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Do the write thing

Adapters of beloved books balance art and personal vision

TIP SHEET
What: 57th Annual Writers Guild Awards
Where: Hollywood Palladium, Hollywood; Pierre Hotel, New York City
When: Feb. 19
Honorees: David Mamet, Screen Laurel Award;
Susan Harris, Paddy Chayefsky TV Laurel Award;
John Sayles, WGA East’s Ian McLellan Hunter Award for Lifetime Achievement;
John Auerbach, Richard E. Jablow Award; Claire Labine, WGA East’s Evelyn F. Burkey Award
Host: John O’Hurley (West); Charles Grodin (East)

If writing an original screenplay is hard work, then adapting someone else’s material seems only a bigger challenge. So imagine the difficulties in bringing to the screen a beloved work of fiction. And remember: The bigger the book — or picture — the higher the stakes.

That wasn’t much of a problem in 2004, when acclaimed books like Ian McEwan’s “Enduring Love” were turned into low-profile art-house pics, and movies with mojo, like Alexander Payne’s “Sideways” and Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby,” came from little-known lit properties, a novel by Rex Pickett and a collection of short stories by F.X. Toole, respectively.

But this year and next raise a different kind of expectation — and a different kind of angst as well. Get ready for a season or two of big-budget adaptations of bestselling novels including Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha,” Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Everything Is Illuminated” and Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.” If that’s not enough to sate auds with a yen for things literary, it’s likely that Don DeLillo’s “White Noise,” Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones” and Michel Faber’s “The Crimson Petal and the White” will appear at multiplexes in the not-too-distant future.

But along with potential for big bucks at the B.O., adapting a popular work of fiction brings abundant risks. “The challenge is maintaining fidelity to the source material, being faithful to the spirit of those books,” says David Heyman, producer of Warner Bros.’ immensely successful “Harry Potter” pics — the fourth and latest of which, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” will arrive in theaters Nov. 18.

John August, who wrote the script for Tim Burton’s version of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” which will open July 15, echoes Heyman’s sentiments. “The audience for ‘Charlie’ or ‘Harry Potter’ is coming with a big set of expectations,” he says. “So if you were to go wildly off, they’re going to be very unhappy. You know going in you have to find a way to make what’s great about the book work as a movie, and if you run into difficult patches, you can’t just do something completely different.”

For Karey Kirkpatrick, who has written the script for “Hitchhiker’s Guide,” opening May 6, succeeding as an adapter is something of a high-wire act. “You’re trying to maintain a tone and trying to add a new one that doesn’t destroy the one everyone loves,” he says. “I always said that if nobody could tell where Douglas Adams left off and I began, then I’d consider it a successful adaptation.”

But not everyone adapting a novel for the screen shares those concerns. “It’s almost always a mistake to approach an adaptation with an air of reverence,” says Stephen Schiff, whose scripts include Vladimir Nabakov’s “Lolita”; Jacquelyn Mitchard’s “Deep End of the Ocean”; and “White Noise,” which is expected to go into pre-production later this year. “That’s a form of self-censorship, a form of pandering, and it’s not a healthy part of anyone’s artistic process. You’re cutting yourself off from your own talent.”

Schiff also points out that screenwriters more concerned with readers than filmgoers might be looking through the wrong end of the telescope. “The movie audience is potentially a very large one,” he says, “so even if you feel answerable to the readership, the best way to look at it may be, I’m bringing a book to many who would not otherwise know it.”

Yet a book’s fiercest fans might also be first in line to see it onscreen. “The studio has picked these films because they have a built-in audience,” says Kirkpatrick. “And you certainly don’t want the fan base to say, ‘Oh, they destroyed it.’ ”

But Schiff doesn’t consider an adapted screenplay fiction’s stepchild. “Someone once said that the difference between an original work of art and an adaptation is the difference between the moon and pointing at the moon. That’s cute, but it’s nonsense.”

Sometimes, though, it’s clearly in a screenwriter’s interest to forge close ties with an author. The “Harry Potter” series is a good example. With Warners intending to turn all seven projected books into movies, maintaining Rowling’s good will is imperative. “The last thing we want to do is adversely affect the relationship,” says Heyman. “We show her the drafts, and if we make any substantial departures from the books, we consult her first.”

Heyman insists that the films have benefited from Rowling’s involvement. “Jo’s knowledge of this world is so much deeper than the books themselves,” he says. “She has countless notebooks about this world. And we may need names or characters who might not be in the books, so she can guide us in terms of not adversely affecting her world.”

Like Rowling, the late Douglas Adams, who died in 2001, created his own cosmos in print. Yet Kirkpatrick is skeptical that he and Adams could have collaborated effectively. “Part of me wishes I could have picked his brain,” he says, “and it would have been awfully hard for him to see my changes in anything other than that context. It would be great if novelists could be a resource you could call. But the curse would be having to keep things exactly as they are just to placate them.”

August is even blunter about the tensions facing novelists and those adapting their work. “In many situations,” he says, “you secretly pray for the dead author — just so you won’t feel culpable for the changes that have to be made. Daniel Wallace told me that when he first read my script for ‘Big Fish,’ it was as if someone took his children and dressed them in funny clothes, which is a nice way of saying that he could still recognize his material, but it was different.”

Ultimately, reconciling the often-conflicting demands of novelists and adapters might not be possible. “You’ve got to be open to film being its own medium,” Kirkpatrick says. “It’s just a different way to tell the story.”

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