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“Bee Season” Flies onto the Big Screen

First, Myla Goldberg struck gold in print with her debut novel, Bee Season. Published by Doubleday in 2001 with an iconic Webster’s Dictionary-like cover, the book earned a handful of awards for fiction and accolades for its multi-layered story of a Jewish family in distress. Now, nearly four years later, Goldberg’s masterful storytelling is due to hit the big screen. On an as-yet undetermined release date in 2005, Fox Searchlight plans to release “Bee Season” the film. Actors Richard Cere and Juliette Binoche star as parents of a troubled brother and sister who explore spirituality as their parents’ marriage deteriorates.

At the heart of “Bee Season” is 9-year-old Eliza Neumann, whose bittersweet, coming-of-age story anchors the drama. Portrayed by newcomer Flora Cross, Eliza is a mediocre student who unexpectedly sweeps her school’s spelling bee. In the book, her parents are Jewish and her father leads a congregation. In the upcoming film, directors Scott McCehee and David Siegel recast Eliza’s father as a Jewish college professor, portrayed by Gere. The mental health of his Catholic wife, played by Binoche, grows increasingly unstable as the story unfolds.

To avoid dealing with his failing marriage and his family’s growing dysfunction, Gere’s character immerses himself with his daughter’s training for a national spelling bee. When he discovers her superior mental gifts for memorization, he supplements her spelling exercises with mystical teachings from the classic Kabbalistic text, the Zohan His efforts foreshadow impending doom. Such studies are far too demanding for children, even the most gifted ones.

Meanwhile, Eliza’s on-screen older brother Aaron, played by first-time actor Max Minghella, son of “Cold Mountain” director Anthony Minghella, begins to fall for the cult practices of his Hare Krishna girlfriend, played by Kate Bosworth. In preparation for convincing on-screen performances, Gere and his on-screen kids were tutored in proper pronunciation of Hebrew verses from the Torah.

The movie, whose screenplay was written by Naomi Foner, already boasts rumors of Oscar contention for Gere and Binoche. It’s a remarkable step for novelist Goldberg, who lives in Brooklyn with her husband Jason Little. A graduate of Oberlin College, Goldberg is also an accomplished flutist, banjo and accordion player, and an aficionado of independent and foreign films. Oddly enough given recent developments, Goldberg once predicted her book would make a “good indie feature” Now she’s spelling H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D.