Taking liberties

Movies based on novels have built-in recognition but translations often thorny subjects for purists

Adapting novels into film is pretty close to a sucker’s bet. There’s never enough screen time to do a novel justice — even a three-hour film is hard-pressed to pack in all the events of a midsize book. A book’s fans complain that the casting’s off or a favorite scene is missing. And critics lay in wait, eager to dissect the adaptation by way of demonstrating their own erudition — even if their only previous experience of the novel in question is hurriedly paging through its paperback movie tie-in.

Still, filmmakers persist in morphing novels into movies as current marquees: There’s writer-director Anthony Minghella’s la dolce vita adaptation of Patricia’s Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley”; novelist John Irving’s Dickensian saga “The Cider House Rules,” which was his first screen adaptation of his work; Neil Jordan’s bittersweet encounter with Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair”; Patricia Rozema’s neofeminist refashioning of Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park”; Scott Hicks’ wintery evocation of David Guterson’s “Snow Falling on Cedars”; screenwriter James Shamus’ Civil War-set “Ride With the Devil,” an adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s “Woe to Live On”; and writer Alvin Sargent’s reworking of Mona Simpson’s mother-daughter saga “Anywhere but Here.”

If adapting novels is challenging though, it’s also too seductive to resist, especially if its a good story.

“Most of the work in writing is coming up with ideas,” admits Jordan, who upon rereading “End of the Affair” several years ago decided that “there was something very cinematic there. If you’re writing an original screenplay, all the conceptual work is the most important thing. In adapting a book as bril-liant as ‘End of the Affair,’ most of the work has been done.”

Of course, there has to be an element of personal attraction as well.

“The novel has to feel right, like somebody you’d like to get to know,” says Sargent, a veteran of several adaptations, including 1990’s “White Palace.” “Sometimes you read something that’s a wonder-ful novel, but it’s sort of like broccoli. It’s probably very good for you, but you don’t like the way it smells, and I don’t write broccoli. You have to find something that feels really comfortable.”

Few novels — especially good and complex ones — are mere shooting scripts, though, which is why they often must undergo drastic make-overs in the course of moving to the screen. Acknowledging that “people think adaptations are mischievous and trespassing and trample all over the source material,” Minghella contends, “The reality is you have to animate what are thoughts in a novel. It’s not willful. It’s just the job of a film to find ways of dramatizing a novel’s themes.”

As Hicks elaborates, “The dictates of the novel and cinema are different. You’re dealing with a me-dium of emotion and not intellect. The audience needs to find a moment where the emotion is resolved, and you have to find a way to tell that.”

So how best to adapt a novel into film?

Patience a virtue

No matter how famous the book, Hollywood rarely jumps to enshrine it in celluloid. Sargent first tackled “Anywhere but Here” 11 years ago, when Disney was developing it as a project for Meryl Streep.

“I never got any reaction,” as he remembers it, and it was only when he was re-organizing his office two years ago that he picked up his adaptation, reread it and decided to send it out again.

Minghella, who first read “Ripley” 20 years ago, jumped when producer Sydney Pollack offered him the opportunity to write the screenplay: He spent about 18 months on it before going off to shoot “The English Patient” — “They were good enough to wait for me,” he adds — and then spent another year in pre-production before principal photography began.

However, Irving scores the calendar record. He published “Cider House” in 1985 and, as an ex-periment, wrote his first adaptation.

“If someone had forewarned me that it was going to take four directors and 14 years, and that there would be two novels I wouldn’t write as a result of writing that screenplay … well, I probably would have declined to write it,” he insists.

Befriend author

Although there are lots of novelists who simply take the money and run when Hollywood comes calling — and then decry the subsequent butcheries of their work — some film-makers are able to engage the original writers for advice.

Hicks, who co-wrote “Cedars” — in effect, adapting Ron Bass’ adaptation — recalls, “I went to meet with David (Guterson) and talked over a huge amount of the details, setting and place. I felt it was wise to consult with the originator of the story. I was hyper-conscious of making cultural blunders since I was coming to this as an outsider and David was tremendously helpful.”

Sargent was delighted to learn that “Anywhere’s” Simpson was a neighbor in Santa Monica, Calif., and, after a mutual acquaintance introduced them, says, “She became a good friend. After the screen-play was ready, she read it and had some thoughts, which were very minimal. She was invited to par-ticipate, but there wasn’t anything dramatic she felt needed to be changed.”

Dead novelists’ society

Even when the novelist is dead, a relationship is possible. Rozema delved into Jane Austen’s life and letters, explaining, “I wanted to try to find the overlap between Jane Austen’s sensibility and mine. ‘Mansfield Park’ is not a perfect novel, but it is a deeply fascinating one.

“The main character is famously limp, though. I decided to make her more Austen-like. I made her a writer and the real narrator of the film. Perhaps, 20% of the screenplay comes from Austen’s own letters.”

Similarly, Jordan rummaged through Graham Greene’s letters, since Maurice Bendrix, the melan-choly narrator of “End of the Affair,” suffers through an affair similar to one of Greene’s.

“Greene himself was a far more abject lover than the man that he portrays in the novel,” Jordan says. “But what I did incorporate (from reading Greene’s other writings) was the fact of the writer — I wanted the movie to be a portrait of a writer who’s fictionalizing his own life and getting it wrong.”

Keep book accessible

A good novel is a veritable guidebook, even when its adaptation doesn’t follow it precisely. Adopting a high-tech approach, Rozema simply downloaded “Mansfield Park” into her computer.

“If I found a turn of phrase that thrilled me, I literally switched back and forth between the novel and the screenplay,” she says.

Hicks, on the other hand, ripped apart a copy of “Cedars,” pasting descriptions from the novel into his script folder — “especially descriptions of lights and shadows, all things you can’t clutter up a screenplay with. As a film-maker, I can show in the blink of an eye — a frozen window, a wet puddle — what takes pages of description in the novel.”

Separating church, state

Others, having immersed themselves in the novel, try to set it aside.

The first step for Jordan was mapping out “Affair.” “It’s a very tiny series of events,” he explains. “The real dramatic core of the novel is how the events are revealed to the other people in it. It was a bit like writing a play. You reach a stage where the voice of the book is going into your head and the voice of the book and the central character becomes indistinguishable from your own. In the end, you reach a point where you don’t know who has written what.”

Minghella tried to distance himself even more: “I try to stay far away from the novel when I’m writing as I can in order to try to make the film organically — rather than to copy from the structure of the book. I feel the film has to assert itself in its own right.”

But though Irving attempted a similar removal, he felt himself being dragged back: “I kept trying to put the novel aside, to stop looking at it altogether, but (producer) Richard (Gladstein) and (director) Lasse (Hallstrom) wouldn’t let me. They kept obsessively reading and rereading the novel and finding passages, and marking them, and saying, ‘Why can’t we use this?’; so I was repeatedly drawn back to the novel, despite myself.”

‘Research, research, research’

However, the novel, especially if it’s a period work, isn’t your only resource.

“I love to do research, research, research,” says Schamus, who turned himself into a Civil War buff in developing “Ride With the Devil.” “We put together these huge research books.”

In a similar vein, Minghella — who transformed the idly rich Dickie Greenleaf character of “Ripley” into a jazz buff — found himself moving Highsmith’s ’55 novel a few years forward into the late ’50s “for two reasons. I wanted to use music as a kind of character and there was more bebop in the late ’50s. And I wanted those visual characteristics of Italy as it was emerging in the late ’50s — the Vespa, the well-dressed Italian men, the whole sense of la dolce vita. One of the fantasies I had was that Fellini was making that movie around the corner from us.”

Cutting hand that feeds

But despite the respect and admiration for a novel that originally drew filmmakers to it, adapting a book can be a ruthless business.

“There was a very strong guiding principal behind my earliest drafts of the screenplay in terms of who to eliminate from the story,” says Irving, who took a blue pencil to Melony , an older girl who provides his hero Homer’s sexual initiation in the novel. “I believed that the characters had to have the same emotional effect on an audience as they had on readers.

“Better to lose the character altogether than to have a character who’d been marginalized, emo-tionally. That so often happens in translations from novel to film — the characters emerge as stick figures of themselves.”

Hicks regrets losing much of the back story of Kabuo, the Japanese-American fisherman on trial in “Cedars,” particularly since Kabuo’s relationship with his own father reflected on the central character Ishmael’s (played by Ethan Hawke) struggle with his dad. “But the film needed to be streamlined a little,” he says.

Give and take

Excisions often foster inventions though, so some adaptors find themselves creating new charac-ters. Irving, for example, invented Buster, a young boy who suggests Homer’s own childhood at the St. Cloud’s Orphanage, and Mary Agnes, who fulfills some of the functions of the excised Meloney. “I created them to replace characters (or parts of characters) who’d been lost,” he says.

Minghella invented Meredith Logue, another American abroad, and elaborated on Peter Smith-Kingsley, a minor character in Highsmith’s novel who emerges as Ripley’s potential savior onscreen, because “I needed to give Ripley a new life in Rome, Tom’s a second-class person trying to be a first-class person, and Meredith’s a first-class person trying to disguise herself as a second-class person. As for Peter, I always had the idea I would end the film with someone reciting a rosary of Ripley’s vir-tues.”

Value of voiceover

Filmmakers tend to be ambivalent about voiceovers, but in replacing a novel’s narrator, it can be inescapable. Hicks, for example, eliminated the voiceovers in Bass’ adaptation, confessing, “It required some structural surgery, but I wanted to tell the movie as visually as possible.”

Adds Sargent, “As a rule I’d rather not use narration, but I just felt I needed to hear Anne’s (played by Natalie Portman) voice, because there’s a lot of quiet stuff about her mother going on inside her mind.”

In Jordan’s case, though, voiceover was crucial, because by switching between Bendrix and his lover Sarah’s voice, it captures the movie’s conflicting realities.

“Voiceover is appalling sometimes, but I couldn’t have done without it here,” he says. “What inter-ested me was that I was doing two voices with two specific points of view. The whole tenor of the voiceover became very important in the editing — I (recorded it) about four times with Ralph (Fiennes) and Julianne (Moore) and it changed significantly.”

Evoking a period

As a director’s medium is visual, a writer’s artistry is based on text and novels can offer lots of juicy wordplay for bigscreen use.

“I put lots of thought and work into (the dialogue), but most of it is, frankly, stolen from the novel,” confesses Schamus in adapting “Ride’s” source novel, set in the 1860s. But period dialogue also can present challenges of its own. In addition to riding and gunplay, director Ang Lee urged his actors to bone up on Mark Twain and Walter Scott so they’d be able to handle what Schamus calls the book’s “vernacular poetry. It’s a very foreign language.”

Rozema faced similar concerns, often simplifying Austen’s sentences while trying to stay true to the formality of early 19th-century England. “You had to get to where the actors could speak it comforta-bly,” she says. “The whole effort was to make it as immediate as possible and not too classic-sounding.”

Back to the source

In the end, this particular group of writers sound almost like literacy advocates.

“It’s thrilling for me when the movie sends people back to the text,” says Rozema.

Concurs Minghella, saying, “Blessedly, the book remains intact and people can always go back and discover the joys of the book, long after my film adaptation.”

Even Irving, who’s seen several of his novels recast as films, is sanguine about the effects of screen adaptations on his novels, noting, “Moviegoers who presume they know the book because they saw the movie — good or bad — are, in my view, not readers to begin with.”

And, in any event, Irving gets the last word. Having adapted “Cider House” for the screen, he turned around and wrote “My Movie Business,” a memoir about the whole experience, as book begets movie begets book.

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