Great literature shows us how silly and staid are the categories we use in everyday life; it points us beyond the clichés with which we dismiss the complexities around us. We are surrounded by strange and complicated people, enigmas even to themselves, and we resort to stereotype to make sense of it all. He’s a “creep”; she’s a “whore”. “Cat Person”, Kristen Roupenian’s 2017 short story, was a brilliant example of this: in prose that is withholding, interior and sparse, a young woman becomes infatuated with a slightly older man, spends an awkward night with him, disgusted by his body but proud of her own, and then stops responding to his attempts at contact. They run into each other a few months later, and he texts her asking what happened: had she not felt the connection he had? Again, she ignores his messages, increasingly pathetic and cruel, until he finally sends her one word: “Whore.”
Roupenian’s story ran in the New Yorker in December 2017, as stories of Harvey Weinstein’s exploits ran in the New York Times. It went viral, and earned Roupenian a $1m book deal and the sale of the movie rights – but the merit of the work was drowned out by the noise. In think piece after think piece, “Cat Person” was called a “piece” or “article” rather than a “story” or “fiction”, as if it were a feminist statement or confession of personal trauma. In reality, the story is a bold depiction of female narcissism, inspired, weirdly enough, by Roupenian’s discovery that a man she dated had had a relationship with a woman much younger than him. Like Lena Dunham’s Girls, “Cat Person” is a profound work that revealed its brilliance only years later, freed from the stifling effects of “the discourse”.
So what version of “Cat Person” did the director Susanna Fogel (co-writer of Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart) want to make? She doesn’t seem to know, leading to this bizarre chimera of a film, so absurd that reportedly the offers it received from film distributors at Sundance were “catastrophic”. The world of the story is dull, empty, lonely; the world of the film is sassy and saccharine. Fogel has made a Booksmart-esque buddy comedy focused on Margot (Emilia Jones) and her toxic friend Taylor (Geraldine Viswanathan), a man-hating Reddit moderator who seems to hate Margot as well. Everything’s too pretty: Emilia Jones, the movie theatre, the modernist palace where Margot watches her mother argue with a butler about ice sculptures. In perhaps the film’s most idiotic sequence, an archaeology professor with an ant farm (Isabella Rossellini) delivers a long monologue about how ants copulate and die.
The film is astute about Margot’s psychology. Text flirtations are hard to portray in film, and Fogel does an excellent job making us feel her excitement at meeting Robert (Succession’s Nicholas Braun) – and her horrible embarrassment when his replies dwindle. We see, too, how much her attraction to him is really her pleasure in his attraction to her. It’s surprisingly honest about how Margot is driven by her own beauty. She consents over and over again; she does, by any reasonable definition, lead Robert on. That might be a calculated choice: Fogel said they “made Robert a person with interiority and dimensionality” because, “If we had made a very internal story that lived and died in Margot’s head… I don’t know a lot of men who would go to that movie, just because of the double standards. That’s not how the film economy is driven.”
But Fogel also knows what moviegoers expect. “Cat Person” is a subtle story of mutual incomprehension – but it’s more marketable to say it’s about toxic men. So we open with the familiar Margaret Atwood quote: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” It frames the film, which Fogel awkwardly tries to imbue with horror – initially through panic attack fantasies but eventually with thriller-esque plot twists involving weapons, stalking, and a final holocaust of flames.
Its problems run far deeper than this. “Cat Person” is horrible material for a film, as Roupenian herself has joked. It’s a claustrophobically psychological story about being stuck in your own head, in which almost nothing happens. Fogel fails to dramatise this: during the awkward, ambivalent sex scene at the story’s heart, we see a second Margot standing in the room talking to her, telling her to stop – an unnecessary choice that patronises the audience. This film is a cautionary tale about lazy adaptation.
Cat Person feels like a relic – a strange reminder of the strangeness of the very recent past.
“Cat Person” is in cinemas from 27 October
[See also: How streaming ate itself]
This article appears in the 25 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Fog of War