The Zookeeper’s Wife, starring Jessica Chastain, follows the true story of Warsaw Zookeepers, Jan and Antonina Zabinski and how they saved hundreds of people from the Nazis in World War II. However, before the story was a film on the silver screen, it was a bestselling novel of the same name by acclaimed author Diane Ackerman.
Ackerman is a poet, naturalist, and a nonfiction writer. She is the author of numerous books, each with different subjects but all tied together by rich and detailed research. Additionally, she loves research, as she recently told Hypable, and those details are what brought screenwriter Angela Workman to want to turn the book into a film for director, Niki Caro.
“Diane Ackerman’s book is so detailed and colorful that it sparked cinematic images in my head,” Workman told Paste. “I felt I could see all the images I needed to make a film.”
The Zookeeper’s Wife isn’t the first of Ackerman’s written works to be adapted for film or performance. In 1995 her book A Natural History of the Senses was adapted as a five-part Nova miniseries that Ackerman herself hosted. In 1987, her book On Extended Wings was adapted for the stage. Able to create rich and engaging stories from source material such as science and nature is part of what makes Ackerman unique as a writer and has long been a part of her voice.
Ackerman always knew that she was going to be a writer. Born in Waukegan, Illinois she was interested in writing at a very young age. “My mother told me that a friend of hers phoned her one day and said ‘Marcia, I just think you’d want to know that your daughter is talking to herself again as she is walking home from school.’ That was true. I was making up stories and writing poems and trying to make the world stable from as far back as I can remember,” Ackerman told Hypeable. Despite the life-long interest in poems and stories, however, she was also deeply interested in science and the world around her. Ackerman decided to study biopsychology in college instead of writing. After spending a year at Boston University studying the science, Ackerman transferred to Pennsylvania State University. In the transfer, she was accidentally placed in the English major. It was a mistake that Ackerman chose not to correct Having already been writing her whole life, Ackerman considered it fate and continued forward with writing and ultimately went on to receive her MFA, MA and PhD from Cornell University.
If the degree change mistake/stroke of fate wasn’t enough to nudge Ackerman along the road of writing, another fateful side effect of landing at Penn State also played a part. At Penn State, Ackerman found encouragement and tutoring from the man who would become her husband, novelist Paul West. That relationship would influence her work in other ways as well. Her research on the brain for the book Alchemy of the Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain, came in handy when her husband suffered a stroke so severe it robbed him of language. And while she was caring for West post-stroke? Ackerman was working on The Zookeeper’s Wife. The work on Zookeeper’s, Ackerman told Smithsonian Magazine, “was my salvation for many reasons…every day, sometimes just for a few minutes or hours, I’d announce I was going to Poland, to the zookeeper’s wife.”
Ackerman’s “going to Poland” wasn’t just figurative speech, however. The author actually did go to Warsaw and visited the Warsaw Zoo as part of her research for Zookeeper’s. Being able to be exactly where the story took place helped Ackerman take the story from hidden historical record to a story so detailed it was as though it lived off the page. Ackerman told Hypable that by standing on Antonina’s balcony she “knew what she [Antonina] saw when she looked up. It was possible to learn an awful lot about the era, about her.”
The film adaptation of The Zookeeper’s Wife starring Jessica Chastain is in theaters now.
To learn more about Ackerman, you can follow her on Twitter and Facebook as well as her website. Ackerman’s book The Zookeeper’s Wife and her other works are available on Amazon and your local bookstores.