just how cold Antarctica is, indicating that Bernadette is likely dead if she’s still unaccounted for. The father and daughter spend more time apart, with Bee hanging out in the library and Elgin going on daytime expeditions. But they are united when Bee tries (and fails) to find Bernadette at the nearby Port Lockroy. Sitting with Bee, Elgin tells her that he hired a private investigator who failed to track down Bernadette, and also that Soo-Lin is pregnant. The next day, the father and daughter realize while looking at some maps on the Allegra that Bernadette could be at the nearby Palmer Station.
In the movie: Because Linklater’s movie adopts the overall point of view of Bernadette, the third act condenses both parties’ journeys to Antartica, making more space for Bernadette’s interior journey as she makes her way to Palmer Station.
In the book: Bee tracks Bernadette to Palmer Station, while Elgin holds off the port authorities who discovered their stolen motorboat heading to land. Bernadette notices Bee in the station first, and after embracing her daughter, tells Bee about a letter she sent weeks ago detailing her adventure. Bee gives Bernadette a locket with St. Bernadette’s face inside — referring to the name saint’s eighteen miracles — and a note from Elgin praising Bernadette for accomplishing four miracles: the two projects, the birth and upbringing of Bee, and “Your Escape.” Semple’s book ends with the letter Bernadette sent, in which she admits she might forgive Elgin for everything with Soo-Lin, because “I don’t know what Dad and I would be without the other,” saying that she will “swat [Soo-Lin] away herself.” Bernadette’s letter wraps up with a hope for the future with her daughter, nudging Bee not to go to boarding school: “You’re sticking with me, with us, close to home.”
In the movie: Bee and Elgin once again steal a boat and head for Palmer Station. Once there, they sneak up on Bernadette as she’s leaving a phone message for them at home. Elgin gives Bernadette the saint’s locket himself, but since the movie emphasizes her creative output, he only lists two miracles when presenting the gift: Beeber Bifocal and the Twenty Mile House. Bee’s final voiceover words are about how only a select percentage of penguins choose the same mates in life, accompanying an image of husband, wife and daughter sitting together, looking out across the water. As the credits roll, the audience is treated to images of what we’re meant to assume is Bernadette’s third architectural miracle: the Antarctic research center she designed.