Almost every year, the contenders for Oscar’s original-screenplay kudo include one or more newcomers making a splash with their first produced script. At the same time, the adapted-screenplay category is typically a race among veteran scribes, who often have plenty of award pedigree.
That’s to be expected, as tyros rarely have the wherewithal or studio trust to obtain a pre-existing property. Even today’s most respected adapters had to do something notable to get past the gatekeepers.
Is adapting really so different from writing an original, though? Justin Haythe, who adapted “Revolutionary Road” and is now laboring over several originals and an adaptation, is skeptical.
“There’s something about every screenplay that involves translation of an idea — your own or that of a novel.” He seeks a single jumping-off point, which in the case of “Revolutionary Road” was “two people screaming at each other at the side of a road.”
Whether original or adaptation, it’s about “looking for that central motion: two people arranged in space, and making something happen that changes that.”
The industry doesn’t seem to see things that way, though. It’s unusual for a relative unknown to make a splash with an adapted screenplay, as Aline Brosh McKenna did last year with “The Devil Wears Prada” — and McKenna had more than one produced script under her belt.
Haythe, who was an esteemed novelist before taking up screenwriting, wrote a spec script, then wrote the screenplay for the original thriller “The Clearing,” which in turn led to the offer to adapt Richard Yates’ novel “Revolutionary Road.”
2003’s original docudrama “The Deal” brought Giles Foden’s “The Last King of Scotland” into Peter Morgan’s orbit, though neither he nor the novel was A-list at that point. “Our collective heat was arctic,” concedes the currently sizzling adapter of his own play “Frost/Nixon.”
A prize can kick open the door as well. Eric Roth won the Samuel Goldwyn Writing Award in 1970 for an original road movie, which landed him Joseph Wambaugh’s “The Onion Field.” That road eventually led to the “Forrest Gump” Oscar, Oscar noms for “The Insider” and “Munich” (shared with Tony Kushner) and this year’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”
All three are “kind of loosely adapted” from their source material, Roth says. “You get into these tricky areas of adaptation: Sometimes you can be more original with them.”
In that sense, “experience — or success might be a better word — gives me the confidence to feel free to do the material in the way I think is best. … I’ve learned to distill in some way what the theme of the piece is — hopefully in keeping with what the author intended — and to be a dramatist in a visual medium.”
Yet David Hare, an Oscar nominee for “The Hours” who adapted Bernhard Schlink’s novel “The Reader,” says that “the learning curve is actually U-shaped. Each one is worse until you learn to get better.”
Beyond what he’d picked up after “40 years of being at it” (the writer’s craft, that is), Hare learned “everything I know about adaptation” over daily breakfasts with helmer Louis Malle preparing Josephine Hart’s “Damage.”
“Every morning at 8:30 we’d have coffee and Louis would say, ‘Tell me the story of the film. All over, from the beginning.’ Day after day he’d make me tell the entire thing out loud, and question every bit as I went along. This went on for three weeks until he said, ‘Now go off and write it.’ Of course, by that point I was ready to smash a brass ashtray over his head.”
“Doubt’s” John Patrick Shanley is certain experience is valuable in adapting, citing a key scene in his own picture, in which Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) confronts the suspected-pedophile Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman): “I pulled every trick I learned in my entire playwrighting and screenwriting life to make that scene continue to play.”
He has the nun open the blinds when asking “Which boy?,” her action “suddenly blazing sunlight in his face, him getting the third degree.” When he shuts them as if in rebuke, she then switches on a lamp: “It’s a sort of second, nonverbal level of the argument.” A ringing phone each refuses to answer becomes an insistent obstacle in counterpoint.
“There’s a constant stream of those kinds of ‘little big’ events, that I learned from the theater and writing for film, to keep a scene alive.”
Shanley says there is a danger, though, for a writer who gets too committed to adapting other people’s stories.
“You can find yourself in a perpetual meeting,” Shanley says. “Even when the other people aren’t there, the meeting’s in your head. … A guy can lose his way pretty easily.”
Far better then, perhaps, to labor at one’s own untested ideas. Finding the business “so cruel,” Hare keeps returning to the stage, where “I know it will happen, and be done and seen all over the world.” Morgan asserts, “As refined and subtle a challenge as an adaptation is, I still think it’s better to do originals.
“An original has to be written on spec at some level. Holding off taking the money as long as possible is the best way, because it leaves you the most power. It leaves you uninterfered with, and the more uninterfered with, the purer the writing.”