‘The Storied Life of AJ Fikry’ Author Opens Up About the Book-to-Screen Process

“The Storied Life of AJ Fikry” is the first of Gabrielle Zevin’s novels to be adapted for English-language movie theaters (and is now streaming on Prime Video). Her book “Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac” made it to a wide theatrical release in Japan, and Zevin has worked on countless other adaptation projects like screenwriting for “Conversations with Other Women,” for which she has an Independent Spirit Award nomination, as well as the adaptation of her most recent novel, “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” which she is currently working on. But she’s been hesitant to let one of her own books be adapted in the past.

“I’ve always been concerned that if it wasn’t exactly the right set of people, it would turn into something gross or something not right, so there’s never been the exact right set of people for me to want to make a movie with,” she said in an interview with TheWrap.

Published in 2014, “The Storied Life of AJ Fikry” follows grumpy bookstore owner AJ Fikry (Kunal Nayyar), who runs the small haven for readers on Alice Island. Fikry’s wife died in a car accident, and he has taken to isolating himself ever since, retiring to his apartment above Island Books, until a series of unfortunate events change his whole life.

Also Read:
How ‘Luckiest Girl Alive’ Stars Mila Kunis and Chiara Aurelia Played 3 Versions of the Same Character

As for how she feels about this particular book to screen adaptation and its release into theaters (and more broadly the world), she has mastered the psychological separation of book and film.

“As soon as I’m done with a book, it’s dead to me. I don’t know if I’m broken inside, but I don’t have that feeling of, ‘Oh, wow. Look at my world brought to life’ and I think that’s because I was so granularly involved in every part of it,” she said. “So in a sense, I wasn’t like that author walking onto the set and everything’s built. I was involved in every part of it: development, production and post production.”  

Filming began in November 2021, and the film landed in select theaters Oct. 7, with visual effects taking up until release to complete. Zevin, whose first trip to theaters post-COVID was for this film, adapted the screenplay and produced the film, with her husband Hans Canosa directing.

“This one felt a little bit easier because so much of it is about storytelling, and about the structure of stories itself, so I think knowing that, it kind of easily worked into a three-act structure despite the fact that it takes place over time,” Zevin said. “It has a very sort of pure storytelling construction.”

The unfolding of AJ’s storied installments takes place from the perspectives of all of the peripheral characters in his life from his sister-in-law Ismay (Christina Hendricks) and her husband (Scott Foley) to Police Chief Lambiase (David Arquette) who helps AJ try to track down the rare copy of “Tamerlane” as well as the parents of Maya (played by Charlotte Thanh Theresin, Jordyn McIntosh and Blaire Brown), the orphaned young girl AJ later comes to adopt after growing attached to her.

Vertical Entertainment
Vertical Entertainment

“If you look at the structure of it, all of the major characters have time in the story in which they tell the story, so it ends up being more about the ways in which this man’s life are formed from the stories people tell about his life,“ Zevin said. “It has this sort of structure that has to do with something that you can do more in movies, which is play with point of view in a more profound way.”

Amelia (Lucy Hale) completes the puzzle for AJ, who, after a brusque first encounter with her, falls in love with the agent for Knightley press after she consistently visits him, and they bond over books. Amelia’s favorite book, “The Late Bloomer,” becomes a symbol for AJ once he breaks his stubborn streak of refusing to read memoirs.

“One of the things that’s kind of unique to movies is obviously editing and the cut and to be able to tell the story with montage, but we have this travel montage where you see someone coming to Island three times: the beginning, middle and end of the script,” Canosa said. “In the middle one, it’s our second journey with Amelia Island books. And what I loved about what Gabrielle did for that montage is its storytelling. There are keys being struck, and the idea that she’s writing an email to AJ that she will never send about her fear and that this won’t work out and her frustration that she had that [what] they have, this love, just might not be practical. To me, it’s such a sophisticated exquisite use of voiceover.” 

Zevin described the same scene as ironic because the montage contains romantic scenes of Amelia and AJ together. After AJ and Amelia have worked things out, culminating in AJ’s arrangement of an unexpectedly chaotic reading of the later by one ‘Leon Freedman’ (who is actually portrayed by three different men), the couple gets married lives together happily as a family, with Maya blossoming as a young reader and writer. A couple final twists pull at the heartstrings, including AJ receiving some devastating news about his health and some stories told in the wake of his registering the consequences.

Also Read:
Lena Dunham Explains Why She Changed the ‘Catherine Called Birdy’ Ending

“That is the way I can play with intertextuality, but it’s more using what cinema has to offer which is points of view and montage,” Zevin said.

Regarding the book to screen pipeline, Zevin notes that many books go to television instead of film, which gives more time to flesh out the story fully.

“I sort of still like what happens when you’re thrown into a narrative that is two hours and shows you this intense period of a person’s life, but I think there are ways in which people are kind of gotten used to or even crave this longer form,” she said.

She also enjoys the surrender required at movie theaters, where physical transportation into the film’s world can prove more successful than streaming at home, where distractions are abundant. As for losses or gains in the adaptation process, Zevin chooses to focus more on the message left with viewers, who hopefully appreciate the real life emotions evoked.

“I don’t think people should look at adaptation as a series of losses. The movie is not as reliant on intertextuality as the book is,” she said. “I think there are plenty of people out there that still crave stories that move and transport them. I don’t personally want to watch things that are just spectacle, violence or just gore. I personally still want to watch stories that are about human characters having human experiences.”

“The Storied Life of AJ Fikry” is now streaming on Prime Video.

Also Read:
The 55 Best Movies on Netflix Right Now