From the index of “Team of Rivals”
We know Tony Kushner’s Oscar-nominated adapted screenplay for “Lincoln” went through many revisions and much added research before it reached the screen, but it might still be eyebrow-raising to see that the credited source material, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, has only four pages on Thaddeus Stevens, the role that might win Tommy Lee Jones a supporting actor Oscar.
In fact, as you can see to the right, there isn’t much more in the book devoted to the 13th Amendment that is the central storyline of the film.
Last month, Timothy Noah of the New Republic spoke to Kushner about Michael Vorenberg’s “Final Freedom,” which seems ultimately to have played a larger role in the final screenplay (link via Bob Timmermann).
… Vorenberg’s book, Kushner told me, contains “a very detailed and as far as I know the only finely detailed account of the congressional battle” to pass the 13th amendment, including Secretary of State William Seward’s role in hiring some colorful characters to grease the skids. “It’s the definitive account of that,” Kushner said. “I admire [Vorenberg] enormously as an historian… His book is fantastic.”
But Kushner disputed my speculation that Final Freedom was the principal source (if any there be) for Lincoln. Of Final Freedom’s importance to writing his script, Kushner would say only that he has “a short list of 20 or 30 books that were significant to me, and Michael Vorenberg’s book is certainly one of them.” (He read many more books, of course, in the course of his research.) …
In the same piece, Vorenberg offered his own take:
I’m not sure it’s such a stretch to say that the film was adapted from
Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. Certainly there is much of
Goodwin’s book that made it into the film — not simply certain facts from
history but the texture of the period and the character of Lincoln and
others, especially cabinet members. I do want to make clear that, in my
opinion, if Kusher’s screenplay is “adapted,” it wasn’t adapted from my
book. I don’t deserve that credit. Bits of my book may have ended up in
the screenplay, but so did bits of many other books. I think that
Kushner’s screenplay, aside from being a great piece of writing, is a
nice synthesis of much historical work, and he deserves credit for
getting a very good handle on the vast Lincoln literature. I’m sure that
much of that credit also goes to the historical advisors you mention,
all of whom I admire and regard as top-notch: Harold Holzer, James M.
McPherson, and of course Doris Kearns Goodwin.
For a broader overview that dates back long before Kushner’s involvement, here’s what director Steven Spielberg offered as his perspective on the script process in an interview I had with him earlier in awards season:
“It was an urge to find a story about Abraham Lincoln just based on a lifelong fascination with him as a figure in history, a figure that is almost so famous that he’s become virtually invisible to most people, unless they’re in the middle of taking a test on him in eighth grade. I had always been really compelled by not just his deeds but his process, and that preceded my meeting Doris in 1989 for the first time.
“When I heard that someone as august as
Doris was writing a book about the Lincoln presidency, that was all it really took for me to ask her (in 1999) if I could reserve the film rights to the book she was writing.
“The book was just coming in in dribs and
drabs; I was just reading a chapter at a time. I kind of submerged myself in some of the books I had around the house on Lincoln’s life. … You have to understand, I had been reading about Lincoln my whole life. This wasn’t something I decided to do a crash course on. Lincoln
was pretty embedded in my interest for a long time.
“Tony came into the picture (because) I had a great admiration for Tony as a
playwright, especially after I saw ‘Angels in America’ on Broadway. Kathy Kennedy and I approached Tony to see if he would rewrite ‘Munich’ from page one, (though) he had never
written a screenplay before. It was exciting I think for all of us and a
little bit scary.
“Tony did an amazing job, not just in adapting our materials but adapting
himself to this material. He was on the set with me every day; we got to know
each other very very well. When Tony asked me about future projects, I told him I was waiting for Doris Kearns Goodwin to finish the book on the Lincoln presidency. Tony found that to be really interesting.
“Would this be something he might
want to take on? He deferred to his busy writing schedule for the theater … and he was nervous about becoming part of the conversation when so many scholars had. I said, ‘Would it help if I got you some of the best historians in the nation to
sit around a table in New York City, and we could talk about Lincoln’s life?’ We set up kind
of a seminar to really benefit Tony.
“I think the reason Tony committed was when it came to the broad strokes and
historical record, there was consensus at that roundtable, but when it came to the details of Lincoln’s life and Mary’s life and the psychology and what made him tick, Tony found there
was a lot of room to make a contribution because no one could agree on the personal details of Lincoln’s existence.
“The hardest thing to leave out of the movie
was Tony’s first 550-page draft. There was so much greatness in that long, long
script. I knew it was not going to be 129 pages, but
I also knew we had to go through this process of trial and error. (Later, focusing on) 50 pages of writing on the 13th Amendment, I called Tony up. ‘I think we’ve found our story.'”
Photo of Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner by Kevin Winter/Getty Images Entertainment