Vermont Author Glenn Stout Hits the Big Screen With Disney’s 'Young Woman and the Sea' | Books | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Vermont Author Glenn Stout Hits the Big Screen With Disney’s 'Young Woman and the Sea'


Published May 22, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.

Glenn Stout at the world premiere of Young Woman and the Sea - PHOTO: RODIN ECKENROTH/GETTY IMAGES FOR DISNEY
  • Photo: Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images for Disney
  • Glenn Stout at the world premiere of Young Woman and the Sea

To write about Gertrude "Trudy" Ederle, who became the first woman to swim across the English Channel, in 1926, at the age of 20, Glenn Stout wanted to understand how it felt to be alone in the middle of a large body of water. "You want to occupy that headspace," the Vermont author, editor and historian said, "not so you can make things up but so you can feel like you're in the pocket of your subject."

Stout is a longtime athlete, a distance runner who played competitive baseball as an adult. But he was never an avid swimmer, so he simulated the activity by kayaking for up to eight hours at a clip in Lake Champlain. "I'm glad I was in my forties when I thought of it and not in my sixties," he joked.

The experience proved enlightening. "You have to get back to shore," Stout, now 65, said. "It's all on you. Being in your head for 14 hours, like Trudy, you're singing songs to yourself, automatically doing the physical activity but playing tricks to stay on task. Writing is the same way."

A mental endurance game is something Stout can speak about with expertise. He's authored or edited more than 100 books, including The Pats: An Illustrated History of the New England Patriots, The Selling of the Babe: The Deal That Changed Baseball and Created a Legend, and, most recently in 2021, Tiger Girl and the Candy Kid: America's Original Gangster Couple. But his 2009 biography of Ederle, Woman and the Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Inspired the World, is one of his most powerful stories. It's also his first book to be optioned by Hollywood.

For writers, getting a film project greenlit, produced and distributed is as improbable a journey as swimming a treacherous body of water. In the age of streaming, it's just as unlikely for an adaptation to receive a theatrical release. But that's exactly what's happening for Stout as Young Woman and the Sea, starring Daisy Ridley as Ederle and produced by Hollywood legend Jerry Bruckheimer, hits the big screen in a limited release starting on Friday, May 31. The movie will arrive later this summer on Disney+, in time for the Olympic Games in Paris, which begin in late July.

A lot had to go right for Stout's story to make the leap from the page to the silver screen. Stout's agent contacted him in 2015 with news that screenwriter Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me If You Can, The Lion King) wanted to option the book; while the agent cautioned that the chance of the film being produced was one in a thousand, he nevertheless had a good feeling. "I had to table my enthusiasm," Stout said, "which I did sometimes better than others. I hoped for it but never counted on it."

Things rarely happen fast in Hollywood, and Stout's faith was tested. "As it turned out," he said, "COVID is probably the reason we were able to make it."

For one thing, the pandemic stopped a lot of other projects. Stout related that Disney execs wanted Joachim Rønning (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) to direct and Ridley, who starred in the latest Star Wars trilogy, to lead the film. The odds of the director and star you want being available at the same time are about as long as those Stout's agent gave the film of happening. "But, because of COVID, they were both free," Stout said. "It just worked out."

Turmoil was in the movie's favor again last year, when the actors' and writers' strikes in Hollywood stalled more releases.

Young Woman and the Sea - COURTESY OF DISNEY
  • Courtesy Of Disney
  • Young Woman and the Sea

Young Woman and the Sea was originally intended as a streaming-only release. But encouraging test screenings — "the best test scores of any movie Bruckheimer has ever done," according to Stout — coupled with a smaller roster of films ready for the summer led studio execs to rethink that plan.

"All of a sudden, it was 'We think this might go theatrical,' Stout recalled. "Sometimes, waiting nine years is a good thing!"

Stout got a firsthand glimpse of the production during a visit to the set at Nu Boyana Film Studios in Bulgaria in May 2022. He was duly impressed with the entire operation, the diversity of the crew and how hard they worked, especially Ridley. "She was extraordinary in her commitment to swim and swim well for hours and hours in the scenes I got to witness," he recalled. "That's hard to do in four- and five-foot waves, battering you around like you're in a washing machine."

The movie centers on New York native Ederle's early life and her heroic first failed attempt to swim the channel in 1925, followed by her triumph the following year. In the film, both attempts occur in the same year.

"For her brief period of time," Stout said, "she was as well known as any woman in America."

Ederle cashed in on her fame to some extent, briefly touring in a vaudeville water show and appearing in a silent film. But "she discovered the limelight was something she didn't enjoy," Stout said. "Today, the goal is to be a super-celebrity. For her, the goal was doing what she wanted to do. Once she swam the English Channel, she'd done just that."

In his book, Stout carries Ederle's story beyond the ticker-tape parade she received upon her return to the U.S. It covers the nervous breakdown she suffered due to the pressures of celebrity and a severe fall that left her bedridden with a bad back. Out of the public eye, she taught deaf children to swim, worked in a factory during World War II and lived to be 98. "She seemed to be relatively content out of the spotlight," Stout said.

Stout, who attended the film's premiere in Los Angeles last week, is thrilled that Ederle's tale, of all the ones he's told, is the one to become a movie.

"I've done a lot of fun and entertaining stories, but this one is consequential," he said. "It's the kind of story you can encounter when you're young and it will make an impression — it might change the way you think and open your horizons. For young women, of course, but also for boys who might think, Oh, women can do anything I can do and some things better than me. Which is just as important.

"The book has inspired people to swim the channel who'd never done it," he continued. "Young girls decided to swim and went on to have collegiate swimming careers."

This story is not just about swimming, Stout said, "but a metaphor for doing things people say you can't do. Like writing a book."

Or having a book made into a movie.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Swimming to Hollywood | Vermont author Glenn Stout hits the big screen with Disney's Young Woman and the Sea"

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