As of 2022, only three women have won the Academy Award for Best Director. Only two women have ever won the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival. Not to mention, it took 56 years from the first award given to a woman in 1961 to the second, in 2017. The lack of representation and critical acclaim for female directors in the film industry is truly discouraging for women that are behind the camera.
So many women in the industry are sensational directors and never receive the rewards they deserve. Especially in a time when women should be represented equally in society, we should be exposed to more media directed, written, performed, composed, and produced by women. Nevertheless, it is the industry itself that limits access for women in these roles.
Below are some of these fabulous and trailblazing women who directed movie adaptations of popular novels that deserve to be known.
Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig
Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s coming of age story, Little Women, debuted in the US in 2019 as the 7th movie version of the novel. This adaptation stars Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, and Timothée Chalamet as the March women and their fanciful neighbor Laurie. The story explores the lives of the March sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy – during the 19th century, portraying strong female characters defying the odds of their financial and gendered dispositions in society.
Sony Pictures initiated the development of the film in 2013, with Amy Pascal coming on board to produce in 2015 and Gerwig hired to write its screenplay the following year. Using Alcott’s other writings as inspiration, Gerwig penned the script in 2018. She was made director that same year, with the film being the second she had solely directed. The film received critical acclaim, with particular praise for Gerwig’s screenplay and direction as well as the performances of the cast.
The film garnered a total of six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Ronan, Best Supporting Actress for Pugh, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score. The film won the award for Best Costume Design. It also earned 5 British Academy Film Award nominations, taking the award for Best Costume Design, and two Golden Globe Award nominations.
Gerwig first garnered attention after working on and appearing in several mumblecore movies, a subgenre of independent films characterized by naturalistic action. Between 2006 and 2009, she appeared in a number of films by Joe Swanberg as an actress but some of which she also co-wrote or co-directed. Before Little Women, Gerwig’s first solo directional venture was Ladybird, also starring Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet, and for which she was nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards.
Gerwig’s films tend to be based on true human experiences. She often pushes her actors to truly embody the character and act how they would in those situations, giving her films a new and revived sense of realism for the audience to engage with. And of course the little improvisations and Gerwig laughing along with the actors allows the story to be truthful and engaging not only for those watching but for those performing as well.
Little Women, 1994 adaptation
The 1994 adaptation of Little Women was also female directed. This was Gillian Armstrong, an Australian director whose specialty for historical romance and drama allowed her to capture the female perspective Alcott initially created back in 1868. Her direction for Little Women is considered her greatest Hollywood success. It was one of the most popular films of the year, and accentuated Armstrong’s portrayal of the intimate lives of strong female characters and their relationships with one another.
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, directed by Susan Johnson
Released on Netflix in 2018, Susan Johnson’s adaptation of Jenny Han’s novel of the same title stole the hearts of young romance lovers. The adaptation stars Lana Condor and Noah Centineo as Lara Jean and Peter. The classic tale of wanting to impress your crush by pretending to date the popular boy and then falling in love with him instead is perfectly captured by Johnson.
Johnson is an American film producer and director, known also for directing the 2016 comedy film Carrie Pilby. Johnson earned a full scholarship to the American Film Institute’s Conservatory where she earned her master’s degree in directing. During her time there she directed multiple short films and went on to start a career in directing and eventually production.
In 1992, along with music journalist Kevin Murphy, she founded the music video production company Vendetta Films and went on to start directing and producing music videos. In 2007, Johnson formed Braveart Films with actor Gregory Smith.
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before was Johnson’s first attempt at a directorial project mainstreamed for young audiences who were left wanting more. Production for the sequel began at the end of 2018, and the third installment started filming in summer of 2019. Fans were excited to see Han’s books come to life on the big screen. While the film didn’t exactly achieve critical acclaim, it became synonymous with a fun, cute, and relaxed Friday night movie for young girls everywhere.
American Psycho, directed by Mary Harron
American Psycho (2000) was directed by Mary Harron, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Guinevere Turner. The horror film is based on the 1991 novel by Bret Easton Ellis by the same name. It stars Christian Bale as the doubled character, Patrick Bateman; a New York City investment banker by day and a serial killer by night. The film blends horror and black comedy as a satirization of 1980s yuppie culture and consumerism.
Before Harron and Turner began writing the screenplay in 1996, many men were considered for the directorial role. She was even fired for hiring Bale over Leonardo DiCaprio but was rehired after Oliver Stone and DiCaprio found they couldn’t work together. Many men in the industry doubted Harron’s directorial capabilities.
Harron and Turner excised most of the novel’s violence outside four sequences of Bateman’s murders, finding most of the novel being too vulgar to put on screen. Harron recalled facing scrutiny for not delving into Bateman’s psychology and family history, but she felt that those aspects would simply humanize what is meant to be a depiction of true monstrosity and evil. Leaving such aspects out would allow Harron to separate Bateman further from society and humanity.
Beyond receiving mostly positive reviews, with praise for Bale’s performance and the screenplay, it attained a strong cult following. Fans began dissecting the multiple directorial choices made by Harron and claiming her genius as fact through the film’s final product.
So many of Harron’s directions are what make American Psycho such a perfect adaptation. For example, Harron and Bale excluded Leto from rehearsals of the murder of Paul Allen, so Leto’s expression of shock when Bale ran at him with an axe was that of genuine horror. It’s Leto’s uneasiness within the scene that perfectly captures Bateman’s Jekyll and Hyde moment.
Another perfect example of her choices making this film is during the police interview scene between Bale and Dafoe. The on-screen scene was made up of three separate takes in which Willem Dafoe was told three different directions.
One in which he knew Bateman was guilty, another sequence where he was unsure, and one in which he was assured of his innocence. Harron decided to snip these scenes together in order to create a sense of unease with the audience. They, as well as Dafoe’s character, were left wondering what was actually happening and if Bateman was truly killing people.
Harron truly proved herself a master of directorial art.
Bridget Jones’ Diary, directed by Sharon Maguire
The 2001 romantic comedy directed by Sharon Maguire is based on Fielding’s 1996 novel of the same name. It’s a reinterpretation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice. The adaptation stars Renée Zellweger as Bridget Jones, a 32-year-old British single woman who writes a diary which focuses on the things she wishes to happen in her life. However, her life changes when two men fight for her affection. Over the years, it has been hailed as part of British pop culture, with Bridget being cited as a cultural icon.
Maguire felt a very deep connection to Bridget’s story as writer Fielding had created the best friend character “Shazzah” to imitate Maguire herself. She then found that she not only saw herself in Shazzah, but also Bridget, a girl just in need of a little guidance in life. The film was in turn nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best British Film as well as the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy.
Bridget Jones’s Diary marked Maguire’s feature directorial debut, for which she gained much praise from critics. As well as having fun with the dialogue, Maguire played around with visual references in the film. The Dickensian portrayal of London, with storybook snowfall at the beginning and end of the film, was inspired by one of her favorite movies, It’s a Wonderful Life, as both movies are depictions of the ups and downs in life. Maguire’s direction created a movie that would last for decades and be remembered as a classic that you could sit down and watch without the feeling of rewatching the same boring narrative.
While Maguire didn’t return for the sequel film, she was contacted in 2015 about the third installment, Bridget Jones’ Baby. Having been away from the film business for years, she was nervous about reprising as a director. Nevertheless, we saw her returning for a sequel to the first film she’d ever directed. With the second film not gaining as much popularity as the first, the pressure was on for Maguire to revive this well-beloved character back to her Chardonnay-swinging prime. As a mother of around 40 herself, Maguire immediately connected with the script and signed on to the project.
She reconnected with the character and was able to direct Zellweger as purely and comedically as she did in the first film.
Me Before You, directed by Thea Sharrock
The 2016 movie adaptation of Jojo Moyes’ novel, Me Before You, was the directorial debut for Thea Sharrock. The film starred Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin as Louisa “Lou” Clarke and William “Will” Traynor. Lou is hired as a caregiver for Will who was in a car accident that left him as a tetraplegic. The story follows the two as they learn to become friends and even fall in love. It’s a truly tragic tale of the bubbly and lovable girl falling for the depressed boy who won’t change his mind about what he wants to do with his life. The ending will always leave you wanting answers.
Before she even began the casting process, Sharrock knew she wanted Emilia Clarke for the role of Lou, which has proven to be a tremendously good choice. Emilia perfectly captures Lou’s innocence and mixes it with her own maturity to create a pure and balanced character. It was Sharrock’s artistic direction alongside Clarke and Claflin’s emotional performance that created such a beautiful narrative for the film.
The vibrancy of Lou’s costume palette contrasts the neutral tones of everything surrounding Will and perfectly captures their dynamic as a couple. While some critics believe that Sharrock’s treatment of the material is too clumsy, others believe she perfectly emulates the emotions of Moyes’ novel and pairs the serious subjects neatly with the more light-hearted ones.
While Sharrock proved her ability to direct feature films, her true passion lies in the theater. In 2001, at age 24, she became the artistic director of London’s Southwark Playhouse, the youngest artistic director in British theater. In addition to work at the Playhouse, she served as an associate director on the long-running West End production of Art, directed works for the National Theatre and English Touring Theatre, and began her association with the Peter Hall Company.
Since the Moyes adaptation, Sharrock has directed the 2020 Disney adventure The One and Only Ivan, based on the children’s book of the same name.
The Beguiled, directed by Sofia Coppola
The 2017 American Southern Gothic thriller film written and directed by Sofia Coppola was based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Thomas P. Cullinan. It starred Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning.
The unexpected arrival of a wounded Union soldier at a girls school in Virginia during the American Civil War leads to jealousy and betrayal. The eerie directional choices made by Coppola truly places this narrative within the thriller genre while maintaining a sense of quiet and calm, which only adds more suspense for the audience.
After watching the 1971 adaptation of Cullinan’s story, Coppola was left contemplating ways she could update the film. Specifically, she was interested in telling the story from the women’s point of view, as opposed to the man’s.
Her obsession with the historic American South was a driving factor behind her acceptance of the directorial role. She was intrigued by the prospect of exploring the ways in which southern girls were taught to be lovely and cater to men and turn it around to see the repressed side of these trained women.
With this film, Coppola won the Palme D’Or and Best Director Award at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. She became the second woman– and the first American woman to ever win in the director’s category 56 years after the first female director won. While some critics stated that Coppola intended The Beguiled as a feminist work, Coppola has explained that she was not in favor of that title. Though she has said she is happy if others see the film in this way, she sees it as a film, rather, that possesses a female perspective—an important distinction.
Coppola began a career in the film industry as an infant cast in her father’s crime drama film The Godfather. She later transitioned her career into filmmaking by making her feature-length directorial debut with the coming-of-age drama The Virgin Suicides (1999), which so happened to be the first time she worked with Kirsten Dunst. A few years later, Coppola received the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for her comedy-drama Lost in Translation and became the third woman to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director.
While there’s less scarcity of women working behind the camera in the film industry, many of them go without acclaim for their phenomenal work. Hopefully one day women will be as rewarded for their work in film as much as men.
For more sensational women commanding their industry, explore some female authors here.
If you want to explore more about Alcott’s Little Women and its numerous adaptations, click here.