Writers discuss their work and adaptations for the big screen
The film industry’s relationship with novelists has been more than a little tough at times. Some great authors have come to grief in Hollywood, baffled by either the screenplay form, the business practices of the industry or both.
“There’s a cliche that writers want their books to be filmed and then are outraged that there are changes,” says Joseph Kanon, whose novel “The Good German” was adapted by Paul Attanasio for Warner Bros. “I think it’s because we all see a movie in our heads as we’re writing. I think we ought to be very grown up about this. A movie is not an illustrated book, it’s its own thing.”
Taking that view — and staying out of the adaptation game, for the most part — gives novelists a different perspective on the year’s films from those who toil as industry insiders.
That’s true even for a novelist who has lived her life among screenwriters. Zoe Heller, who penned the novel “What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal,” is the daughter of screen scribe Lukas Heller, who wrote “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” and “The Dirty Dozen.” Moreover, her brother and her husband are screenwriters.
Nonetheless, she says, “It’s not my metier. I’m often teased by my family because I watch movies in an innocent, open-mouthed way. I’m delighted and surprised and amazed by what’s happening.”
Heller, who admires Patrick Marber’s adaptation of her book and even became friends with him, feels her novel was more sympathetic to its narrator, Barbara (played by Judi Dench), who in the film is more clearly a villain — and more obviously a lesbian.
“The book is partly a kind of defense of the post-menopausal woman, particularly women who reach a certain age without being married and acquiring property,” says Heller. “They’re at the very low end of the totem pole. One can go to this movie and enjoy this utterly malevolent presence. If I’ve succeeded in the book at all, you should have some sympathy for this character, even though she’s a bit nutty.”
One defining difference between books and movies is simply that movies are shorter. Where a book might take eight hours or longer to read, a movie must tell the story in around two hours.
Tom Perrotta, author of “Little Children,” saw that speed-up change the tone of his story, as well as its ending.
“(The ending) was a response to the tension,” says Perrotta, who shares screenplay credit with Todd Field. “When you boil this longish novel down to a 120-page script, there’s a level of tension that’s not there in the book, and that tension created the need for a more cathartic end. It was hidden in the book that it had a suspense or thriller-ish element in the end, and the way it got compressed in the film really brought that to the forefront.
“Even a faithful adaption, if it’s compressed and dramatically taut enough, can feel different from the book and take you places you didn’t expect to go.”
Giles Foden, author of “The Last King of Scotland,” was also struck by the what he calls “the sense of compression.
“The reduction of the number of characters and the number of locations — that came across so strongly as a way of working, and I think novelists can learn something from that,” Foden says. “I think there’s a tendency, because there’s no limit on your canvas, to continually expand.”
A novel also creates a different relationship between the reader and the book than a film audience can have with a movie, says “The Prestige” novelist Christopher Priest:
“A novel is presenting an argument, it invites the reader along, the reader becomes complicit in the novel. But a film is much more of a form of entertainment, the audience sits there and goes along with it.”
Priest admits that before Christopher and Jonathan Nolan got their hands on his book, he couldn’t imagine how it would be adapted for the screen:
“All my books are sort of hard to adapt because they work on this argument level, and (‘The Prestige’) is no different from the others. The Nolans converted all the arguments into visual elements.”
No matter how faithful — or ingenious — the adaptation, almost every author will point to some element of his book he would have loved to have seen on the bigscreen.
Perrotta misses some of the backstory scenes he’d written for his characters, though he concedes that “actors embody the whole person so you don’t need all that.”
Heller misses a scene where Barbara goes on what she thinks is a date with a colleague, only to learn he’s interested in Sheba, the same woman Barbara’s obsessed with.
“It’s a very comic scene and yet a very sad scene,” says Heller, who liked it so much she chose it for readings when she visited bookstores.
Priest made a point of putting in the book a scene in which an applicant for a magician’s-assistant job strips to her underwear and crawls through what seems to be an impossibly small hole in a piece of wood. This, says Priest, is actually a common test magicians employ of aspiring assistants.
“It’s amazing what a young woman can do with her body to get through a hole,” says Priest. The scene didn’t make it into the film, and Priest, who’s never actually seen it done, would have loved to have seen it for real. “If anybody can do it,” he says, “Scarlett Johansson could.”
Kanon just would have liked to have seen more of the love story. He echoes Perrotta, though, when he says, “As opposed to books, movies have faces. You can do so much just looking at someone’s face, their eyes. Cate (Blanchett) has moments where you see so much in her eyes.”
Kanon got a look at those faces close up during a visit to the set. But he says that while most people spend those visits looking at the actors, he was looking at the crew.
“It was just a marvel of professionalism,” he says. “They are all really good. They’re trying to make something come alive.
“A writer just sits down with a piece of paper to do the same thing. It gave me a whole new respect for writing, and how magical it is.”