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Cat Person: A Viral Short Story Becomes a Movie

By Lori Perkins

The movie version of the New Yorker short story “Cat Person” will probably be as controversial as the story itself because most people don’t understand it. They want to, but they want to be spoon fed, and both the story and the film are just much more complicated than that, which make them both so exceptional.

One upon a time in America things just were – they were just one thing, and it was so much easier to categorize, market and review. A book was a romance or a mystery or a horror novel. A movie was a romcom or a chick flick or a horror film. You just never mixed the streams.

I think streaming and COVID lockdown changed all that. Yes, feminists like horror; sports enthusiasts like erotic romance (one of my male colleagues once told me not to market sports erotica in a sports bio and I informed him that men might want to read women’s fantasies about sports players – he was shocked – we sold many copies of both books).

Anyway, Cat Person is the kind of film that mixes desire and the undercurrent of fear, but, like the short story it was based on, mostly from the female perspective.

The short story told the tale from 20 year-old Margot’s perspective of “dating” the 30-something Robert. At first, she is attracted to this cipher-ish older man but she then realizes he is not all that she had hoped he would be, after a dreadful kiss and truly awkward sex (brilliantly written in the short story and brilliantly shot and acted in the film). After failing to respond to his desire to make this into a relationship, she ghosts him, only to be bitterly scorned with a series of pleading texts followed by the texted word “whore,” when Robert finally realizes that he had been rejected.

As we all know, that is how the short story ended. Six years ago, that was still a shocking ending. Post Harvey Weinstein and countless #MeToo revelations later in every field, as well as Promising Young Woman, that ending is not as shocking. It’s almost a given now, which makes the movie’s opening quote from Margaret Atwood about how men fear women will laugh at them, and women are afraid men will kill them not only the perfect opening to the film, but perhaps to the decade.

The film fills in a lot of the story’s gaps, giving Margot a feminist best friend who doesn’t like Robert without even meeting him; a quirky professor (played by Isabella Rosalini!) who seems to metaphorically caution her about dating by way of the mating habits of insects; a mom and step dad she goes home to with an almost equally awkward gendered family performance for her stepdad’s birthday and an asexual ex-boyfriend which rounds out her dating history.

RomanceDailyNews was fortunate enough to interview the director Susanna Fogel, via Zoom on the day the movie opened.

How did you come to be the director of this movie?

I developed it with Michelle Ashford, the writer, who knew the short story. I had worked with her before.

How did you expand it and add a whole different ending where Robert comes off as much less of a dick?

We wanted an adaptation that would serve the fans [of the story] as well as showing the psychology of this young woman. We addressed [both] the anger in the story and the anger [at] the story because it was being heralded as legit literature [having gone viral after being published in The New Yorker, the first story in the magazine to ever do that]. But things have changed since the zeitgeist of 2017. It’s how we make change. Responding to change. Robert is “old-fashioned” but [the film] gave an opportunity for Robert to weigh in.

How involved was Kristen Roupenian, the author of the short story, in the film? Has she seen it?

Yes, she’s seen the movie. She’s actually doing a Q & A with me tonight, at Columbia University [my alma mater]. She’s wise and profound and Zen about the process of being adapted…She recognized the specificity of the medium of film.

What were your influences in making the film?

Parasite, because of its humor and horror. It was a heightened thriller. It was a comedy of manners, a snapshot of class and then a bloodbath. It was an unexpected journey. The pacing is similar.

Margot is a movie-savvy person, which informs her projections of Robert, her imagined therapy scene is out of Woody Allen movie central casting. The imagined scenes [of Robert’s violence towards her] are straight out of a slasher movie in which the woman never has any agency. There’s a little foreboding, a little discomfort [throughout the movie]

It was also influenced by It Follows and Let the Right One In

What about the dog in the movie, and the one glimpse of a cat?

The movie plays with [our perception of] what a cat person is.

The dog [at the beginning of the film] is predatory, [displaying the] pushiness of a dog whereas a cat keeps on approaching, a dog can be aggressive but alluring and affectionate.

Fogel suggested that Robert was both a like a cat and a dog – the truth was in the eye of the beholder, which was Margot, who changed her mind.

She mentioned the comment Robert made in the last act of the movie where he says to Margot, “If you had liked me, this would have been our story.”

Said Fogel, “There are so many stories about men wearing women down, women playing hard to get.”

This movie asks us to question the romance troupes and the stories we tell ourselves.


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