Surely it must be easier to make a movie from an existing book or play than to have to come up with an original story, but talk to filmmakers who’ve done both and you will hear otherwise. “To me writing an adaptation is just as hard as writing an original,” says Charles Nelson Jacobs, the writer who adapted the French novel Chocolat, represented among this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Screenplay Adaptation, along with Traffic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? and Wonder Boys. “You have to create a new animal,” says Jacobs,’ who also wrote last year’s Dinosaur, an original. “I had to make a lot of changes, add character, take away characters.”
It took John Irving four years to write the The Cider House Rules, but 13 years and four directors to turn his novel into last year’s Oscar-winning movie. He wrote dozens of adaptations along the way until arriving at the one Lasse Hallstrom filmed in 1999.
Certainly among the most challenging adaptations represented among this year’s nominees is Wonder Boys, taken from the Michael Chabon novel by screenwriter Steven Kloves and director Curtis Hanson. “I think it’s fair to say that no one at Paramount was overjoyed to be buying the book in the first place and certainly not overjoyed to learn that I would be the one adapting it,” says Kloves, the humorous, self-deprecating writer-director of The Fabulous Baker Boys and Flesh and Bone, two critically-acclaimed movies that were not big box office.
In the parlance of the marketplace, Wonder Boys is “literary” fiction (or in Hollywood “non-genre”), that is, a novel not about spies, submarines, serial murderers, the supernatural or the stock market. It is, in fact, a novel about a novelist — and his best student. Written in the sparkling prose that has elevated Chabon to the top shelf of American letters, the book is nevertheless hardly a natural for Hollywood 2001. Its hero, if he can be called that, is beset with personal and professional failure, revealed in bits of dark comedy as he meanders through a literary festival weekend at a small college.
“I always thought it was a movie from the minute I read it,” says Kloves, 41, who had written only originals and turned down numerous adaptation jobs before producer Scott Rudin sent him a copy of Wonder Boys in galleys. “It’s curious because then I would run into people after the book was published and they would say, `I don’t see how in hell this is a movie.’ But it probably goes back to having cut my teeth as an audience member on the movies of the late 60s and early 70s because it was clearly in that bag for me.”
Starring Michael Douglas as the writer Grady Tripp, who published a first novel to great success and seven years later is still trying to produce his second, Wonder Boys is about staying in the game of life when you’ve peaked early, about living up to others expectations. Tobey McGuire plays Grady’s talented but morose and sexually ambivalent student James Leer; Robert Downey Jr., Grady’s flamboyant, gay editor; and Frances McDormand, the college chancellor with whom Grady is having an affair.
“Anyone who’s seen my work knows that I’m clearly more obsessed with character than plot,” says Kloves one morning, seated in the courtyard of Dutton’s Brentwood and sipping a tall latte. “I am one of those who subscribes to the theory that character is plot. I embraced the `shaggy dog’ aspect of it,” he says, meaning the story’s rambling, loose-jointed structure. “I thought that’s what made it entertaining and dramatic. I didn’t see it as a weakness.”
“Movies about writers are usually not very good,” says director Curtis Hanson. “What a writer does doesn’t translate that easily. Had this been a movie just about a writer I don’t think I would have wanted to do it. But the themes of the movie apply to all of us, in that we’re all looking backward and forward in our lives, trying to figure out who we want to be, what our purpose is, and how to retain a sense of renewal.”
But how to get Chabon’s interior, 368-page novel into the form of a two-hour film? Certainly the video stores are well stocked with literary adaptations that either didn’t scream to be films or screamed after being made into films – titles like Bonfire of the Vanities, Angela’s Ashes, Beloved, Bright Lights, Big City, Texasville and the recent All the Pretty Horses.
A sometime shibboleth in Hollywood holds that good movies are made from bad books and vice versa. Kloves doesn’t agree with this, but says, “The danger of a good book is that it is the voice of the author, and the language and his or her craft is what’s making it evocative and, absent that, when you put it on the screen it just won’t work. So you have to find a way to bring that voice into the screenplay and onto the screen.”
Prose fiction goes inside the characters’ heads. Movies must bring it all to the surface. “You have to end up externalizing the life of, say, Jack Baker,” Kloves says of the battered lounge pianist hero of The Fabulous Baker Boys’ (played by Jeff Bridges). “You could easily evoke what’s going inside Jack Baker in a novel – not easily, but the tools are there. You have to find other ways to do it in screenwriting. Often the men in my movies are reticent; it’s their behavior and the occasional word they drop that is revealing.
“I did think about half way through `Wonder Boys’ that next time I’m going to take a really inferior piece if literature and look like a hero because the only thing I can do here is fail. Because it’s a wonderful book and he’s an extraordinary writer.”
“Most adaptations are approached as condensations as opposed to the bolder approach of starting over,” says Hanson who won an Oscar in 1997, with writing partner Brian Helgeland, for his adaptation of James Elroy’s crime noir “L.A. Confidential.” “The key is going after the essence of the characters and then letting the plot go where it needs to go to illuminate the essence of those characters. You want to be inspired by the book, not enslaved to it.”
In his book “Talking Pictures: Screenwriters in American Cinema” Time Magazine critic Richard Corliss belittled screenwriter Buck Henry’s 1967 adaptation of Charles Webb’s novel The Graduate as “a job of adaptation so close that it was less rewriting than retyping.”<
“I remember thinking, this is going to be easy,” says Kloves, “because there’s all this great stuff here. You know, I don’t have to do all the heavy lifting. He’s created the characters, he’s created the world, he’s given me a lot of great incidents. Let’s just sit down and start typing this up.
“I learned very quickly that in some ways it was more difficult than writing originals. One, because you can use source material as a crutch, which is not a good thing – you have to avoid that.”
Kloves, who has since gone on to adapt The Adventures of Harry Potter for Warner Bros. and director Chris Columbus, says, “I always had an appreciation for adaptation but never understood it. I always respected those guys like Scott Frank and Steve Zaillian,” the screenwriters of Out of Sight and Schindler’s List, respectively. “I knew it wasn’t easy what they were doing.”
Echoing Hanson, he says, “To preserve the essence of a book is the real trick. Whatever you responded to in your gut when you first read it is what you have to translate into a screenplay – and then onto the screen. It requires a little sleight of hand, a lot of craft and a lot of dumb luck.”
“It’s what you leave out and how you replace it so that the viewer doesn’t feel there’s something missing,” says Michael Chabon, who has written two original screenplays himself, two teleplays and is now adapting his most recent novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.” (He declined the opportunity to adapt Wonder Boys.)
“I love movies myself, but I think most novels don’t come out well. They end up feeling like the Cliff Notes version.” Chabon mentions The Cider House Rules and The English Patient as prominent exceptions. The English Patient, the book, was so dense and layered and fragmentary. In some ways the movie was better – and clearer.”
Chabon says it was the positive experience of observing Kloves work on Wonder Boys that prompted him to want to adapt his new book on his own. The two writers met to discuss the Wonder Boys adaptation and remained in close contact by email through the process. “Watching him make the choices he made and seeing how all the cuts worked out well, I suddenly thought, I get it now. I think I can do that.”
The novelist says he trusted Kloves based on having seen The Fabulous Baker Boys and Flesh and Bone. “It felt like a good fit to me,” he says.
What Kloves believes he brought to Chabon’s semi-autobiographical tale of a man trying to recover from success was “a certain emotional punctuation.” As well as reduction. “In the book there is a darkness and a kind of melancholy, but I don’t think it’s quite as in evidence as it is in the screenplay and the final movie.
“Michael has an ability to do farce. I’m not comfortable with farce and don’t do it well, so I tended to respond to the more melancholy, the darker aspects of the novel, and they became the overall tone of the screenplay and movie. A novelist has a broad palette of colors and emotions he can use, but a screenplay has to be more selective. I had to choose that which I thought was most important emotionally to best express the internal life of Grady.
“There’s a scene where Grady and James are driving home from a visit to Grady’s soon-to-be-ex-wife’s parents. And James tells Grady that one of the reason he came to the university was to be taught by Grady. And this real bitterness comes out of Grady at this moment. It’s really one line, and it’s a line that I wrote, which was `Well, for that if nothing else, James, I’m sorry.’
“It was there in Michael’s book, just not literally. That side of Grady was there. But in a screenplay you have to find one line, one moment, one scene to express that.”
One critical aspect of adaptation that does not involve the screenwriter is casting, which falls to the director. Readers of the novel would have noticed immediately that several of the principal roles Wonder Boys were not cast to physical type. Frances McDormand’s chancellor in the book was described as a much larger woman, while a pompous elfin lecturer wound up being played by the barrel-chested Rip Torn.
The first time Chabon heard the name Michael Douglas mentioned as the actor to play Grady Tripp, he admits he was surprised. “I had to get used to it. I grew up watching Michael Douglas on The Streets of San Francisco. But I knew there was no way they could have cast anyone who looked like Grady and was a movie star because in the book he weighs 300 pounds. He has this bear-like bulk.”
In the end he gave his blessing to Douglas’ performance. “In some sort of interior way,” says the author, “he managed to approximate how I had imagined the character on the inside.”
Many critics liked Wonder Boys, including the Times’ Kenneth Turan, who called it “a smart, literate film, especially noticeable for its generosity of spirit.” New York Magazine’s Peter Rainer wrote, “There’s a richness of tone, of emotion in this film; the imbroglio of Grady’s life is rendered lucidly and lyrically.” In the Village Voice Amy Taubin said, “The film does justice to the novel and not merely because Steve Kloves’ witty screenplay leaves so much of the dialogue intact. Hanson’s filmmaking has a similar precision.”
Yet the turnout for Wonder Boys at the box office (the film had grossed about $20 million in the U.S. through mid-March) was no doubt a disappointment to the studio, underlining the doubts expressed by Kloves against his better hopes.
“In a sense `Wonder Boys’ was so incompatible with the current culture of movies,” says Kloves, “how did they think anybody would go in the first place? And, of course, they didn’t go.
“I’m still an optimist, in the sense that I believe you can make one of these movies and that people will come.”
There are, by anyone’s count, a lot of good books out there waiting for someone to prove him right.
Los Angeles Times 2001