Best known as an editor, senior vice president at HarperCollins and an essayist, Karen Rinaldi’s first novel, The End of Men, contains the thread of a plot you might already recognize from Maggie’s Plan, a film released theatrically in May of 2016. Yet somehow, the film managed to come out exactly a year and one month before the book. How, a reader/viewer might wonder? Well, the story behind The End of Men is something that had been kicking around in Rinaldi’s head for quite some time, herself a composite of all the heroines in the novel: Anna, Isabel, Beth and, of course, Maggie. The “antagonist,” Georgette, on the other hand, falls somewhere on the spectrum of all our moments of high-strungness.
With the seed of the idea planted roughly fifteen years ago while commuting on the New Jersey Transit bus system, Rinaldi “wrote on that commute as a way of honoring [her] many friends who were living similar, hectic lives. [They] were pushing the boundaries of accomplishment–breadwinners and mothers, living life according to [their] own rules–with all of the conflict that portends. Yet [she] didn’t see any of [their] stories represented in the media.” It was upon watching their two sons at a fencing lesson (bougie and New York as fuck, yes) one day that Rinaldi rehashed one of the more secondary plots of the novel that had been germinating in her mind to her friend, Rebecca Miller. It was about a woman who finds herself having an affair with a married man named John (eventually played by Ethan Hawke) and soon finding that she’s more interested in the child she’s had with him than the man himself.
As Rinaldi recounted, “Rebecca was looking for material for a new film. I told her the story of a woman named Maggie, who decides to give her husband back to his first wife–a plotline from The End of Men. ‘What is that?’ Rebecca asked. ‘I love it! I want it to be my next movie.'” So it was that Miller had rekindled the desire within Rinaldi to complete the manuscript that was at last ready to be seen come to fruition.
For those who saw the movie, it’s evident upon reading The End of Men that many of all the primary aspects of the original characters and narrative remain in place, including the term plucked from the very pages of the book about Maggie’s profession entailing being a “bridge between art and commerce”–except in her literary incarnation, Maggie works as a publicist for, among other entities, RHM (Red Hot Mama), a company that specializes in lingerie specifically for pregnant women. Conversely, in her filmic form, Maggie is a director of business for the art and design students at The New School, which is how she encounters John Harding (Hawke) after their checks get mixed up because of their similar last names. With more bravura than movie Maggie, book Maggie actually helps a student to execute his plan to “find practical applications for [his] work with commercial enterprises. She’d caught the media’s attention with a stunt she miraculously pulled off at the Guggenheim Museum on behalf of a skateboarding urban studies major and Sector 9 skateboards. Outfitted with four GoPros, the student rode down the spiral ramp of the iconic Frank Lloyd Wright building and out the front door.” Movie Maggie, on the other hand, only jokingly makes this as a suggestion to her student while talking to him on the phone. So it is that these subtle differentiations in character make the film and book stand apart from one another as two unique works.
When reading the book, one doesn’t envision Greta Gerwig inhabiting this character’s skin. Sure, she’s supposed to be a pushover. But something about the Maggie in the novel comes across as slightly less of a glutton for punishment and masochism. It’s more as though she doesn’t want to be the one responsible for both her daughter and the children from John’s previous marriage to Georgette (which Julianne Moore brings to life on the screen with ideal comedic timing), so much as she has to be. But movie Maggie seems to vaguely get off on her martyrdom. Much the same way Anna, a mother of two and co-founder of RHM, does in The End of Men.
Adding her own personal touches to the personality of Maggie where she can, Miller also renders her a Quaker in the film, lending something of a strong foundation for the motives behind why she might feel morally obligated to not make it such “a waste” to abandon John after having broken up his marriage. Her friend, Tony (Bill Hader), a sounding board addition created for the screenplay, views this Quaker/morality-based need of hers to fix everything to be ultimately detrimental to all involved as he rants of her plan to matchmake Georgette back together with John: “You can’t take everything and stuff it back in the box… Why can’t you just leave your husband like any normal human being? Love is messy, it’s illogical, it’s wasteful and it’s messy. And it leaves these loose threads that go out all over the place… Little Miss Quaker Two Shoes is gonna do the right thing, but you always somehow screw it up.”
But Maggie, in spite of her hurt feelings and negative input from both Georgette herself and Tony, reminds the former that John is at his best and most intellectually productive when he has another big ego to contend with. As she phrases it, “It’s thinking about you that stops him from only thinking about himself.” And though she tries her best to get back into the spirit of the relationship, it doesn’t ever quite make sense to force what isn’t there. Where a romantic getaway to the beach in the novel is traded in for a “local adventure” in Chinatown onscreen as a means to reignite the romance that’s been lost between them, we get the same gist of the problems between Maggie and John that just won’t go away, including Maggie’s desire for another child. In a sense stronger than book Maggie for her ability to say out loud to John, “We should’ve just been an affair,” movie Maggie still manages to extricate herself in the same manner: with the plan of banking on Georgette and John’s continued mutual love for one another.
Maggie’s knack for secrecy and strategy is established from the outset of the film, when after freshly inseminating herself with the sperm provided to her by an old college classmate named Guy (Travis Fimmel), John knocks on her door to confess his feelings and cajole her into bed. Knowing in the back of her mind three years later that there could be a chance Lily isn’t John’s, she never comes clean about the night of her conception. The often creepy, piercing aura of Guy feels as though it’s meant to be a substitute for the man Maggie lusts after in The End of Men, someone she constantly encounters who she eventually refers to as Blue Eyes. Except that book Maggie realizes men are a luxury she can’t afford, whereas movie Maggie offers the suggestion that she could be susceptible to love once again. Yet the common filament between both versions is this: “She had always felt that [New York] was her first and most constant lover–and a generous one, providing plenty of opportunity for philandering of one kind or another.” A comfort to the twenty-first century woman all too aware that, to quote from the Elena Ferrante interview placed at the beginning of The End of Men, “Even if we’re constantly tempted to lower our guard–out of love, or weariness, or sympathy, or kindness–we women shouldn’t do it. We can lose from one moment to the next everything that we have achieved.”
While, in many ways, Maggie’s Plan itself loses from its attempt at being a more original solution to the problem of the rom-com’s current banality, that it can stand on its own as a screenplay is a testament to the potential of development from the mere kernel of an idea in its literary form. A symbiosis that has thrived since the early days of cinema.