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Adapting for the Screen

Adapting for the Screen

Articles - Screenwriting

Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women has been made for the screen no less than ten times since being published in 1868. It’s inevitable that people would want to visually develop the world they had vicariously lived through. But just because it remains one of the most beloved books of all time doesn’t mean that its screen versions have fared as well. When adapting a novel, “determining what to keep and what to lose is unquestionably an angst-inducing exercise,” writes Christina Hamlett in MovieMaker’s Complete Guide to Making Movies 2008. “The bottom line?” asks Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Mark Fergus (Children of Men), “Film is about choices. It’s a brutal medium and the more hard choices that are made, the better the movie.” The nominees for this year’s Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar have undoubtedly found a happy balance.

For Sarah Polley, nominated for her adaptation of Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” balance came in the form of a favorite short story that was in every way cinematic. “The characters were so finely nuanced and so beautifully drawn out,” she explains. “It’s also a very visual story. Her descriptions of them skiing as the sun goes down and then the winter light—there were so many vivid descriptions in there. One of the joys of making the film was taking these images that you’ve had in solitude as a reader of fiction and making them appear in front of you.”

Joe Wright, director of Atonement, agrees. “A book is symbols and words on the pages; it happens in your head. As on Pride & Prejudice, I sought to make a film adaptation of the book that happened in my head as I read it.” What could have been a demolition job, according to Atonement author Ian McEwan, resulted in a “wise and clever” movie. “You’ve got to boil down 130,000 words to a screenplay containing 20,000 words. In this particular case there are greater difficulties for the screenwriter because this is a very interior novel. It lives inside the consciousness of several characters.”

For Ronald Harwood, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter behind The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the task of adapting the life story of a paralyzed man who lived inside his own head and blinked to communicate, was also difficult. “At first, I began to panic that I didn’t know how to do it, and I nearly decided to give back the money, but then I had the idea of Jean-Dominique himself serving as the camera for much of the movie—the idea that his blinking eye is the camera.” An Academy honored film was then born.

The Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar was first awarded in 1927 to Benjamin Glazer for his stage-to-screen adaptation of Seventh Heaven. Since then it has been handed out to Sidney Howard (Gone with the Wind), Joseph Mankiewicz (A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve), Robert Bolt (Doctor Zhivago), Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy), William Goldman (All the President’s Men), Emma Thompson (Sense and Sensibility) and Victor Heerman and Sarah Y. Mason for the 1933 adaptation of Little Women. On February 24 one of this year’s nominees will join the prestigious ranks of those creative folk that came before. “Whatever is depicted,” explains Hamlett “it’s essential that a film’s content resonate with contemporary audiences.” Judging from box office receipts and recent award nominations, looks like that’s exactly what these five movies did.

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