Deep connections to source material were key to this year's adaptations

Films adapted from novels have always been a significant part of the Oscar race. Since “All Quiet on the Western Front” won best pic in 1930, films based on novels have won the category over 40% of the time.

This year’s frame again has some strong contenders for the top prize. Big-budget epics “Cold Mountain,” “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” and character-driven dramas “Mystic River,” “Big Fish” and “House of Sand and Fog” (as well as nonfiction adaptation “Seabiscuit”) are among the favorites for multiple nominations.

On the niche arthouse side of things, adapted properties such as “Whale Rider” and “Girl With a Pearl Earring” are a couple of highly regarded pics that could sneak up on the inside, come Oscar night.

For a screenwriter, wrestling a work of art from one medium to another calls for a large dose of dedication. Spending two to three years on the sometimes grinding process of successfully transmogrifying a novel into a screenplay requires a strong personal connection that can sustain a scribe from the first draft through many, many rewrites.

Good read

“I have to read it, love it and feel like the world of the book is something that I know intrinsically,” says Brian Helgeland, who scripted Clint Eastwood’s take on Dennis Lehane’s “Mystic River.” So far, Helgeland has adapted six novels for the screen, four of which have been produced, including “L.A. Confidential,” for which he won an Oscar.

From a working class Massachusetts town himself, Helgeland found the South Boston milieu of Lehane’s book far from alien. “I recognized all of the characters. This guy was like my uncle. That guy was like my best friend in high school. It all made sense.”

For Anthony Minghella, it was a deep connection with the material that got him to sign on to adapt and direct the screen version of Charles Frazier’s bestselling novel “Cold Mountain” five years ago.

“I’ve been interested in pilgrimage stories for as long as I can remember,” says Minghella. “So in many ways I was looking for ‘Cold Mountain’ before I found it.”

A university professor for a brief time in the early 1980s, Minghella has made a name for himself helming literary based pics that are, by turns, epic and intimate (“The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “The English Patient”). So “Cold Mountain,” with its Homeric odyssey of a damaged hero’s journey back home to the love of his life, was more or less a perfect match for Minghella.

“I was instantly attracted to it,” Minghella recalls. “Most 20th-century novels are in argument with narrative. And here was this book, like a lost 19th-century classic, with its preoccupation with storytelling and the energy of a great story.”

Stringing ‘Pearl’

Brit screenwriter Olivia Hetreed also had a strong reaction when she first read Tracy Chevalier’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” the fictional tale of the model who sat for Dutch master Johannes Vermeer’s most famous painting. “I read a proof of the book because Tracy and I share the same agent,” Hetreed recalls. “I was absolutely thrilled with it. I felt very strongly that I had to write the screenplay.”

While other scribes may have been attracted to their assignments because novels resonated with themes in their own lives, Russian-born director Vadim Perelman, who co-wrote “The House of Sand and Fog” with Shawn Lawrence Otto, pursued the rights to Andre Dubus III’s book because it more or less was his life.

After he immigrated to America with his widowed mother from the Ukraine in 1977, his life took some rapid twists and turns similar to those that bedevil the book’s two main characters.

Personal connection

“I assimilated very quickly,” Perelman says. “But my mother didn’t.” After she remarried, Perelman, just 17, left home to fend for himself.

By the time he contacted Dubus for the film rights three years ago, there were hundreds of inquiries.

“I told him my life story and my connection to the characters and said that I had nothing to lose,” Perelman recalls. “Andre was very protective of the material. But at the end of the day, he trusted me to take the book and make it into a film.”

Where any of this year’s crop of novelists has been involved in the adaptation, it has been minimal at best. Case in point: Maori author Witi Ihimaera, whose 15-year-old novel “Te kaieke tohora” has gone from being a little-known book to the worldwide indie film phenomenon “Whale Rider” in just over 10 months.

“When I got the first drafts I was very critical of some aspects of it,” says Ihimaera from his home in New Zealand. “But in the end I said to (writer-director Niki Caro): ‘The book is mine. The film’s yours.’ “

Only five scenes from the novel are in the film. “There’s a great deal of invention in the script,” says Caro, who notes that one of the film’s most talked-about scenes, when Pai addresses the audience during the school play, is not in the novel. “At some point, you have to let the book go, no matter how much you love it.”

On the surface, one of the most onerous tasks of adaptation for the 2003 crop of pics fell to John Collee, who co-wrote “Master and Commander” with director Peter Weir. The duo had the job of compressing the essence of 20 seafaring novels by the late Patrick O’Brian into one two-hour movie.

“The interesting thing about O’Brian is that he’s not really interested in plot as much as he is in incidents,” says Collee from his office in Sydney. As a result, the bulk of the film comes from just two of the novels, with the balance serving the research needs of the screenwriters. “The beauty of O’Brian’s novels is the richness of technical detail and the absolute correctness of the 19th-century dialogue,” Collee continues. “It made the job of achieving some sort of verisimilitude in the film that much easier.”

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