With Hollywood execs purchasing bestsellers by the dozen in hopes of producing the next blockbuster, they are turning to playwrights, novelists and other talented writers to adapt them.
The old cliche is that well-known writers from other media get eaten alive in Hollywood: Their work is rewritten, they get discouraged, and leave the movie business. But many writers are happy to create movies from books, looking at it as either a well-paid respite from their other writing or as a fulltime career.
Ted Tally is a playwright (“Terra Nova”) turned screenwriter (“The Silence Of The Lambs”) who has no regrets about leaving the theater for more lucrative film work. “It’s a chance to have wider exposure, a wider audience and to be less subject to the whims of critics,” he says.
For 10 years he “banged his head against it,” writing several plays that received mixed reviews from the New York press. Then he wrote an unproduced screenplay, for which he earned 10 times what he made from a play.
Tally doesn’t buy the “cliched image that Hollywood sucks up writers and destroys them… or that theater is some sort of Holy Grail.” On the contrary, he thinks the control playwrights have in theater is overrated, since they must convince producers, directors and actors to do things their way.
As for his role on Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence Of The Lambs,” Tally called it one of the best collaborative experiences of his career. Although he cut and changed elements of Thomas Harris’ bestselling shocker, Tally thinks he remained faithful to the spirit of the novel. In his opinion, the best adaptations are “very cunning in what they do. They hide their work rather than flash it.”
“White Palace,” for which Tally’s script was rewritten by Alvin Sargent, did not go as smoothly. “It was a frustrating experience for most everyone involved,” Tally says. But he knows rewrites are common on big films. “It’s just part of the game if you’re going to work in that arena.”
Tom Stoppard, the playwright who has adapted Vladimir Nabokov’s “Despair,” Graham Greene’s “The Human Factor” and John le Carre’s “The Russia House,” is equally realistic about working on movies. “I’ve never had this sense of being aggrieved, mainly because a film isn’t supposed to belong to the screenwriter,” he says. “You have to begin with that knowledge.”
For example, his script for the upcoming “Billy Bathgate,” based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel, was altered somewhat. But Stoppard holds no ill will toward director Robert Benton. “The writer serves the director, and you kind of give it over to him,” he says. In the theater, however, “The director is there to serve the writer. It’s more or less the opposite of the movies where there is a directorial vision and the writer comes in to serve that vision.”
Although Stoppard rejects the majority of proposed film projects, screenwriting serves as a break from writing his own plays. And, like Tally, he enjoys adapting books because the characters and plot are already there. Both playwrights specialize in dialog and structure, which are crucial in any adaptation.
While Stoppard says there’s a lot of him in his scripts, he also preserves much of the original author’s own words – especially if the author is le Carre, who has a great ear for dialog.
Similarly, Donald E. Westlake, the mystery novelist, kept a great deal of Jim Thompson’s tough talk in his version of “The Grifters.” The pulp writer’s dialog was so good that the actors actually asked for certain lines to be included in the script.
Westlake attributes the Thompson revival in Hollywood to his memorable characters. “All he knew about was people,” he says, “though the plot and writing are lumpy sometimes.”
The fact that “The Grifters” is a short work made it easier to adapt. “It means a lot of the decisions have already been made for you,” Westlake says. His writing consisted primarily of transitions and shortcuts, turning pages of prose into a few lines of dialog.
‘A cold, clear eye’
Like most screenwriters, Westlake did a number of rewrites, which involved “refining and boiling it down.” He also spent five weeks on the set, an indication of his close cooperation with director Stephen Frears.
Given his positive experience on “The Grifters,” as well as the 1987 thriller “The Stepfather,” it seems surprising that Westlake doesn’t adapt his own books. “It’s better to have someone with a cold, clear eye who can say it worked in the book but not in the film,” he says. Among adaptations of his books, he most admires director Peter Yates’ “The Hot Rock,” with a script by William Goldman, and John Boorman’s “Point Blank.”
Stoppard not only adapted his “Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead” but directed it, too. The fact that he wrote the play more than 20 years ago allowed him to rethink it for the screen. When he finds time, Stoppard wants to direct a film from his own original script. Despite his increased interest in film, Stoppard has no desire to give up playwrighting.
For his part, Tally plans to focus on screenplays. And the next one will be another adaptation – of David Lodge’s novel “Nice Work.” Noting that many classic films are based on books, he says, “Hollywood has always put great value in adaptations. I used to feel sort of guilty about it. I’m beginning to realize it’s a highly valued skill.”
Westlake’s future projects include an original screenplay for director Harold Becker. And if the right book comes along, he might do another adaptation. But his own novels, the most recent being “Drowned Hopes,” take precedence. “I’m still first a novelist,” he says. “If I write a novel I am God. If I write a screenplay, I am a minor deity.”