When it was announced this week that Oprah Winfrey will star in the film adaptation of Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” much of the Internet could barely contain its glee.
The news, first reported by Deadline, was particularly sweet to fans of Skloot’s 2010 book about Lacks, an African American woman whose cells were taken without her knowledge while she was being treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951; she died shortly thereafter.
Lacks’ cell line, known to scientists and biology students everywhere as HeLa, was the first -- and for decades the only -- set of human cells that could reproduce over and over in a lab environment, like a petri dish.
HeLa cells became a vital tool for scientists and doctors, who used them to research diseases such as polio, cancer and AIDS.
As Skloot explained in her book, despite the many scientific advances made because of her cells, Lacks’ family wasn’t notified of their use, nor were they compensated for it. Part of this was due to scientific assumptions at the time, and later, when the family did hear from scientists and journalists, they were alarmed and concerned.
It was in this environment that Skloot endeavored to reach the family and understand their story, and became friends with Lacks’ adult daughter Deborah.
Winfrey will play Deborah in the HBO film, and two of Henrietta Lacks’ sons, and one of her granddaughters, will consult on the movie.
But who will play Skloot? When the author solicited unofficial suggestions on Twitter, and received quite a few. Skloot’s followers nominated Tatiana Maslany, Anna Kendrick, Emma Stone, Aubrey Plaza, Rachel McAdams and Skloot herself (“No chance,” responded Skloot).
The filmmakers could look to other films that have featured actresses playing the writers their movies were based on. Most recently, Reese Witherspoon starred as Cheryl Strayed in the 2014 film adaptation of Strayed’s memoir “Wild.” Witherspoon was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal.
Director Michael Winterbottom looked to Angelina Jolie to play Mariane Pearl in the 2007 film version of “A Mighty Heart,” based on Pearl’s memoir about the kidnapping and murder of her husband, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Jolie received widespread praise and a Golden Globe nomination for her performance.
Winona Ryder was given good reviews for her role as Susanna Kaysen in “Girl, Interrupted,” the 1999 film based on Kaysen’s memoir about her 18-month stay in a psychiatric hospital. It was Jolie, however, who stole the movie with her Academy Award-winning role as another patient in the hospital.
Similarly themed, but much less successful with critics, was the 2001 adaptation of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s “Prozac Nation,” which featured Christina Ricci as the author. Ricci’s performance was praised by some critics, but the movie received generally negative reviews.
Perhaps the oddest performance of a writer in a film based on her book was Meryl Streep in “Adaptation,” the 2002 movie (kind of) based on Susan Orlean’s “The Orchid Thief.” The film is about screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s attempt to write a screenplay based on Orlean’s book; Meryl Streep plays a fictionalized version of Orlean as a drug-using borderline sociopath who sleeps with the subject of her book and tries (unsuccessfully) to murder Kaufman.
There’s still time to cast Rebecca Skloot. The film, which will be written and directed by George C. Wolfe, is scheduled to begin shooting this summer.