Why the fat kid doesn't always stay in the picture
How are books transformed into Oscar-winning films? Alison Walsh zooms in on the screenwriter's vital role
Published 24/02/2008 | 00:00
As tonight's Oscars hove into view, we can forget ourselves for a moment and wallow in the orgy of self-congratulation, product placement and good, old-fashioned glamour. But if we can tear ourselves away from the frocks for a bit, it's interesting to note how many of the nominated films have their roots in a book: No Country for Old Men, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, There Will be Blood and Atonement have all been adapted from original pieces of writing.
Taking a closer look at the alchemy which transforms a novel into a screenplay, what are the key differences between the two forms, and how important is the alchemist, the screenwriter who transforms an author's beloved text into an Oscar-winning drama?
Deborah Moggach is both a best-selling novelist and a screenwriter, having adapted Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice for the big screen. She explains the difference between the novel and the screenplay thus: "If you think of a novel as being a noun, because it is a very interior world and nothing can happen at all, in the screenplay you are into the world of the verb, which is full of conflict and drama."
Peter Sheridan is the author of 44 and 47 Roses and has directed an adaptation of one of the sacred cows of Irish writing, Brendan Behan's Borstal Boy. "The example I always give when I teach is that, in film, you can go from the wide shot of the forest to a close-up of the eye of the person who is in the forest looking at the trees, from the world, basically, right down to the eye, in a split second. There is no restriction in point of view. In a book, point of view is a limited thing."
Also, interestingly, "the starting point is different. You are not creating a world here". As an example, he cites the opening of the screenplay of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, written by legendary screenwriter, William Goldman. "For the first 25 pages of the screenplay, you have two guys on horses trying to escape from people who are following them. 'Who are those guys?' is the only line spoken. This is not a literary mindset but a great sense of dramatic purpose."
In a screenplay, the story is the king, it would seem, rather than mood, or theme. But how does our cigarette-smoking screenwriting hack go about the business of transforming the raw material into a filmable piece of work?
Deborah Moggach describes the process: "I read the book a couple of times with my screenwriter's hat on, so I'm reading it in filmic terms and finding what is visually strong and what would influence a screen narrative as opposed to a film narrative. I am turning a noun into a verb." She goes on to say, "I will then, with great love, dismember it and put it back together again in screen drama terms. It may mean changing things quite radically, but changing them with integrity to the story and with love and respect."
Peter Sheridan took a radical approach in directing his own adaptation of Borstal Boy, co-writing the screenplay with Nye Heron. "There was a very specific aspect of Behan's story I was interested in -- his Republicanism contrasted with his sexuality. I took Behan's obsession with Charlie Milwall as my starting point. I was, in a way, using Borstal Boy to make a miniature version of Behan's whole life, so I created a relationship between him and the governor's daughter, who was a painter, and Charlie Milwall was the gay element." He is candid: "I took huge liberties in order to make the film I wanted to make. I would justify that on the basis that I couldn't represent the book so I took a very definite line that it was to be a journey of sexual awakening. Some people thought it was a travesty and others really brave and refreshing."
So, it would seem that you have to take some liberties with the source material to make it work on a filmic level. Inevitably, though, the rules are there to be broken. Writer/producer Ferdia MacAnna cites the Coen brothers' adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men as a classic example. When teaching a class to his students on screenwriting at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology, "I photocopied the first chapter and asked my students to go and see the film and tell me whether what they saw on the screen was an exact representation of McCarthy and they all thought it was".
For those of you not familiar with the film or the book, the author confounds the expectations of the reader by having the hero of sorts, Llewellyn Moss, being blown away long before the end of the book, which the Coen brothers followed to the letter. The cinema audience is thus left without a hero to root for, confounding their expectations, as MacAnna says: "The Coen brothers are very experienced and successful writers. Any other Hollywood producer would have come in and said, we love your book, but first of all the guy has to stay alive."
AND, once the screenplay has been written, our chain-smoking hack can't simply deliver it into the hands of the producer and demand that he/she doesn't change a word. The script will most likely go through something of a metamorphosis before finally being filmed. Jackie Larkin is managing director of Newgrange Films and has produced several features, including Tom Collins' Kings, an adaptation of Jimmy Murphy's The Kings of Kilburn High Road: "Most films take about five drafts. They will sit down with a script editor, then producer and writer will spend time together kicking it around giving feedback to the writer. There is generally always room for more character development or structural work. Sometimes the director will have an interest in the project and will work closely with the writer. A lot of directors are very good in terms of character and plot. They can see the wood for the trees when you need a cold eye on it."
Ferdia MacAnna agrees: "A novel is a blueprint for a screenplay. The writer goes through an editing process and what he writes gets published. A screenplay can go up to 10 drafts and then gets filmed, and the producer, director and star can have an input," he says, laughingly referring to the adaptation of Lord of the Flies, when a producer asked, "Does the fat kid have to die?" In Hollywood, of course, star power can not be ignored. William Goldman in his entertaining memoir, Which Lie did I Tell?, tells an anecdote about adapting David Baldacci's Absolute Power to the screen, to be directed by Clint Eastwood. He agonised for months over the multiple characters in the book and the fact that one of them, cat burglar Luther, dies part of the way through, which presented him with a problem as Clint Eastwood wanted to play not the detective hero of the novel, but the bad guy himself. So, in Goldman's version of the Baldacci novel, Luther not only lives to live to the end of the film but, what's more, takes down the president. Also, Goldman introduced a relationship between Luther and his daughter that never existed in the novel to give the film, and Eastwood's character, a truly satisfying emotional core.
So, films are not like novels, except for those that are, thanks to the Coen brothers, and in the lengthy process between Remington typewriter and cinema, many things can change. Peter Sheridan tells one anecdote which sums up the difference between the two forms. After publishing his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, the writer F Scott Fitzgerald was invited to Hollywood. He was composing a screenplay about break-up of a marriage. It included a 25-page scene in a hotel room in which a couple were having a huge fight, with much swearing and fist flying, before they finally leave the room. "The Hollywood people felt it didn't work and gave it to a hack, who read the scene and turned it into a half a page which read like this: 'A man and woman are in hotel suite getting ready to go out. He is pacing about, unhappy. They leave hotel bedroom and are walking down corridor. There is a very pretty lady approaching the lift at the same time. The man allows her to step into the lift, and he steps in after her, in front of his wife. This tells you everything you need to know.'