Novel acts

Taking a classic love story from page to screen can be a delicate act of alchemy

Ah, l’amour: wonderful to experience but difficult to dramatize on screen, especially when adapting a novel about the nooks and crannies of the most intensely felt emotions. And yet, films focused on romantic love continue to thrive, not least at the Oscars.

Where would the cinema be without “Rebecca,” “Wuthering Heights” or “Doctor Zhivago” not to mention, more recently, “A Room With a View,” “Sense and Sensibility” and “The English Patient”? Right up to this year, with “Chocolat’s” five nods, love spawned on the page continues to exert its allure on screen.

The risks involved in adaptations are huge — no one wants a filmed Harlequin romance — but the rewards can be considerable when you hear an aud sighing and sobbing as one.

“If you’re attracted and drawn to the characters, then your battle is won,” says producer Ishmail Merchant who, with director James Ivory, has specialized in bringing to the screen numerous classic novels with a strong romantic streak, most recently Henry James’ “The Golden Bowl.”

Speaking from Tobago during a break from his new film, “The Mystic Masseur,” Merchant honors his longstanding screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who won Oscars for both E.M. Forster adaptations, “A Room With a View” and “Howards End.”

“When Ruth writes something, she does it with a very fine comb, so there is no question of the pitfalls or traps that people often fall into.”

Emma Thompson won a second Oscar — her first as a writer — for her own screenplay adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility.” The film flaunts romantic convention — Willoughby appears before young Marianne Dashwood drenched and on horseback: a fantasy figure come to life — only to mine the sometimes grievous workings of the heart.

“What I suppose one loves about Austen,” says Thompson, “is the language and the characters. But what’s unexpected is the silliness and cruelty in some people and the fact that the world is really not a terribly nice place.”

If such shadings preempt sentimentality so, too, does the repression in an earlier Thompson-starrer, “Remains of the Day,” itself a product of the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala stable.

“A failed love is almost more satisfactory dramatically than a successful one,” says the actress, referring to that film’s delicate emotional cat and mouse between herself and Anthony Hopkins’ butler, “and yet you felt the passions beneath were boiling. That, to me, is the definition of eroticism.”

The challenge is to find an equivalent for a novel’s specific pulse — to enable montage and music and the like to accomplish what prose does in a successful piece of fiction.

Otherwise, says Elaine Showalter, Avalon professor of humanities at Princeton, you run the risk of a swoony sentimentality. “Viewers are on guard against that and find it cheesy and intrusive. I saw ‘Gone With the Wind’ not long ago and, to my disbelief, found I couldn’t watch it. The whole thing seemed fake and ridiculous when as a kid I remember weeping and carrying on.”

The emphasis can shift, of course, on the way from page to screen. Joanne Harris’ novel “Chocolat” doesn’t ultimately pair up the heroine, Vianne Rocher, with the Irish gypsy, Roux. But Robert Nelson Jacobs’ Oscar-nommed screenplay does, a decision that suited novelist Harris just fine.

Harris says: “I don’t think it would have worked at all if we weren’t sure they were going to get back together. In a film, it’s not a satisfying process if you enter and are left with a lot of unresolved issues.

“What you really want is a little vacation into another world which you can leave happily without having it prey upon your mind.” In any case, adds Harris, the true love story in “Chocolat” is between Vianne and her young daughter, Anouk.

Some romantic novels are improved on screen — to wit, “The Bridges of Madison County,” which earned a 1996 Oscar nod for Meryl Streep’s Italian-accented housewife brought together for four days with Clint Eastwood’s itinerant photographer. The rigor collectively applied to Robert James Waller’s best-selling novel avoided a cinematic wallow in schmaltz.

“At the core of the book was an honest idea,” recalls screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, “which one had to pick off layers of sentimentality to get at.” How did he do that? “You find moments, visual moments,” says the writer, citing “a simple gesture” — not in the novel — wherein Streep is talking on the phone and straightening Eastwood’s shirt collar at the same time. “It was the first time they touch, and a way of getting this love affair to start in a quite unselfconscious way.”

Sometimes, says LaGravenese, making a useful general point, “By going away slightly from the novel, you capture its essence more closely.” “Great novels are meant to be reinterpreted, which is what a film is, ” says Showalter. “A film is a source of literary criticism.”

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