Gaining something in translation

Good novels are often turned into mediocre films, but exceptions prove how good adaptations can be.

February 14, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,Sun Film Critic

The worse the book, the better the screenplay." Not always. In 1998, at least, quite a few movies disproved the age-old Hollywood adage that there's many a slip between a great book and a great movie, an adage proved true over and over again, from "War and Peace" to "The Bonfire of the Vanities."

Some of last year's adaptations even succeeded against seemingly insurmountable odds. Screenwriter Stephen Schiff adapted "Lolita," Adrian Lyne's screen version of Vladimir Nabokov's brilliant novel, with a sharp ear for the author's devastating irony. And "Mrs. Dalloway," which starred Vanessa Redgrave as the title character, did a good job of bringing Virginia Woolf's Joycean, time-bending novel into a more linear narrative.

Jonathan Harr's nonfiction legal thriller, "A Civil Action," was so steeped in meticulous detail and covered so many years, that it seemed unadaptable. But writer-director Steven Zaillian ("Schindler's List") boiled down the 500-page best seller with amazing grace (only to make the misstep of casting John Travolta in the lead role). What must have been a Herculean effort on the part of Zaillian earned him a nomination for a Writers Guild of America award.

One of the year's best adaptations was "A Simple Plan," which was nominated for an Oscar last week. That the long-awaited movie version of Scott Smith's acclaimed 1993 novel was such a success should come as no surprise; the book itself was germinated by Smith in a screenplay-writing class.

And, in a rare turn of events, Smith himself attended to the page-to-screen surgery, rather than the usual flotilla of "script doctors" who so often suture literature into a formulaic monster. But the reason why "A Simple Plan" succeeds as a movie is precisely because it did not hew to the book. Where Smith's novel -- a brutal thriller set in the snowfields of the upper Midwest -- focused on the relationship between the protagonist and his wife, the movie shifts the emphasis to the protagonist and his brother.

The change necessitated a few plot tweaks -- a character who dies early on the page lives much longer on celluloid -- but it also created a story that was more akin to classical tragedy than just another larcenous morality tale. (It also allowed actors Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton to shine.)

The idea to switch the focus of "A Simple Plan" came from the movie's producer, Scott Rudin, who when he met Smith told the author that after the book's pivotal death, "what's left?"

"To tear that apart and wade through the ruins was probably the hardest," said Smith. "I couldn't quite picture how it was going to come together. But ultimately I think Scott Rudin had the greatest effect on this script. You hear so many stories in the other direction."

Another change in direction came in director Sam Raimi's contribution to the project. Although the director is best known for such camp gore-fests as "Evil Dead," in the case of "A Simple Plan" he actually suggested that Smith tone down the violence of the book, which contained much bloodier scenes than appear in the movie.

Smith, who is working on another novel as well as another movie adaptation -- of Richard Stark's novel "Backflash" -- attributes his happy baptism in Hollywood to "having the flexibility to recognize that the movie's going to be something different than the book, and that's for the good of both."

Although "Shakespeare in Love" was nominated for an Oscar for best original screenplay, it veers into adaptation territory, as it wittily weaves dialogue from "Romeo and Juliet," as well as other Shakespeare plays, in and out of its narrative.

Marc Norman, who wrote "Shakespeare in Love" with Tom Stoppard, was familiar with adaptation, having brought the book "Bat 21" to the screen in 1988. He agrees with the truism that bad books usually turn into better movies.

"The best movies are made from the central idea of a book," he explained. "If a book has a good central idea and isn't executed well, that doesn't matter, because the screenwriter is looking for an inspiration. The better the book author is, the more his prose is internal, in the minds of the characters. So the better the book, the more daunted the screenwriter is, because so much of what's wonderful about it is in the prose. The screenwriter has to make it visual."

Still, it's possible to represent an interiorized work on screen, even without the crutch of narration. "The Sweet Hereafter," Russell Banks' 1992 novel about the aftermath of a school bus crash in a tiny Canadian town, was told in four interior monologues. When the director, Atom Egoyan, adapted the book for the screen in 1997, he completely retooled the book's structure, even introducing his own conceit of using the children's story "The Pied Piper" as a recurring metaphor.

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