Writing about the entertainment industry is a quick way to get inured to just how bad things can be for women. But even by the normal expect-the-worst standards of the industry, it’s irritating to read the latest edition of San Diego State University professor Martha Lauzen’s studies of women in the movies and to learn that the number of leading roles for women has actually fallen since 2002, from 16 percent of protagonists in top-grossing films to 12 percent. It’s even more annoying to see these numbers the weekend before “Fifty Shades of Grey” is set to open and provide yet more evidence that women will turn out for movies made for them and by them.
I’ve written before about the difficulties of fighting for gender equality in Hollywood, an industry where it’s incredibly easy for executives to pass responsibility for hiring women or telling stories about women to someone else. But acknowledging these complexities shouldn’t take attention away from the important reality behind Lauzen’s numbers: For a creative industry, Hollywood shows an embarrassing lack of imagination when it comes to telling stories about women.
And to demonstrate just how shameful this failure is, I took a quick mental inventory and swing through my Kindle library and came up with 20 ideas for movies about women, many of which would adapt existing source material, and actresses to star in them — and I did it in under an hour. If anyone in the film industry wants to swipe these proposed pairings, feel free. But I hope you feel bad about yourselves for not coming up with these pitches first.
1. Maisie Williams as Beka Cooper in an adaptation of Tamora Pierce’s “Provost’s Dog” series: “Game of Thrones” has credentialed Williams as a formidable young action actress, and her skills shouldn’t go to waste. Fortunately, when HBO’s series ends, Williams will be just the right age to star in an adaptation of Pierce’s series about a rookie cop in a medieval kingdom. Think “The Wire” but with magic.
2. Brooke Elliott as Minerva Dobbs in an adaptation of Jennifer Crusie’s “Bet Me“: The romantic comedy is due for a genre resurgence, and a great place to start it would be by pairing Elliott, who was great in “Drop Dead Diva,” with Crusie’s sweet, eccentric novel about an Elvis-loving actuary, her two best friends, her sister’s disastrous wedding, and Calvin, the guy she falls for. Bonus suggestion: Cast Jane Fonda as Cal’s imperious mother.
3. Lupita Nyong’o as Onye in Nnedi Okorafor’s “Who Fears Death“: I’m all for Nyong’o to get the money that will let her do whatever she wants after her Academy Award win, so I’m firmly in favor of her “Star Wars” role. But I’d also love to see her play a superheroine, and not just any comic book character. How much fun would it be to see her play Okorafor’s heroine, who is born of a rape into a post-apocalyptic Nigeria, but manifests serious magical powers?
4. Brie Larson as Reno in Rachel Kushner’s “The Flamethrowers“: Every moment I was reading Kushner’s novel about Reno, an aspiring artist who arrives in the male-dominated loft-and-gallery scene in New York, I was picturing Larson wearing Frye boots and straddling the motorcycles Reno is obsessed with. Maybe this can be Sam Taylor-Johnson’s follow-up to “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
5. Brit Marling as Kirsten in Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven“: I adored Marling as a charismatic cult leader in “Sound of My Voice,” and she’d be amazing as Kirsten, a child actress who survives an apocalyptic flu and grows up to be the lead performer in a group called the Traveling Symphony, which tours performing Shakespeare for the few communities are left. It’s time for a new take on the decimation of humanity. This could be it.
6. Sarah Steele as Jules in Meg Wolitzer’s “The Interestings“: Steele is wonderful as political operator Eli Gold’s (Alan Cumming) daughter on “The Good Wife.” And I think she would be terrific as Jules, a young woman who becomes part of a group of highly gifted teenagers she meets at summer camp, and spends the rest of her life grappling with her relationship to their talent and money. The story moves back and forth in time, so it might require casting multiple actors for the same parts. But Steele has the brightness and range to pull off Jules in some of her most important years.
7. Constance Wu as Rachel in Kevin Kwan’s “Crazy Rich Asians“: Remember that romantic comedy resurgence I mentioned? Kwan’s novel, about a young woman named Rachel who travels to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s family only to find out that he’s the scion of a fabulously wealthy dynasty, would make another fantastic candidate for adaptation. It’s got comedy of manners, mouthwatering scenes of Singapore’s hawker centers and a global sense of geography. And it would be nice for Wu to get a break from playing a maternal tyrant on “Fresh Off the Boat.”
8. Gina Rodriguez as the main character in Rachel Hartman’s “Seraphina“: I love Rodriguez, the star of “Jane the Virgin,” so much that I considered championing her in any number of other roles on this list. But her beautiful sincerity makes her perfect for this project. Seraphina is a gifted musician in a society where humans have made a series of complicated peace treaties with dragons. But prejudice persists, and Seraphina has a terrible secret: She’s part-dragon.
9. Rose Leslie, Mia Wasikowska, Margot Robbie and Mae Whitman in J. Courtney Sullivan’s “Commencement“: Sullivan’s novel, which touches on issues like the inclusion of transgender men in women’s colleges and competing expressions of feminism, feels even more relevant and urgent than it did when it was published in 2009. In putting together this ensemble drama set at Smith College and beyond, I’d cast “Game of Thrones” veteran Leslie as radical feminist April, Wasikowska as Sally, who is grappling with the death of her mother, Robbie as Bree, who throws off her Southern belle upbringing and falls in love with another woman, and Whitman as Celia, who anchors the group and the novel.
10. Retta as Amanda Waller: There’s been a lot of debate over the way this iconic character has been portrayed in DC Comics adaptations like “Arrow,” where she’s been slimmed down and made a supporting character. So why not flip the perspective and use Retta’s comedic chops to tell a story about what a pain it is to wrangle superheroes and supervillians?
11. Bae Doona in N.A. Sulway’s “Rupetta“: Bae’s become something of a company player for the Wachowskis in recent years, and I’d love to see her in a leading role that makes use of her science fiction experience. Sulway’s “Rupetta” is a terrific, unnerving book about an immortal automaton who becomes the subject of a religious cult and law. Bae’s brought great humanity to clones and style to bounty hunters. It would be fun to see her take a crack at this.
12. Jennifer Ehle as Nadia in Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Red Mars“: Yes, I know, an adaptation of this is perpetually in the works somewhere. But one of the easiest ways to streamline Robinson’s unwieldy trilogy would be to focus on the perspective of Nadia, a Russian engineer with an idealistic vision for human life on Mars who gets caught up in fights about whether to transform the planet to make it more habitable to humans or whether humans should adapt themselves to their new home.
13. Amandla Stenberg as Daja in Tamora Pierce’s “The Will of the Empress“: We got to meet Stenberg briefly in “The Hunger Games,” where she played Rue, a clever tribute from a desperately poor district. In the interests of diversifying fantasy and science fiction, I’d be curious to see her as Daja, a mage who controls metal (think Magneto but more artistic) in an adaptation of Pierce’s Winding Circle books. The perspective of the series switches among the three female characters and one male from book to book, but “The Will of the Empress” brings them all together.
14. Mindy Kaling in a remake of “The Lady Eve”: “The Mindy Project” is an extended commentary on late-20-century romantic comedies. And while I’d love to see Kaling as a straightforward romcom heroine in an original movie, it would also be terrifically fun to see her play with the screwball era. There aren’t many people I’d trust to follow in Barbara Stanwyck’s slippers, but Kaling could totally nail the declaration that “A moonlit deck is a woman’s business office.” Cast Chris Messina in the Henry Fonda role as a sweet sap and you’ve got perfection.
15. Dakota Johnson and Ilana Glazer as Amy and Bev in an adaptation of Emily Gould’s “Friendship“: Gould’s lovely, piercing novel about the painful breakup and repair of a deep tie between two young women has drawn me back again and again. It would be fascinating to see “Fifty Shades” star Johnson and “Broad City” lead Glazer play against type, with Johnson as the self-involved Amy and Glazer as Bev, a directionless woman who embraces an unexpected pregnancy.
16. Teyonah Parris in Jesmyn Ward’s “Men We Reaped“: I will continue to evangelize for Parris until I’m hoarse. She badly deserves a starring role, and one possibility might be a movie adaptation of Ward’s shattering memoir about the men she loved who died young. While it’s easy to pigeonhole black actresses into mourner roles, Ward’s story is much more than that: It’s about deep friendships between men and women and mustering the courage to leave a community that you love for new opportunities.
17. Saoirse Ronan as Polly in Rachel Urquhart’s “The Visionist“: It seems we get a smart, slightly strange period drama about young women every year or two, so I’d like to throw this story, about a girl who takes refuge in a Shaker community, in contention. Ronan has made a specialty of playing morally compromised young women, and she’d be excellent in this highly interior story.
18. Mae Whitman in Caitlin Moran’s “How to Build a Girl“: I know I mentioned Whitman higher in the list, but I’m sorry, I can’t help myself. She’d be so utterly perfect for Moran’s memoiristic novel about a young aspiring rock critic who falls in with a group of cynical writers, discovers the joys of sex and ultimately moves away from her dysfunctional family while never loving them any less.
19. Mila Kunis as Kit in an adaptation of Kerry Howley’s “Thrown“: I have no idea how someone would make a movie about this satirical, highly intellectual novel about a graduate student who gets obsessed with mixed martial arts, but I would like to see someone try!
20. Quvenzhané Wallis in Helen Oyeyemi’s “Boy, Snow, Bird“: Everyone involved in shepherding Wallis’s career seems to be handling the young actress with care to balance commerce and intelligence in the mix of roles she takes. So after toplining “Annie,” maybe she could star in something like Oyeyemi’s unsettling fairy tale, about a black family passing for white who will go to great lengths to conceal their secrets, revealed by the birth of a darker-skinned girl named Bird.