Year of adapting popular novels

“Adaptation,” the as yet unreleased film based on Susan Orlean’s 1999 bestseller, “The Orchid Thief,” is already in certain Hollywood circles one of the most widely talked-about screenplays of 2001. And that’s not just because it re-unites helmer Spike Jonze with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, whose “Being John Malkovich” was one of the most iconoclastic films ever to be nommed for an Oscar in the original screenplay category.

It’s because “Adaptation” is a film about adaptation. It uses the storyline of Orlean’s book about orchid smugglers in Florida as a launching pad for Kaufman’s baroque ideas about the profound frustrations a writer faces when trying to adapt a book for the screen. That’s a topical theme in a year when some of Hollywood’s most hotly anticipated pics — among them “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,” “The Shipping News,” “Animal Husbandry,” “The Hours,” “Possession” and “Lord of the Rings” — are based on books.

On one level, “Adaptation” plays out every writer’s worst nightmare. As Robbins Office agent Bill Clegg, who reps “Animal Husbandry” author Laura Zigman, sees it writer’s work can get lost in the transition from Gotham to L.A.

When you sell a book to Hollywood, he says, “you really don’t have any control over what the film will eventually be. If you have the luxury of choice, placing it in the hands of the most like-minded (screenwriter) is the only control you have.”

From the outset, Clegg and Zigman had a good feeling about screenwriter Elizabeth Chandler, and both are happy with the finished script.

“It possesses the texture of the book as far as I can tell,” says Clegg. But Zigman admits finding the first draft shocking for the many things it left out, and its use of character who didn’t exist in her novel.Literary adaptations often work best, says Columbia exec veep Amy Baer, “if you can capture in a movie the exquisite literary experience of reading a good book.” Baer would know. She developed “Shipping News” when it was at Columbia TriStar (it’s since moved to Miramax) and is overseeing “Adaptation.”

Straying from the source

But Baer says that rule doesn’t apply to “Adaptation,” which takes such liberties with the original material that the book itself retreats into the background as Kaufman focuses on the predicament of the screenwriter, who “tortures himself about whether to sell out to make it into a commercial movie.”

That’s a steep responsibility for the writers behind many of the year’s most literary adaptations. Books like E. Annie Proulx’s “Shipping News” and Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours” were heaped with literary prizes upon publication, and audiences will come to theaters with high expectations. That’s especially true of “Harry Potter” since few books have ever been so sharply scrutinized by children the world over.

Writers’ chance to shine

Studios hope to allay that problem by assigning top screenwriters to such projects. Playwright David Hare (“Plenty,” “Wetherby”) adapted “The Hours,” while Oscar-nominated scribe Steven Kloves (“Wonder Boys”) took a stab at “Harry Potter.” While final writing credit hasn’t been assigned to “The Shipping News,” Ron Bass and Robert Nelson Jacobs are among the scribes who worked on that project.

Miramax co-prexy of production Meryl Poster says of Jacob, “He’s an incredibly talented, multi-faceted writer with great range. He can do fairy tales, dramas, romances, anything.”

Easy transition

Poster’s fondness for a screenwriter who’s able to move smoothly from one genre to another highlights the fact that the elixir a successful screenwriter adds to a book in translation from print to screen can’t be measured in terms of the script’s fidelity or departure from the original text. The film has to stand on its own terms.

And that will often come as a jolt to the writer.

“Recently I saw a rough cut of the film,” says Zigman. “Seeing the parts of the books that were based on the kind of things that were based on me, and seeing actors speaking my words, was completely surreal.”

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