Politics & Policy

The Adaptation Game

More Oscar storytelling.

As any reader of Scott Fitzgerald knows, screenwriters are famously dissed in Hollywood. One of the few breaks we get, those of us who are Academy members anyway, is that come Oscar time we get to nominate ten films in our category–five original screenplays and five adapted–rather than the five members of other branches do. (Everyone nominates five for “Best Picture.”)

Okay, big deal, you’re saying, and you’re probably right, but this is a year of some pretty good scripts, particularly in the “Best Adapted” category. An ongoing debate in the business revolves around which is harder to write, an original or an adaptation, and at first glance the original would seem more difficult because it’s, well, original. But one look at the ordeal of the protagonist in Charlie Kaufman’s witty Adaptation (2002)–itself a nominee for, what else?, “Best Adapted Screenplay”–should convince us otherwise. All dramatic writing is hell, those who do it know well, and only the seriously masochistic need apply.

After having dealt with your own neuroses, blocks, script notes from 22-year-old Mt. Holyoke graduates who have never heard of The Bicycle Thief–let alone seen it–followed by more notes from producers, directors, stars, studio honchos, and (worst of all) marketing people–not to mention friends, relations, and lovers of most of the above–along comes a small army of reviewers to defecate all over your work, some of which you may not have not done anyway or, if you have, you did only under pressure. And some of those reviewers are colleagues who should know better (you talkin’ to me?). But enough of that–let’s get down to making friends and enemies.

FINDING NEVERLAND

I expected to like this tale of J. M. Barrie’s creation of Peter Pan better than I did because I had heard it was a good weeper and I secretly enjoy such films (but not It’s a Wonderful Life). The problem is that it takes a long time for the weeping to crank up and there isn’t much else except for a few cute kid scenes. The screenplay by David Magee from an Alan Knee play provides only the most superficial insight into the writer’s life (compare it to the above-mentioned Adaptation!), so you’re sitting waiting for Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) to get her terminal illness to begin your cry. The writer is helped by his director Marc Forster at that point who has poignantly and beautifully staged Winslet’s walk through “Neverland” to her death.

Unfortunately–except for the always-brilliant Winslet and some of the “lost boys”–he is not helped by his actors, notably Johnny Depp who never fully convinces as Barrie. The actor made a great swashbuckler in last year’s Pirates of the Caribbean, but he seems out of his depth playing the more complex British author. Far worse is oh-so-New-Yawk Dustin Hoffman as a producer who sounds like a refugee from a Mel Brooks film adrift on London’s West End. You would think the commercially motivated habit of casting American actors as Brits was a thing of the past, but apparently it lingers on, at least at Miramax, the producers of this far too risk-free film.

MILLION DOLLAR BABY

Etonnez-moi!” Diaghilev famously told Cocteau was the prescription for great art. I’m not sure Million Dollar Baby is quite that, but Clint Eastwood’s film from a Paul Haggis screenplay (based on stories by F. X. Toole) did astonish me, continually taking me further than I ever expected it would. It is the complete opposite of Finding Neverland in that regard.

I admit boxing flicks tend to be predictable, so they present easy opportunities for this kind of surprise. Still you don’t expect them to spend their third act dealing with the essence of father-daughter love in the face of death, but this one does. Million Dollar Baby is one of those rare films that continue to grow in impact in your imagination after you have seen it. Much credit goes to Eastwood, of course, who year after year uses his immense Hollywood power to confront bleak and powerful dramatic themes. That his directing skill grows at his age is extraordinary and almost unique. Praise is also due his actors, notably Morgan Freeman (as usual) and Hilary Swank (soon to be as usual).

Haggis’s script, however, is the structure that makes this all happen. Like the film it is quite subtle, seemingly at first a rehash of ground we have trod before (Requiem for a Heavyweight), but then so much more. Rarely does it call attention to itself with flashy writing; always it moves the story forward to a new place. This is no simple thing, especially when it is based on a series of short stories. For now it sits atop my nominating list for this year’s “Best Adapted Screenplay.”

THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES

What you think of Walter Salles’s The Motorcycle Diaries depends on what you think of its protagonist Che Guevara. Oddly enough, it is like The Passion of the Christ in that way. Mel Gibson’s movie is a totally different experience for those who believe in the divinity of its hero and for those who don’t. The same is true, or relatively true, of Salles’s film. You must believe Che was a great man; otherwise it’s simply dull.

Well, not completely dull. It does have fabulous South American scenery and interesting ethnographic scenes of Indians chewing coca leaves, but not a lot more in Jose Rivera’s adaptation of the comandante’s youthful diaries. I guess you can tell that, although well-made in a conventional sense, this “left-wing” buddy movie left me cold. Ten or twenty years ago, it probably wouldn’t have, but tempus fugit, as they say. Nevertheless, the best filmmaking and film writing should transcend ideology and, more importantly, transcend your external knowledge of its hero. This one doesn’t.

One thing of note: Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal (Y Tu Mama Tambien), who plays Guevara, is exceptionally handsome. Ironically that may be the most telling aspect of the movie. Can you imagine the legend of El Che being half of what it is today without his good looks, black beret, and rakish cigar? A homely Guevara with the same policies? Never.

Roger L. Simon adapted I. B. Singer’s Enemies, A Love Story, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award, and his own The Big Fix, for which he wasn’t.

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