Creating Gilly Hopkins

Author Katherine Paterson’s life was profoundly impacted when she became a foster parent. In fact, the influence of fostering was so intense that one of her first books, The Great Gilly Hopkins, was written around the experience.

“My husband and I had been asked to be temporary foster parents for two brothers who had landed at the airport with signs around their necks from Cambodia,” Katherine said.

Since the couple had adopted their youngest daughter from Lutheran Social Services, the Patersons seemed like the perfect temporary family for these two boys and Katherine thought it would be no problem to go from four kids to six.

Katherine Paterson, author of The Great Gilly Hopkins. Photo: KatherinePaterson.com
Katherine Paterson, author of The Great Gilly Hopkins. Photo: KatherinePaterson.com

“The honeymoon was over in a day-and-half,” said the now 83-year-old Katherine. “They didn’t speak English and the older brother was threatening to kill his younger brother on a daily basis.”

The impact of the boys’ six-month stay with the family before they were reunited with their biological family was profound. As Katherine’s thoughts turned negative toward the boys, she was shocked by her own way of thinking.

“I flunked as a foster mother,” Katherine said. “I was saying things like: ‘I can’t solve that problem, they’re only going to be here a couple of weeks.’ When I heard what I was saying inside my head, I began to realize I was treating two human beings as if they were disposable.”

Reflecting on their time in her home, Katherine decided she would write a book from the child’s perspective.

“I wrote the book to ask myself how I would feel if the world treated me as if I was disposable,” Katherine said. “And that’s Gilly. I learned a lot from writing a book.”

That focus on the child’s foster care experience became the award-winning The Great Gilly Hopkins, which tells the tale of 11-year-old Gilly as she moves into her newest foster home with Maime Trotter. Published in 1978, the book transitioned to the movie screen with the release of the Lionsgate film “The Great Gilly Hopkins” in October. Katherine’s two sons, John and David, worked with their mother closely to create the film.

“I love the movie adaptation of the book,” Katherine said. “David’s a much better script writer than I am so I was pretty happy to trust him with that.”

Co-producers, her sons are not only big fans of their mother’s work but also specifically of Gilly’s story.

“Gilly is the bad guy even though she’s the hero and the protagonist,” David Paterson said. “Gilly is a very flawed character. It’s a real American story. Gilly is so much more grounded in real life.”

For David, bringing Gilly to the big screen seemed like the perfect next step after receiving much success in adapting his mother’s most widely read book, Bridge to Terabithia, to a movie as well. David had already adapted The Great Gilly Hopkins into a play, so the film seemed like the next logical step.

“The book is just as successful now, maybe more so now, than when it first came out,” David said. “Her stories are timeless.”

David said he believes many children in the foster care system or who have experienced challenges in their childhood will relate to the film and to Gilly’s character. Ultimately, a message of hope is one that he wishes will especially hit home for those viewers.

“I think hope is probably the strongest theme of both the book and the film,” David said. “Kids in the foster care system have a level of hopelessness. Hope is one of the most powerful components of human beings. Hope can be a powerful tool in getting through some elements of life.”

Much of the hope is provided in the film through Gilly’s foster mother, Maime Trotter. Having Kathy Bates commit to playing the role was a long-time wish for David and his mother.

“I’d always thought Kathy Bates would be perfect for Maime Trotter,” David said. “She has a universality to her that’s welcoming and a ‘don’t mess with me’ attitude at the same time. Kathy just fit the mold.”

While Katherine had little input in the casting, she, too, was hopeful that Bates would agree to playing the role of Maime Trotter.

“Maime Trotter is my favorite character,” Katherine said. “I thought I’d give the kids in this book the best foster mother. I won’t ever think of Maime Trotter, my absolute favorite character, without seeing Kathy Bates’ face.”

Bates shared in a film promotional interview: “My niece had the opportunity to foster a child. I was able to really infuse Maime with real experiences that I had learned with my family. To see someone really save someone’s life and really change a path is magnificent.”

Once Bates was secured for the role, other actors willingly signed onto the project. With a cast that includes Julia Stiles, Octavia Spencer, Glenn Close and Bill Cobb, the movie has a wealth of talent included. And with Gilly played by Canadian Actress Sophie Nelisse, the book comes to life on the screen.

“We were very lucky with Sophie,” David said. “She does a terrific job of becoming an American in the film. We ended up with a terrific, terrific cast.”

David and Katherine are excited to reach a broader audience, but also hope that it represents the foster care community well and is one that kids in care and foster parents alike can relate to.

“We hope we do a good job representing those on the frontlines of foster care,” David said. “The film acknowledges all the hard work of foster families everywhere.”

For Katherine, the story is something near to her heart and her own experiences. At one point in her career, Katherine was asked to visit a prison to discuss The Great Gilly Hopkins with inmates who had recently read the book. She was surprised when she asked how many of them had been in foster care and all of them raised their hand. That moment has had a profound impact on Katherine, who believes many children relate to Gilly’s experience.

“Especially for kids who feel they are disposable, I would hope by seeing the film they know they aren’t,” Katherine said. “You can’t choose what happened to you, but you can choose what you do with it.”

The film becomes available in stores and online Dec. 6.

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Kim Phagan-Hansel
About Kim Phagan-Hansel 46 Articles
Managing Editor for Fostering Media Connections

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