Arts Review

The Perils of Adaptation

At the very first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, the writing awards were already split into two categories: Best Writing, Original Story and Best Writing, Adaptation. (For the record, that first year saw the only presentation of an Oscar for Best Title Writing, an art that had become obsolete by the following year.) Over the next few decades, the delineation of the screenplay awards morphed a bit. For a while, three awards were presented: Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Story, and Best Story and Screenplay—confusing categorizations that speak to the tortured distinctions made by the Writers Guild when determining authorship. But for the last half century, the sensible division between an original screenplay and a screenplay based on a preexisting work has held. Writers and their audiences see a difference between the art of creating characters, situations and dialogue out of whole cloth and the art of turning an existing work into a film script with all the requisite transformations that such a translation entails.

This is not to say that the distinction between an original and adapted work is always clear. In 2000, Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay thanks to a credit on the film that cheekily stated it was based on Homer’s Odyssey. Eyebrows rose all over Hollywood: O Brother had about as much to do with the Odyssey as did The Wizard of Oz or really any story about someone lost who wants to go home. The Coens were perhaps prompting the age-old debate as to whether any artwork, especially a narratively driven artwork, is ever truly original. In a broad sense, every storyteller obviously builds on the stories that came before him or her and relies on pre-programmed audience expectations. Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence addresses this topic with great insight, and an entire academic discipline, the study of “Intertextuality,” analyzes this phenomenon.

The Oscar nominees for Best Original Screenplay this year—American Hustle, Blue Jasmine, Dallas Buyers Club, Her, and Nebraska—all utilize existing genre tropes, standard (or subverted) plot devices, patterns of dialogue derived from previous works, and so forth. Blue Jasmine is quite consciously based on Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, with virtually every character and situation a direct outgrowth of the earlier work. The dialogue is new, but it’s debatable as to whether the work is “Original” in the strictest sense. Certainly it is much more of an adaptation than O Brother, Where Art Thou? Conversely, one of the nominees for Best Adapted Screenplay this year is Before Midnight, the third in a series of films, directed by Richard Linklater, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, and written by the three of them, which explores the developing relationship of a pair of lovers over the years. Although the situations and dialogue in Before Midnight are wholly original, the Academy placed the film in the Adapted category because its characters had appeared in the two previous films. Although the letter of the Academy law refers to the attribution of authorship in the official film credits, the distinction can feel random, even nonsensical. Last year, Tony Kushner was nominated in the Adapted Screenplay category for his work on the film Lincoln, which was credited as being based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. In truth, Kushner drew on only a few very short sections of Goodwin’s book. The majority of his film derived from public historical records and from the endless Lincoln bibliography. More importantly, virtually every line of dialogue, while grounded in historical and situational truth, was completely invented, an immense task for a writer and one hardly worthy of being dubbed an “Adaptation.”

Of course ultimately the distinction doesn’t matter. Every screenwriter has in front of him the task of building a successful work out of raw material, whether that raw material is as vague as a set of genre expectations or as irrevocably fixed as the original text of Hamlet, which Kenneth Branagh filmed word for word in 1996 (receiving, hilariously, a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for his efforts). The success of an adaptation is not defined by fidelity to its source but by the rules of the adaptive form. In other words, an adaptation must work as a film and not just as a re-creation of the earlier source. Over the years, the art of translation has generated a series of well-worn guidelines. Plays, which usually have no more than a handful of settings, usually interiors, need to be “opened up” when put on the screen. Novels can dispense with pages of scene setting thanks to the power of the image, which sums up milieu in a few seconds. Memoirs need to find a cinematic equivalent for the authorial “voice”—usually a narrating voiceover. Artists of vision can break these rules, but the risks are real. A group of films released at the end of 2013 demonstrates the perils of adaptation in a variety of ways.

The most obvious and direct adaptation was of Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play August: Osage County, which burst on the theatrical scene in 2007, enthralling audiences at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and ultimately running for a year and a half on Broadway. The three-act play depicts an Oklahoma family, headed by a vitriolic matriarch who is addicted to prescription medication. When the alcoholic father disappears, the family’s adult children—three daughters, with their various spouses, boyfriends and offspring—gather and hash out old and new hurts. The play traverses the entire catalog of dysfunction: abuse, addiction, illness, racism, incest. Letts did not shy away from melodrama, coincidence, surprise revelation or any other theatrical trick. He pumped the play full of conflict, creating a heightened reality that had the potential to veer into histrionics. On stage, this did not happen. Instead, the play was explosive and electrifying, with a handful of scenes, particularly the second-act dinner table confrontation, that made every hair on my head stand at attention each time I saw the play. Letts and director Anna D. Shapiro gave the work the breathing room it needed to make its effect. Unfolding over a leisurely but never slow three hours, the characters felt lived in, with plenty of scenes of quotidian interaction establishing a base of verisimilitude so that the heightened confrontations felt grounded.

The film version of August: Osage County, by contrast, feels oddly claustrophobic and airless. Although director John Wells made the natural decision to “open up” the movie, replacing the play’s single unit set with a multitude of locations, the world of the film paradoxically feels less real, less populated by actual people. On a stage, the heightened emotions and dramatic plot contrivances feel at home, expected. On screen, they feel constructed, mannered. On stage, when the family’s dinner table argument erupts in physical violence, with oldest daughter Barbara assaulting Violet, her drug-addled, venomous mother, the action feels naturally situated within the broad, proscenium-framed, open stage space—a canvas for the encounter that seems proportional to its amplified complexion. On film, this skirmish seems wildly out of proportion to its setting, the cramped interior of the family house. Wells erred in providing naturalistic, cinematic settings for a work that needs the hothouse of the stage to feel genuine.

More damagingly, Letts, in adapting his own screenplay, made the decision (perhaps dictated by market pressure) to cut the running time down to two hours, a decision that removed much of the purely character-driven and atmosphere-establishing content. As a result, the film seemed crowded with incident, the revelations and reversals happening every few minutes. The plot’s already existing melodramatic elements came to the fore, and the actors, forced to play one “big” moment after another in short succession, struggled to keep from deviating into camp. In some ways, the most celebrated actress of the group, Meryl Streep, was least successful in this regard. Violet is perhaps a character who requires a bit of distance from the audience. In full close-up and robbed of the leisurely build-up that precedes her character’s entrance in the play, Streep too often came off as a gargoyle, recalling late-career Bette Davis in her excess. At the same time, Letts and Wells allowed the camera to follow Streep’s Violet into her private spaces, which had been invisible in the stage version. We thus saw Violet weeping in her bathroom, stricken by pain from her mouth cancer and perhaps by remorse. Here, the authors attempted to use cinematic means to deepen the character but ended up with the opposite result. The constant focus on Violet in extreme states of emotion, no matter where the camera followed her, led to a sense of theatrical unreality that the constraints and distance of the stage had tempered. Streep is, of course, too great an actress not to have had individual moments that were powerful or revelatory. But the cumulative effect was exaggerated, a rare off-key endeavor by this brilliant artist. Faring much better were Julia Roberts as oldest daughter Barbara and Chris Cooper as Violet’s brother-in-law, Charles. Both actors found ways to build a sense of natural space around their performances that conveyed authenticity, critical in a work that walks such a fine line between realism and theatricality.

Film adaptations of plays are usually, for better or worse, the most faithful of adaptations since the text is already primarily dialogue and the length and general structure of most plays is the same as most films. Adaptations of novels of course require much more reworking. The technical problems inherent in translating wholly verbal works into primarily imagistic works aside, a novel deals with time and space in utterly different ways than does a film. Film also concretizes what is generally left open, malleable, in literature. We’ve all heard—and said—“I want to read the book before I see the movie.” A film seals up meaning and locks in imagery, at least when compared to books. There’s no getting around this; the differences are inherent in the mediums. In some instances, films improve on novels, using the supplementary tools of the art form (photography, music, performance, design) to infuse books with weight and resonance. Perhaps most famously, Frances Ford Coppola took a rather pulpy bestseller, The Godfather, and turned it into a masterpiece of profound American art. (Jaws and The Silence of the Lambs wrought similar if less striking transformations.) A dozen years ago, New Zealand director Peter Jackson tackled a fantasy trilogy that many had thought unfilmable—J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings—and created a series of films that, in total, grossed almost three billion dollars and won seventeen Academy Awards. Jackson’s three Rings movies were stunning achievements, much better than anyone could have predicted. Devoting about three hours of film time to each of the books in the series (which average about 350 pages each), Jackson made just the right selections of what to cut, what to keep, and what to underline. Tolkien’s achievement is prodigious: nothing less, really, than the creation of an entire fantasy world with its attendant geography, geology, flora, fauna, history, mythology, languages, culture, poetry and more. Jackson did honor to this extraordinary achievement by placing the fully revealed fantasy world in a grounded psychological and narratological reality. He made the viewer believe in the world on the screen without reservation. Despite the thousands of CGI effects, Jackson and his colleagues worked hard to make us accept that what we were seeing was real, inhabited by creatures who may have looked otherworldly but who behaved in ways that made sense.

In 2012, Jackson returned to Tolkien with a multi-part adaptation of the trilogy’s prequel, The Hobbit. From the start, the project struggled with a fatal mistake: Tolkien’s earlier book is only about 300 pages long and contains much less plot than The Lord of the Rings books, let alone the complex contextual backdrop and simultaneously epic and tragic worldview of the latter series. Jackson—perhaps encouraged by his financial backers—decided to turn this relatively compact book into not just one, not just two, but three films, obviously attempting to re-create the stunning financial and critical success of his Rings trilogy. The first film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, was financially successful thanks to the built-in fan base from the earlier films. But it was received with critical brickbats and much grousing from Tolkienites. The second film, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, opened in December 2013 while the third, The Hobbit: There and Back Again, is scheduled to open this coming December. While Desolation of Smaug was undoubtedly an improvement on the first Hobbit film, many of the same problems persisted.

Jackson has co-written all of the Tolkien films with his life partner Fran Walsh and with writer Philippa Boyens. In the Rings films, they judiciously found ways to condense backstory, action, and development to fit the films’ running time, utilizing metonymic imagery, music, and performance to convey what Tolkien required pages of words to express. In the Hobbit films, they’ve been given the luxury of time and space, and it has killed their art. Whereas Tracy Letts muted the vitality of August: Osage County by over-condensing it, removing the padding that gave it authenticity, Jackson, Walsh and Boyens have over-padded The Hobbit in several damaging ways. The narrative, which should hurtle, instead stretches to the point of languor. At the end of the first film, one felt as if almost nothing had yet happened, just a lot of preparation. The second film has more incident, but much of it is invented, expanding Tolkien’s clean procession of events into a baroque and plodding crisscross of confusing action. In an attempt to fill the time, Jackson and company have turned to Tolkien’s footnotes and appendices, digressing constantly to side stories, backstories, marginalia and ephemera. I must confess that much of this is catnip to Tolkien fanatics like myself, but it certainly does not make for a good or even coherent movie.

Most damagingly, Jackson has let his almost unlimited access to money and technical capabilities blind him to the basics of sound storytelling. In August: Osage County, Meryl Streep, gifted with just about every tool in an actress’s arsenal, used them all at once to deleterious effect. Similarly, Jackson throws dazzling effect after dazzling effect at the screen, displaying a fecund imagination but little sense of what is actually landing on a minute-by-minute basis. In the Hobbit films, the central characters (everyman hero Bilbo Baggins and a ragtag band of thirteen dwarves) constantly find themselves in extreme danger: falling from precipitous heights, chased by legions of wolves and hideous Orcs, bound and strung up by giant spiders, leaping from crumbling cliff walls as mountains dissolve beneath their feet. It’s all quite impressive and not remotely credible. In his Rings films, Jackson made you believe that his humble characters had just enough pluck and courage to meet the daunting challenges that fate put in their path. The emotional locus of the films lay in the stirring sense that, faced with similar trials in the service of righteousness, we each would rise to the occasion and find the requisite valor within ourselves. The protagonists’ tasks seemed terrifying but not undoable. In the Hobbit films, the feats of Bilbo and the dwarves seem cartoonish, their situations more like amusement-park rides than real and dangerous circumstances. Jackson seems to have lost his sense of balance, his ability to create filmic moments that are just exciting enough but not so over-the-top as to make the audience disengage.

The Desolation of Smaug had fewer conspicuously bad elements than the first Hobbit film. Martin Freeman is an excellent, droll Bilbo, and this second film gave him many more opportunities to amuse. Jackson is clearly not a good director of actors (his work with extras is particularly egregious; more than a few scenes in the Rings movies were hobbled by community-theater-level reaction shots from the hoi polloi). But he generally casts well, and Freeman, like Elijah Wood in the Rings trilogy, holds the movies together with the gravitas of a genuine and unaffected persona. Jackson got lucky in the first series when the great Shakespearean actor Ian McKellen agreed to play the central role of Gandalf the Wizard. The role carries over to the Hobbit movies, and Jackson has expanded it significantly from the books, disturbing the film’s pace and coherence but increasing our chances to bask in McKellen’s sly charm. The most dazzling moments in Smaug come when the film’s two title characters—the hobbit Bilbo and the dragon Smaug—meet face to face. Here Jackson’s gift for digital spectacle finally finds its sweet spot. The dragon is a thrilling marvel: inconceivably enormous, deliciously supple, splendidly gala. Best of all, the extended dialogue scenes between Bilbo and Smaug sparkle with diamond-hard wit and danger. Amusingly, the dragon is voiced by the baritonal British actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Holmes to Freeman’s Dr. Watson in the excellent BBC Sherlock Holmes series. The ubiquitous Cumberbatch also popped up in August: Osage County and half a dozen other films in 2013.

Our final cautionary adaptation tale concerns a film that is technically not directly derived from a preexisting work although, as previously noted, there is perhaps no truly original film. Saving Mr. Banks is based on a true story: the process by which Walt Disney Studios secured the film rights to British writer Pamela L. Travers’ Mary Poppins stories and the encounter between the dyspeptic Travers and the commercially minded Disney team. Screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith clearly based their script on public records of meetings between Travers and the Disney staff, on the Travers biography Mary Poppins, She Wrote, and on the extensive documents surrounding the making of the 1964 film, including hours of actual taped sessions in which Travers discusses the developing film with screenwriter Don DaGradi and songwriting brothers Richard and Robert Sherman. In a sense, Marcel and Smith had as much if not more raw material to work with than did Linklater, Delpy and Hawke when they wrote Before Midnight or Kushner when he wrote Lincoln.

A famously unpleasant woman, Travers had found success with Mary Poppins and its sequels, but by the early 1960s, when Disney began to put pressure on her, she needed money and therefore put aside her customary distaste for Hollywood commercialism and flew to Los Angeles to discuss turning her precious property into a film. As played with formidable intelligence and anger by the always-captivating Emma Thompson, Travers comes across as a real pill, humorless, disdainful, graceless, and terrified of losing control of the one thing in her life that has brought her comfort and success. In the genial but canny Walt Disney himself, played by Tom Hanks, she meets her match and ultimately agrees to sell the film rights although not without undergoing weeks of unpleasant story sessions with the Disney creative team in which she scorns every idea they suggest. Marcel and Smith, along with director John Lee Hancock, provide Travers with an explanatory backstory, extrapolated and inferred from her known biography. Raised by an alcoholic father and a suicidal mother in a downwardly mobile family in Australia, Travers escaped her miserable childhood and reinvented herself in England, giving herself a new name and identity. (Her actual name was Helen Lyndon Goff.) Marcel and Smith designate Travers’ anguished relationship with her loving but pathetic father as the film’s Rosebud, the key not only to her difficult personality but also to the emotional heart of the Mary Poppins stories themselves. In Saving Mr. Banks, we come to realize that, for Travers, Poppins is really about the reclaiming of a lost childhood, the regeneration of a broken family and, most importantly, the redemption of a failed father. The turning point in the film is when Thompson’s Travers makes Hanks’s Disney understand this underlying psychological truth and pledge to make it the emotional basis of the film he will make.

The problem is that this central tenet is not actually true. Saving Mr. Banks posits a superficial Hollywood studio that was planning to make a silly kiddy Poppins musical until the author shows them how much emotional resonance lies in the stories, resonance that ultimately fills the Poppins movie with the heart and soul that make it a classic. In fact, Travers’ books, while wonderfully inventive and filled with crisp, wry humor, contain none of this redemption-of-a-family resonance. The parents in the stories, Mr. and Mrs. Banks, barely qualify as characters, so lightly sketched are they. The magical nanny Mary Poppins comes to the Banks house not to show Mr. Banks how to open his heart to his children and be a better father but to help the household run more efficiently, relieving the parents of otherwise onerous child-rearing duties. The underlying emotional current of Disney’s Mary Poppins film, in which the busy and emotionally vague parents learn how to connect with their children, in which Mr. Banks ultimately learns that his family is more important than his job at the Bank of England, is nowhere to be found in the books. Saving Mr. Banks is correct in that the addition of this darkly moving, beautifully rich through-line to the story led to the creation of a movie masterpiece—easily the greatest film produced by Walt Disney Studios—but it’s wrong about its source. Some sections of the taped sessions between Travers, DaGradi and the Sherman brothers have been published, and in them you can clearly hear that Travers was sticking to the light, episodic approach whereas the Disney staff was pushing for more depth.

Does any of this matter? I think it does because Saving Mr. Banks feels phony at almost every level, and I can’t help thinking that its core deceit is at fault. The frequent, turgid flashback scenes to Travers’ childhood feel overly weighted with Freudian significance. In an early scene in the film, we see Travers arriving in her hotel room and reacting with violent horror to a bowl of pears. In a later flashback, we see that pears were the fruit she was bringing to her father at the moment he died. Similarly unsubtle connections occur throughout, climaxing in a ludicrous scene in which we see Travers’ aunt show up on her broken family’s doorstep in full Mary Poppins regalia, spouting Mary Poppinsisms and taking charge of matters. Marcel and Smith thus reduce complex literary inspiration to simple childhood memory. More troublingly, the film never really gets a fix on Travers, sometimes playing her for laughs, sometimes for sympathy. As good as Thompson is, she can’t quite navigate the various changes of face the film requires of her. (The film leaves out entire sections of Travers’ actual personal history, including her bisexuality and her intensely troubled relation with an adopted son.) The portrayal of Disney feels ersatz as well. In advance publicity, Disney Studios, which released Saving Mr. Banks, claimed that they would not present a whitewashed picture of their founder. In fact, they did exactly that, depicting Walt as an almost saintly patron of imagination and delight. Hanks is, as always, twinkly and decent and genuine, but he never gets anywhere near the less pleasant sides of the man: the redbaiter, the corporate autocrat, the moral prude. Sure, we see him smoking a cigarette for a few seconds, but no more than that.

In the film’s world, Disney and Travers reach a deep understanding and help each other become better people. The film ends with Travers attending the world premiere of Poppins and sobbing through much of it, overcome with emotion in seeing her “father” finally redeemed and the family reunited on the screen. In fact, Travers did attend the premiere and did cry but it was not from catharsis but rather out of fury at what the studio had done to her stories. Afterwards, she approached Disney and said, with either incredible gall or pathetic naiveté, “Well, it’s a start, but we’ve got a lot of work to do.” He looked at her with scorn, said “Pamela, that ship has sailed,” walked away, and never spoke to her again. It seems that even when the result is as successful as Mary Poppins, the process of adapting an original source into a film can be a fraught and dangerous one.