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Print to Projector: Special Topics in Calamity Physics

By  · Published on January 23rd, 2010

As the only literate Reject, it’s my duty to find the latest, the greatest and the untouched classics that would make great source material for film adaptations. I read so you don’t have to. This week, Print to Projector presents:

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

by Marisha Pessl

“Before I tell you about Hannah Schneider’s death, I’ll tell you about my mother’s.”


Overly educated Blue van Meer is 16, has a strange name, and her transient professor of a father has decided to settle down for her senior year of high school. When she falls into an exclusive clique headed up by film teacher Hannah Schneider, she ends up having to be the one to figure out why Hannah killed herself…or who murdered her.


At its core, this book is a mystery novel that takes several hundred pages to get started. Fortunately, the entirety of that lengthy introduction to the sleuth-y parts is a coming of age story hidden behind a character study. You have a young girl who is far smarter than you will ever be recounting her family life – her dead mother and her alive father, a man who travels from school to school charming the pants off of everyone and generally being a card-carrying Mensa member who buys into the accoutrement that comes with the tweed jacket.

Blue is a girl who has figured out a lot but has barely scratched the surface, and it’s almost because she’s so curious about people and life that she is so stunted in understanding either.

The drama that surrounds her world involves fitting in with the intelligent elite of her school – the private school equivalent of royalty who look like supermodels (and probably are models after school) and can quote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner on command. They are superhuman. Blue is not. But she’s close, and it’s clear that she belongs with them if not near them.

But those friends are mercurial. The magic of their allure is in never being pinned down, and that causes a lot of ups and downs and uncertainty about social standing and the nature of friendship. On the very tip top of the precarious pile of peers is Hannah Schneider – the film teacher at the school who is equal parts Ancient Goddess and total mess. She is nearing middle-age, has a thousand postcards and photos from her adventurous life, but she lives alone and hangs out with teenagers most of the time.

And as the very first line of the book promises, the text is very much about her death, what it means to Blue, and a mystery surrounding it that must be solved.

That’s when it all kicks into high gear. Blue puts the pieces together as only a studious young teen can, and she begins to see Hannah for who she really was in life. Blue also starts to see that Hannah might have been attracted to Blue’s father for more than his dashing bookishness.

Potential Problems

Where to even begin? Structurally, the novel takes place over a short time span, but an enormous amount of action takes place. It starts on the road, travels into Blue’s past, skips around to random events and people, focuses on her father, focuses closer on Hannah, trails into Blue’s love life, and then heads into mystery territory with just enough time left over for a twist or two at the end.

There’s no three-act structure to be found. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but it could lead to a very convoluted story. Even worse, if someone tried to unearth three clean acts from the book, it could be completely robbed of its magic.

Then there are the elements of the book that would be challenging to translate to the screen. As a sort of satire on academia, it includes a ton of bibliographical entries at the end of references and quotes from both classic literature and pop culture. Finding an interesting way to include them would be a one in a million shot.

There are also hand-drawn visual aids to worry about.

More so than just a few footnotes, the tone of the book itself mocks academia by overloading the reader with it. It simultaneously speaks to the bookworms by giving them something to “get” and laughing at them by showing how irritating the culture can become. The film version would either have to abandon that concept or take it all the way over the top – crossing over the line from tedium to admirable absurdity.

The chapters are also titled after classic works, and the book is segmented as a syllabus with a final exam at the end. That aspect would probably have to be scrapped.

The Pitch

This is the easy part.

Writing: A masochistic part of me really wants to suggest Diablo Cody, but it would be more like the Masters Degree-holding version of Diablo Cody. Or the Librarian Diablo Cody. She would bring far too much pop and not enough culture to it.

But my choice isn’t perfect either. As much as I’d love Charlie Kaufman to script it, I think he would have the potential to make it too weird. However, he is the best choice because he is probably the only working screenwriter that would have a chance at maintaining the structure of the book while creating an entertaining film. The characters are also right up his alley – strange and motivated by obsessive driving forces.

Directing: Instead of trying to be clever, I’ll state the obvious choice: Wes Anderson. It might as well be a sequel to Rushmore sprinkled with the joy and life from Fantastic Mr. Fox. Plus, Anderson doing a mystery? Perfection.

Starring: There are really three main characters here: Blue, a sophisticated nerd; her father, a vagabond scholar; and Hannah, the warm little light the universe teeters around.

Blue would either have to be a young unknown or someone like Amanda Seyfried who could easily pass for a teenager but has the acting talent to make the character likeable. It’s not a terribly difficult role. Maybe Kat Dennings? I’d honestly settle for anyone that’s not on “Gossip Girl.”

Her father is a brilliant mess of a man that really reminded me of Sam Rockwell’s character in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind if he hadn’t been a crass moron. Rockwell can be dapper and diabolical – exactly what the role demands.

Hannah is the most difficult part to cast. An older version of a manic pixie dream girl (dream woman?), Charlie from High Fidelity, a woman worthy of worship who is lonely at her core. Perhaps it’s the physical description, perhaps it’s my desperate wish for a return to glory, perhaps it’s my view of Hannah as a grown up version of Penny Lane – but I think Kate Hudson would be perfect.

She’d have to dig deep to a time when she could act, but if she did, she’d carry the damned movie. We would worship her, the same elusive yet lonely character that Cameron Crowe made her out to be.

As for the Blue Bloods – the super-exclusive clique that floats around her – they could probably be played by the cast of “Gossip Girl.”

Who Owns It

Back in 2007, Scott Rudin purchased the rights to make the movie for Miramax. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson) are scheduled to co-write/co-direct, and the movie is slated for a 2011 release.

But as with all things in the future, there’s been no other movement on adapting it going on 3 years now, so it’s all subject to change. Or not happen at all.


This novel is so absolutely brilliant. I’m not surprised that it was snagged early after its publication, but Rudin and company haven’t done anything with it. They should. I have to admit that the audience is probably limited (to exactly the number of people who loved Rushmore), but it would speak to that audience in a major way.

And admit it to yourself. You want to see Kate Hudson as a sexy film teacher.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.