The Lost Daughter explained: the difference between film and book

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This article reveals the explained plot and the detailed events in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The lost Daughter, revealing its meaning and storyline. We recommend you to read it only after watching the movie, and not before, in order to preserve the pleasure of the first vision.

The Lost Daughter is a novel by Elena Ferrante published in 2006, and transposed to film in 2021 by Maggie Gyllenhaal, on her directorial debut. The film received the best screenplay award at the Venice 2021 film festival and was nominated for three Oscars and two Golden Globes.

The plot

The story is a tale of introspection starring Leda Caruso, a famous translator on vacation in Greece. Leda (in the film played by Olivia Colman) is a middle-aged teacher who gets somehow involved in the lives of others during that vacation, and comes into contact with Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young mother who loses her little daughter one morning at the beach and panics. Her daughter is immediately found, thanks to the help of Leda, who, however, steals her daughter’s beloved doll. Throughout the rest of the story, Nina engages in the search for that doll, which her daughter is very fond of, and Leda observes all this with a detached gaze, while still keeping the doll with herself.

During the evolution of the story, Leda retraces her past as a young mother through flashbacks, and lets her nature as a bad mother emerge, until she retraces the moment in which she decided to abandon her two little daughters, leaving them to her ex-husband and her mother, to live her life away from the family, pursuing her professional ambitions and embarking on a sentimental affair with a fellow professor. As she will explain to Nina, that time was “incredible” for Leda, yet she will return home, three years later, only at the time when she was sincerely missing her daughters. She therefore also presents her return as a choice dictated simply by what she felt, therefore by selfishness.

The Lost Daughter | New Year's Eve Trailer | Netflix

The ending and the differences with the book

In the ending of the film, we see Leda welcoming Nina into the house and suddenly opening up to her: first she warns her that the depression that Nina feels at this moment will never go away and is part of the very condition of being a mother, then she reveals that she is a bad mother and shows the doll she had taken from Nina’s daughter, explaining that she took it for fun. Nina is shocked by all this and stabs her in the stomach with the hatpin that Leda had given her, running away from that house.

In the final scene of the flim, we see Leda driving the car in the night and driving away, only to have a car accident. The next morning we see her waking up on a beach, still with the bleeding wound in her stomach. Leda talks on the phone with her daughters, surprised and happy to hear her mother, telling her that “they thought she was dead”. Leda replies that in reality she is alive. An orange appears in her hand, a symbol of an intimate bond that her daughters had with her, when as a young mother she peeled it while playing with them.

The book actually ends slightly differently. After the accident Leda wakes up in the hospital. She talks to her daughters, who were worried that her mother was dead. Leda replies “I’m dead, but I’m fine.” This difference hides the double interpretation of the ending of the film, and of the book, which viewers question once the vision is over.

The explanation and the two interpretations

Both the book and the film leave room for two possible interpretations, due to the particularity of the final scene described. The book’s statement “I’m dead, but I’m fine” raises the question of whether Leda was actually dead in the accident, and therefore whether the final scene represents a fictitious situation, not a real one. Same thing in the film, the sudden appearance of the orange in Leda’s hand may suggest that that scene is not actually real, and that therefore Leda died in the accident.

However, it should also be taken into account that the story has always had a high symbolic content, which could still explain both endings. The sentence “I’m dead but I’m fine” in the book could be interpreted allegorically, with Leda admitting a death of her soul but still happy to hear her daughters. Same thing with the appearance of the orange, which represents the symbol of a moment in which Leda was a good mother, a sort of desire that takes shape in the final moment of the film.

Both the book and the film leave the two possible interpretations open, and therefore there is no final answer. Leda may actually be dead, or she may have survived and closes the story with a rapprochement with her daughters and her parental dimension.