Faithful in Spirit

Summer of the sequel gives way to winter of adaptation

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If last summer was a season of the sequel, then this year’s award cycle is surely the winter of the adaptation.

Most of the year’s biggest and award-touted films are made from screenplays adapted from books (and mainly novels at that): “The Hours,” “About Schmidt,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” “Adaptation,” “Harry Potter,” “Catch Me if You Can,” “Gangs of New York,” “The Pianist,” “The Quiet American,” and “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.”

Even the year’s top grosser, “Spider-Man,” is an adaptation of sorts — if you count comicbooks as the primary source.

While not every writer is as addled about taking a book to the screen as the Charlie Kaufman character in Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation,” it’s still a process fraught with anxiety. Especially if it’s a popular novel. In that case, whether it’s a 10-year-old fan of “Harry Potter” or an English lit major on a Dickens jag, every reader has a specific vision. “Reading a novel is a very personal experience,” says screenwriter Hillary Seitz, who adapted last summer’s Al Pacino vehicle “Insomnia” from a 1997 Norwegian film of the same title and story.

“You develop a picture of the characters in the book that’s bound to be abrogated no matter how clever the screenwriter is.”

Adds Michael Cunnigham, whose “The Hours” was adapted for the screen by David Hare: “I wouldn’t want a faithful adaptation of my novel.

” I don’t have that thing that a lot of writers have about their sacred text,” Cunningham continues. “It all feels a little more fluid to me. All the fun resides in seeing what another writer would do with it.”

Charlie Kaufman, whose “Adaptation” is a rumination on the process of bringing a book to the screen, says: “I have to find what I can bring to the book and try to merge my creative process with the author’s. If you don’t do that I don’t think the result is going to feel alive.”

Just as the internal process of a writer influences the final product of an adaptation in many cases, external factors come into play as well, for good and ill. For example, the adaptation co-writer-directors Chris and Paul Weitz were doing on Nick Hornby’s “About a Boy” (Peter Hedges wrote the first draft of the screenplay) significantly shifted once Hugh Grant was signed to play the lead.

“When we knew we had him it definitely influenced the direction we wanted to take his character in,” says Chris Weitz. Among other things, instead of hearing the voice of the boy at the beginning of the film (as happens in the book), the first character up is Grant’s, firmly establishing him as the hero of the piece.

“We didn’t think the audience would be startled to hear Hugh Grant’s voice at the top of the film,” says Paul Weitz. “But they may have been a little shocked to hear Nicholas Hoult’s.”

There is, they add, no point in merely translating a book to film. It should be an interpretation.

Which doesn’t mean things can’t go horribly wrong. When writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz (“All About Eve,” “A Letter to Three Wives”) took a crack at Graham Greene’s Vietnam-set novel “The Quiet American” in 1956, the result was a disaster. Pressured by the anti-communist Zeitgeist of the times, Mankiewicz flipped the direction of the story 180 degrees to make it pro American. Greene did everything he could to stop the film’s release. It bombed.

Forty-six years later, Australian director Phillip Noyce, and scribes Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan have delivered a version much more faithful to the book’s themes and point of view. Ironically, politics and current public opinion (at least as perceived by Miramax co-chair Harvey Weinstein) has delayed its release since Sept. 11, 2001. The Miramax film does contain Greene’s implicit criticism of American foreign policy and Weinstein has been quoted as saying in part: “We were worried that nobody had the stomach for a movie about bad Americans anymore.”

(The film was released for two weeks in November to make it eligible for the Oscars, and Michael Caine has earned a Golden Globe drama actor nomination.)

None of which fazed Schenkkan, who first started on the script in late 1997. “At a basic level my job was to try to capture the tone and atmosphere of the book,” he says. Schenkkan, who won a Pulitzer for his stage epic “The Kentucky Cycle” in 1992, has been a fan of Greene for years. “It’s the irony of his work that appeals to me.”

While the essentials of the plot are the same, Schenkkan and Hampton’s screenplay does make some significant adjustments to the two main characters. Fowler and Pyle, respectively played by Caine and Brendan Fraser.

“I think Greene’s anti-Americanism gets in his way sometimes,” Schenkkan says. “He makes Pyle so unsympathetic he’s not a formidable enough opponent.” And in the novel, ex-pat Brit Fowler is such a dissolute man that the filmmakers decided to present him, at least, as a candidate for some redemption.

“The book is kind of deceptive,” Schenkkan continues. “Greene’s narrative voice is so strong that he carries readers unnoticed by some fairly significant plot holes.”

Cunningham, who enjoyed the luxury of having his novel adapted by an award-winning playwright, says the process was a positive one.

“Absolutely, I would do it again. But I would only hand (my novels) over to geniuses,” he advises. “That’s the formula. I pass along that secret to all novelists everywhere.”

(Anne Bergman contributed to this report.)

Adaptations 2002

About a Boy
About Schmidt
Catch Me if You Can
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
Gangs of New York
The Guys
The Hours
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Minority Report
My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Nicholas Nickleby
The Pianist
The Quiet American
Rabbit-Proof Fence
The Road to Perdition
The Rules of Attraction
25th Hour
White Oleander

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