Adapted screenplays confront dreaded voice-over

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - When it comes to adapting literary works for the big screen, British playwright David Hare says, one must be promiscuous to be faithful.

Kate Winslet in a scene from "The Reader". REUTERS/Handout

“You can’t simply step your way through a book with perfect fidelity. If you do, the whole thing is completely dead,” Hare argues. His principle was employed to varying degrees by all of this year’s leading contenders for the adapted screenplay Oscar -- including Hare himself, who translated Bernhard Schlink’s Holocaust-themed novel “The Reader” into script form.

Hare says the primary challenge with “The Reader” was the same one presented by most novels: the unspoken interior monologue in which characters freely express their thoughts.

“In cinema, there really isn’t any equivalent to that, unless you use voice-over,” observes Hare, who earned an Oscar nomination for his 2002 adaptation of the Michael Cunningham novel “The Hours.” “Personally, I hate voice-over. I hate an actor droning at me, telling me all sorts of things that the screenwriter is too lazy to make obvious by writing scenes.”

One of the ways screenwriter Justin Haythe gave voice to the internal turmoil of ‘50s suburbanite Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) in his adaptation of Richard Yates’ “Revolutionary Road” was by taking a scene from the novel in which the character seduces a naive secretary over the course of a drunken lunch and adding an emotional rant, which simultaneously communicates his frustration with the humdrum conformity of his life and the back-story of his relationship with his father.

“I don’t think Frank would ever let his guard down, except at that moment with this girl,” Haythe says. “In the book, you’d get this information by being given access to his internal life.”

Hare says his principal invention for “The Reader” was a vehicle for the main character, Michael (played alternately by David Kross and Ralph Fiennes), to unburden himself of the secret he’d been carrying for decades about a teenage affair with an older woman (Kate Winslet) later accused of Nazi war crimes. Schlink has him do it by writing a book. But writing is hardly cinematic, “and he can’t decide to tell it by making a film,” Hare says, so he has Michael reveal his secret in a conversation with his adult daughter.

“Like all good adaptation ideas, it’s suggested by the novel,” Hare says. “Or I should say, I don’t think the novelist will feel it’s false to the novel.”

There was a great deal more promiscuity involved in Simon Beaufoy’s translation of Vikas Swarup’s novel “Q&A” into the script for “Slumdog Millionaire.” But in the end it led him to true love.

Like the movie, the book is about a slum kid (Dev Patel) who gets arrested on suspicion of fraud after he wins big on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” then uses a series of elaborate tales to explain how he answered each question. But, says Beaufoy, “the book, while wonderful, is effectively a series of short stories. There’s a story about an Australian spy; a fading Bollywood star; one all about religion -- but there’s no real through narrative, no spine, which you absolutely have to have in a film.”

Beaufoy traveled to the Indian metropolis of Mumbai in search of answers. Wandering around the slums for weeks, he came to realize that, in spite of the rampant poverty, it was a very romantic, passionate culture.

“I thought, ‘It’s got to be a love story,’” Beaufoy says. “So I invented this character of Latika (played by Freida Pinto) and then had to work backwards and get a whole new set of stories that would work with this quest for a long lost love.”

The need for invention was even greater with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” based on a tale by F. Scott Fitzgerald that was originally published in Collier’s magazine in 1922.

“The short story was a jumping-off point,” says “Button” screenwriter Eric Roth, who won an Oscar for the 1994 adaptation of Winston Groom’s novel “Forrest Gump.” “Fitzgerald is certainly a better writer than I could ever hope to be, but I’m not sure he invested his whole soul into it. It’s very farcical. He was just enjoying the idea.”

Roth responded by investing his own soul into the script, drawing upon his experiences as a father and grandfather, along with the recent passing of his mother, which inspired the framing device of an 85-year-old woman on her deathbed.

The brevity of the source material necessitated numerous other additions and alterations. The adventures of Button (Brad Pitt) in the movie don’t exist in the short story and vice versa. Roth also changed all names (except Benjamin’s), added characters and pushed the time frame forward roughly 60 years to the mid-late 20th century.

In contrast to “Button,” the source material for “Defiance” is long and deadly serious. “Defiance: The Bielski Partisans” by Nechama Tec is a 426-page account of 1,250 Jewish men, women and children who waged an underground battle against the Nazis from a Belarusian forest. While the basic history covered in the book could not be drastically altered, screenwriters Clayton Frohman and Edward Zwick (who also directed) were able to winnow down its look at the group and larger conflict in Eastern Europe to concentrate on the three Bielski brothers at the center of the story (played by Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell).

“It’s not really a narrative; it’s more of a ‘university press’-type of book,” explains Frohman, who has known Zwick since they were boys growing up in Chicago. “And it’s not a Harry Potter book with fans who are going to expect the movie to be a copy. It provided us with information, but it allowed us freedom to be dramatists. It was like you have a huge piece of clay or wood and you sculpt it down. We kept the basic framework of the brothers, but we did combine, invent and compress a number of different historical characters.”

In one instance, they took a real-life figure, Lazar Malbin, and split him into two characters: Lazar (Jonjo O’Neill) and Malbin (Mark Feuerstein).

“They organized themselves like a military unit, and the real Lazar Malbin was their chief of intelligence,” Frohman explains. “In our story, Malbin is not necessarily the chief of intelligence, but he becomes a confidant to Tuvia (Craig), and the Lazar character became more comic relief.”

In “Che,” a sprawling four-hour-plus epic adapted from the diaries of guerrilla leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara (Benicio Del Toro), screenwriter Peter Buchman’s creation of a single fictional composite character -- Alejandro Ramirez (Yul Vazquez), a Cuban working for the CIA -- lent a gestalt to the film’s entire dramatic arc.

Says Buchman: “We start tracking (Alejandro) in the Cuban Revolution, and he basically follows Che through New York (where he addresses the U.N.), and then ends up tracking him down in Bolivia (where he meets his demise).” Buchman says the creation of Alejandro “sort of brought the whole movie together for me. It was one of those moments when I was finally able to crack the structure.”

Peter Morgan dealt with two kinds of history in “Frost/Nixon”: the real events of the televised showdown between former President Richard M. Nixon (Frank Langella) and TV personality David Frost (Michael Sheen); and the legacy of his original play, which garnered rave reviews and packed houses in New York and London with the same actors in the lead roles. Morgan was initially dismissive of the latter.

“My instinct was to dismantle the whole thing in the script,” says Morgan, who earned an Oscar nomination for his original screenplay for 2006’s “The Queen.”

Acting on this impulse, he removed the narration that frames the play from the first draft of the script. But director Ron Howard quickly swooped in and encouraged Morgan to salvage it.

“He looked at the first 30 pages and felt that it was missing the soul of what it was,” Morgan says. “If you take the narration out in any shape or form, it takes out many of the points that are critical to the enjoyment of ‘Frost/Nixon’ -- observations about politics and the way television works. It would’ve been very difficult to introduce those things seamlessly into conversation.”

The solution devised by Morgan and Howard was to take the narration, which in the play had been divided between one man in the Nixon camp and one in the Frost camp, and spread it among the cast in a series of interview snippets set five years after the televised showdown.

While screenwriters typically struggle to “open up” a story designed for the confines of a stage, Morgan says it was not a problem with “Frost/Nixon.”

“David Frost had three talk shows going on simultaneously -- in Australia, New York and London -- and the interviews themselves took place in California,” Morgan points out. “Just by shooting in the locations that it actually happened, immediately you’ve got a movie with more air miles than a Bond film.”

It wasn’t so easy for writer-director John Patrick Shanley when he set out to adapt his Pulitzer-winning play “Doubt” for the big screen. The story, about a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) suspected of improper contact with a Catholic schoolboy in 1964, provided little room for expansion except to add scenes with the students (including the boy, played by Joseph Foster), none of whom are shown in the play. Shanley’s solution was to insert small cinematic touches wherever he could.

“I treated the micro events of daily life as major events,” explains Shanley, who won an original screenplay Oscar for 1987’s “Moonstruck.” “A breeze coming in the window, or a phone ringing, or somebody opening the blinds -- all of these things are moments in the film, and the movie is rife with them.”

“I couldn’t do things that simply caused interest but actually had nothing to do with the narrative,” Shanley adds. That said, he admits, “I used every stinking trick I could.”

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter