Patricia Rozema has a recurring nightmare. The writer-director is chatting with Jane Austen, whose novel "Mansfield Park" Rozema has made into the current movie. She finally works up the courage to ask Austen's opinion of her adaptation: "Is this what you were after, Jane? Is this what you meant?" In Rozema's telling, Aus-ten shoots back, " 'No! Start over!' "
Every literary adaptation opens a similar conversation, real or imagined, between filmmaker and author. But why are so many of these conversations going on now?
Hollywood has always relied on books as material for films, but nothing compared with what's going on this season, with a whopping 20 literary adaptations coming to the screen. That's twice as many as last winter's figure.
In the past few weeks, versions of Mona Simpson's "Anywhere But Here," William Trevor's "Felicia's Journey" and Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" have opened in theaters. The most prominent novels-turned-movies due out between now and January are David Guterson's "Snow Falling on Cedars," Patricia Highsmith's "The Talented Mr. Ripley," Graham Greene's "The End of the Affair," Stephen King's "The Green Mile" and John Irving's "The Cider House Rules." Memoirs getting the treatment include Frank McCourt's Pulitzer Prize-winning best seller "Angela's Ashes" and "Girl, Interrupted," Susanna Kaysen's disturbing account of being locked up in a mental hospital as a teen-ager.
So how come Hollywood's suddenly found its library card? It all comes down to money, says Jeff Kleeman, a United Artists vice president who recently left the studio after supervising his third straight James Bond film.
"Most of the studios are having a crisis of confidence," Kleeman says. "They don't trust their own taste, and are looking for outside confirmation on every film they put into production."
It's easier to say yes when somebody else has said it first. With literary adaptations, thousands of readers have already said yes before the cameras ever roll.
The prestige of major studios also figures into the equation. The crafty Disney-owned Miramax picked up drafts of two literary Oscar winners, "The English Patient" and "Shakespeare in Love," in turnaround (i.e., secondhand) from the bigger studios that originated them. This is something akin to finding a Gutenberg Bible at a garage sale.
"Studio execs have pride too," says Jack Lechner, a Miramax vice president who recently took a leave of absence to write a book about television in the '90s. "They're tired of watching [Miramax head] Harvey Weinstein waltz away with their classy turnaround projects. Studios aren't putting those projects in turnaround anymore -- instead, they're making them."
One of the benefits of "Harvey envy" is that the majors -- Fox, Warner, Columbia, Disney, MGM/UA and Paramount -- aren't just optioning and producing literary properties. They're also trying to retain the original author's goodwill throughout the process.
That's because if an author hates what Hollywood has done to his book, an adaptation's literate target audience will probably find out about it by reading a review or an interview and might shun the picture.
The closest thing to a cross word Guterson has to say against director and co-screenwriter Scott Hicks' faithful adaptation of "Snow Falling on Cedars" is that he'd rather people read the book first. "I guess it's my bias as a novelist," says Guterson.
Rozema's film of "Mansfield Park" is as freely adapted as "Snow Falling on Cedars" is faithful. In her defense, Rozema says, "Great work bears reinterpretation." If legions of "Jane-ites" howl at the liberties she's taken with their beloved Austen -- up to and including a glimpse of unbodiced bosom -- Rozema is reconciled to it.
Unlike the executives, Rozema chalks up the current vogue for adapting the classics to the end of the century: "It could be that, as we approach our big birthday, we look back. ... We take comfort in the past, but we also use it to try and understand the present."
Then again, books have changed. Twentieth century books have gotten more psychological, less reliant on stories. "Novels and films rely on good storytelling, but there is less good storytelling, nowadays, in both," says John Irving, who did the screen adaptation of "Cider House Rules" himself. "In films, as in novels, we can only hope to see narrative return."
Studios, meanwhile, mainly care about doing better business. New versions of "Madame Bovary" and "Tender Is the Night" top a long list of adaptations in development, but the bull market for literary movies will go bust just as soon as enough of them tank -- whereupon a new trend will take its place. Hollywood is nothing if not adaptable.