From page to screen: Acclaimed novel by Ocean Vuong to be made into movie

  • Florence writer Ocean Vuong, who’s won numerous awards for his work, is now seeing his debut novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” adapted to film. PHOTO BY TOM HINES

  • Vuong’s novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” is being adapted for film by A24, the company behind films such as “Moonlight” and “Ladybird.” Vuong’s novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” is being adapted for film by A24, the company behind films such as “Moonlight” and “Ladybird.”

Staff Writer
Thursday, January 14, 2021

Among a long list of honors and accomplishments, poet and novelist Ocean Vuong has notched yet another: His celebrated 2019 novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” is being made into a film.

The novel, which was long-listed for a National Book Award and won a number of other awards, is being adapted for film by A24, the independent New York-based entertainment company that has produced or distributed acclaimed films including “Ladybird,” “The Disaster Artist,” Moonlight” and “Room.”

The news was recently announced on an A24 podcast in which Vuong, who lives in Florence and teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, spoke with Texas novelist Bryan Washington, whose debut novel, “Memorial,” is being adapted by A24 for a limited TV series.

“Now seems like as good a time as any to announce that we’re also busy working on the film adaptation of ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,’” an announcer says at the beginning of the podcast.

Few details about the production are revealed, and Vuong could not be reached for comment. But during the conversation with Washington, he said he felt confident that A24 would do a good job adapting his novel because the producers are “good readers” who fully appreciate literature and take that into account when translating fiction to film.

“I felt like when I was talking to Scott (Rudin) and Eli (Bush), it was like talking to writers and readers first,” Vuong said. “When it comes to literature, they really held their ground in their field of knowledge. And I loved the work they’d done, and they read well. They’re good readers.”

Vuong said A24 had actually contacted him before “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” was published and had wanted to announce the film adaptation months ago. He asked, though, that the announcement be held until after he had completed a lengthy book tour — but in the end, he noted, “I’m really happy that A24’s doing it.”

Vuong first gained widespread attention in 2016 with the release of his debut collection of poetry, “Night Sky With Exit Wounds,” which wowed critics and won numerous honors, including a Whiting Award in the U.S. and a T.S. Eliot Prize in Great Britain. In much of that work, Vuong reflected on his experience as an immigrant to the U.S. — he was born in Vietnam and came to the U.S. with his family at age 2 — and as a gay man.

“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” also probes that ground, telling the story of a young Vietnamese-American man, Little Dog, growing up in Hartford, Connecticut and his attempt to establish his identity in a new country. Told in the form of a letter from the narrator to his mother, the novel offers a non-linear narrative — part fiction, part memoir, part poetry — that reflects Little Dog’s own fractured experience as an immigrant and gay man.

“On Earth” was included on many media “best book” of the year lists in 2019 and won the American Book Award, the Mark Twain American Voice in Literature Award, the Massachusetts Book Award and other honors. Vuong also won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in fall 2019, the “genius grant” that gives awardees $625,000 over five years.

On the A24 podcast, Vuong said Chinese-American director and cinematographer Bing Liu will be directing the A24 adaptation of his novel and writing the screenplay, which is a thrill: “I mean, Bing is a genius in himself.” Liu is consulting closely with him about the script, Vuong noted, with the two of them talking regularly.

“That was the beauty of it, which is like, ‘OK, I wrote the book, but what if five of us wrote the book? What would that look like?’” Voung said. “That sort of invitation to play. To play and to bring Bing’s larger, expansive political gaze behind the camera was really exciting to me.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.