In an original script, the characters spring extempore from the screenwriter’s mother wit. It’s easy to see that the scribe must identify with his or her hero in some way.
But in adapted scripts, the character is presented to the scripter as an expression of someone else’s imagination. So how does the adapter of a screenplay find a way inside the head of his characters?
Sometimes, say this year’s nominated scribes, it’s personal experience, sometimes it’s research. And sometimes it’s a moment in bed.
The last is what WGA and Oscar nominee Ronald Harwood had to try to get some idea what it must be like to be stricken with “locked-in syndrome,” the affliction that left the protagonist of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” mentally intact but physically paralyzed.
He tried to imagine it while lying supine. “You lie there and blink one eye,” he said. “The claustrophobia is appalling.”
From the outset, Harwood was determined to make the audience feel the horror of Bauby’s predicament while keeping the humor of Bauby’s writing. He knew, though, that even with that humor, it would be unbearable for the audience to spend two hours watching Bauby, his face contorted, his body immobile and one eye sutured shut.
After weeks of grappling with the problem, he knew what to do: “The answer I came up with was seeing it from his point of view. So I made it entirely subjective. The camera was him.”
Harwood stuck close to the book but did have to invent some scenes. He points to the flashback in which Bauby shaves his elderly father, who is himself trapped by age and infirmity on the top floor of his home. “It’s one thing to write about them in a novel. It’s another thing to realize them as spoken dialogue between two actors,” says Harwood.
Christopher Hampton, Oscar nominated for “Atonement,” had a personal experience to draw on. Hampton’s own boyhood in Egypt had included an episode that haunted him as an adult, even becoming fodder for his own stage play “The White Chameleon.”
“At the center of it was a moment where I as a child saw my friend being maltreated by his father and didn’t do anything about it. And that stuck with me,” says Hampton. “You somehow collude in what’s going on, in a way you understand later but not at the time.”
On “Into the Wild,” it was the book’s writer, Jon Krakauer, who had a personal experience to draw on. Krakauer had gone off as a young man to climb an Alaskan peak, the Devil’s Thumb, all alone — arguably a more reckless act than anything done by Christopher McCandless, the subject of “Into the Wild.”
But McCandless had been vilified by many after his death for his recklessness. Adapter-director Sean Penn, like Krakauer, disagrees. “The opinions of who the guy is I find trivial and silly and uninformed,” Penn says. “My own (take) was not an opinion, it was the movie I saw. It was what I felt about him reading the thing. I was more in line with Krakauer from go.”
Oscar-nominee Sarah Polley admits her own life experiences are far removed from those of the characters in “Away From Her.” Of what it must feel like to have Alzheimer’s, she says: “I feel like it’s such a mystery. I think we can only kind of guess at it.”
But she felt that the story revealed something important to her. She was early in a marriage but also spending a lot of time with her grandmother, who had moved into a retirement home. “It was the first time I had thought about what it meant to endure life with someone,” Polley says. “It wasn’t about this initial chemical maniacal feeling you have when you first fall in love, but the idea of going through life with someone and the richness of that and the complications of that.”
“Zodiac” writer James Vanderbilt, nommed by the WGA, had the opposite problem as he dove into the story of the men chasing the eponymous San Francisco serial killer of the 1970s. “It was very easy to get sucked into the particulars of this case,” he says. “I found myself doing it almost immediately. I got obsessed about it. It was easy to fall down the rabbit hole and see how people would lose their lives falling down that rabbit hole. I felt very comfortable writing a guy who was so caught up in something that he forgot to eat for two days.”
Adapted screenplay, WGA and Oscar nominees:
“No Country for Old Men,” Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
“There Will Be Blood,” Paul Thomas Anderson
“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” Ronald Harwood
“Into the Wild,”* Sean Penn
“Zodiac,”* James Vanderbilt
“Atonement,”† Christopher Hampton
“Away from Her,”† Sarah Polley
*WGA nomination only
†Oscar nomination only