×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Novelists Second-Guess 2006 Scripts

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.”

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Josefina-Molina

    Josefina Molina: Still Battling After All These Years

    SAN SEBASTIAN  — She isn’t done yet. The battling character of Josefina Molina, winner of Spain’s 2019 National Cinematography Prize, was glimpsed in her acceptance speech at the San Sebastian Festival on Saturday. She used part to thank those who had given crucial help, such as, among women, editors Nieves Martin (1981’s “Función de Noche,” [...]

  • Suro

    Lastor, ‘The Endless Trench’s’ Irusoin, Malmo Team for Mikel Gurrea’s ‘Suro’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    SAN SEBASTIAN – Barcelona-based Lastor Media and Malmo Pictures have teamed with San Sebastian’s Irusoin to produce “Suro” (The Cork), the feature debut of Mikel Gurrea and a product of San Sebastian’s Ikusmira Berriak program. The film stars Laia Costa, who broke through with Sebastian Schipper’s “Victoria” and also serves as executive producer, and Pol López [...]

  • Ane

    Madrid’s ECAM Incubator Develops Terrorism Drama 'Ane'

    SAN SEBASTIAN — For the second year in a row, the ECAM Madrid Film School has paired a number of up-and-coming filmmakers with various industry veterans for an Incubator program part of the school broader development arm called The Screen. For its initial edition in 2018, this Incubator selected five feature projects, putting the selected [...]

  • Roma Cinematography

    'Mission: Impossible - Fallout' and 'Roma' Win LMGI Awards for Motion Pictures

    Two major 2018 releases – actioner “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” and critics’ darling “Roma” – were honored for film location work by the Location Managers Guild International at a ceremony this evening at the Eli & Edythe Broad Stage in Santa Monica. The 6th Annual LMGI Awards also recognized “Chernobyl” and “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” [...]

  • Soho House

    Soho House Lands In Downtown Los Angeles

    Warner Music, Spotify and Lyft are poised to welcome a new neighbor to downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District with Soho Warehouse, the third California outpost of the Hollywood-loved members-only club — and the largest North American opening to date. Hot on the heels of the Soho House Hong Kong debut earlier this summer, the private [...]

  • Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider'

    Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider' Gets a Concert/Screening Premiere at Radio City

    In a year full of major 50th anniversary commemorations — from Woodstock to the moon landing — why not one for “Easy Rider,” Dennis Hopper’s hippie-biker flick that was released on July 14, 1969? That was the idea when a rep for Peter Fonda, who starred in the film as the laid-back Captain America, reached out [...]

  • Costa Gavras

    Costa-Gavras and Cast on Nationality, Identity, and Cinema

    SAN SEBASTIAN  —  Though he’s been based in Paris since 1955 and came up through the French film industry, director Costa-Gavras has never forgotten his roots. “Those who are born Greek,” said the Peloponnese-born filmmaker at a Saturday press conference,  “stay Greek all their lives.” The once-and-always Greek was not just in San Sebastian to [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content