As elevator pitches go, “Lithuanian teenager starving to death in Stalin-era Siberia” would not necessarily attract much interest from Hollywood movie producers. But next January, a story that could be summed up that way will make its debut in theaters, capping the extraordinary journey of a little novel that could: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys (Philomel, 2011). Based on family history, Sepetys’s debut novel details the harrowing life in a Soviet labor camp, told through the eyes of a 15-year-old girl, Lina Vilkas.
The author, who saw the film in September at the Los Angeles Film Festival, is thrilled by the adaptation directed by Marius Markevicius, who is also of Lithuanian descent. “It’s better than the book,” Sepetys says. “Even my father said, ‘I love you. I love your book. But the film is better.’ ”
The film’s producers changed the title to Ashes in the Snow to avoid possible confusion with another film featuring the words shades and grey, something Sepetys concedes was probably necessary.
“The first line of my book is, ‘They took me in my nightgown,’ so people would read that and think, ‘This is it,’ and it went right into their carts,” she said, referring to the erotic bestseller, Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, which was also released in 2011. “I had adults who came to my events wondering, ‘Why are there seventh graders here?’ and parents who were outraged at the school for inviting the Shades of Gray author. Maybe changing the title will actually be a good thing.”
Many more school visits are in Sepetys’s immediate future, in part because the film attracted the attention of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation when it was screened in April on Capitol Hill to coincide with Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite’s visit to the U.S. for the Baltic summit. “Even on a small screen with limited sound, the movie was incredibly powerful,” says Murray Bessette, the foundation’s director of academic programs. “The incredible thing about Ruta’s book and Marius’s adaptation is that they both ring true. The experiences of the characters feel authentic and will provide readers and students who view the film with that surrogate experience only the best literature can give you.”
The foundation will partner with Penguin Random House to sponsor an educational tour that will include screenings of the film and free reader guides for educators who want to incorporate the material into their curricula. (For more information about the tour, visit victimsofcommunism.org.) Anticipating new demand for the book, the publisher has created a movie tie-in edition under the film’s title. The original book has already outperformed expectations, with rights sold in more than 50 territories and a total of 1.3 million copies in print across all formats worldwide. In addition to screening the film in Washington, D.C., Sepetys also presented the film to the European Parliament in Brussels in September and gave a presentation to NATO on “the power of historical fiction to create pathways for global dialogue.”
“It’s a small film, but I think the potential for impact is incredible,” Sepetys says. “It is an untold story and gives voice to a part of history that would have otherwise been forgotten.”
A Fateful Trip
Sepetys was already running a successful artist management agency, representing musicians and songwriters from offices in Nashville, when she decided what she really wanted to do was write. The idea for Between Shades of Gray came when she was visiting relatives in Lithuania in 2005 and learned more about the Soviets’ forced deportation of thousands of people from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Her father’s family had fled to Germany to avoid deportation but spent nearly a decade in a refugee camp before they could emigrate to the United States. They were the lucky ones. Many of the thousands who had been herded into unheated railroad cars and shipped off to work in Siberia never returned. Sepetys knew this was a forgotten page of history that needed to be told.
Then an editor expressed interest in a humorous middle grade mystery she had written, and Sepetys scrambled to find an agent. She queried Steven Malk of Writers House and included the middle grade mystery and a few pages of the manuscript that would become Between Shades of Gray, which she had written as an exercise for a conference.
Bad news: Malk wasn’t interested in the middle grade mystery. Good news: he wanted more about Lithuanians in Siberia.
“Steve told me that, if I wanted to pursue a career in writing, he felt my authentic voice was in the few pages of YA historical fiction that I had sent,” Sepetys recalls. “Even though I had interest from an editor in the middle grade book, I tossed it aside.”
Still, Sepetys says, the manuscript was not an easy sell. “Everyone passed on this book. I have a stack of rejection letters that is quite thick.” Ultimately, it was acquired by Michael Green at Philomel, which subsequently published two more of Sepetys’s historical fiction novels, Out of the Easy (2013) and Salt to the Sea (2016), which won the U.K.’s Carnegie Medal.
Sepetys’s greatest challenge now is finding time to write. The screenplay was written by Ben York Jones, but Sepetys was an active collaborator in making the film adaptation of Between Shades of Gray, serving as executive producer and traveling to Lithuania, where the film was shot and where it had its world premiere in October.
Giving Voice to Witnesses
Though Sepetys notes that some “marquee names” auditioned for the lead roles, she says director Markevicius decided to cast the film entirely with European actors. “Marius didn’t want American actors, because he thought they would pull viewers out of the period and out of the culture,” she adds. British actress Bel Powley, who has appeared in the feature films White Boy Rick and Diary of a Teenage Girl, stars as Lina.
Although the lead roles in the film are played by actors from several countries, the supporting roles are played by Lithuanians who were themselves deported or who had family members exiled or killed by the Soviet regime.
“There are a lot of elderly survivors on screen,” Markevicius says. “Some of the faces you see are the true witnesses. When we were shooting the brutal deportation scenes, there were people in their 80s and 90s packed into the airless train cars and being pushed and shoved to the ground. I stopped the filming, because I was concerned for their emotional and physical well-being, but the survivors insisted that we continue, that it was crucial to share the untold story with the world.”
Survivors interviewed by Sepetys while she was doing research for the book attended the premiere, which led to a moment that the author says took her breath away. One of the characters in the Siberian labor camp where Lina and her family are sent is identified only by a tic: he is constantly winding his watch. Even nearly 30 years after Lithuania regained its independence from the Soviet Union, some of the survivors she spoke with did not want their names used, out of fear they would be rearrested and sent back to Siberia. In the book, for instance, there is “the bald man” and the “grouchy lady.” At the film’s world premiere in Vilnius, however, one of the survivors she had interviewed stood proudly and announced, “I am the man who winds his watch.”
“To see these people claim their own story was so moving,” Sepetys says. “I’m almost embarrassed at how I underestimated the power of story. I wanted to be an author. I wanted to write historical fiction. I didn’t realize how powerful it would be to give voice to someone who had a story but felt ‘the world has forgotten us.’ ”