Gaining something in translation; Good novels are often turned into mediocre films, but exceptions prove how good adaptations can be.


The worse the book, the better the screenplay." Not always. In 1998, at least, quite a few movies disproved the age-old Hollywood adage that there's many a slip between a great book and a great movie, an adage proved true over and over again, from "War and Peace" to "The Bonfire of the Vanities."

Some of last year's adaptations even succeeded against seemingly insurmountable odds. Screenwriter Stephen Schiff adapted "Lolita," Adrian Lyne's screen version of Vladimir Nabokov's brilliant novel, with a sharp ear for the author's devastating irony. And "Mrs. Dalloway," which starred Vanessa Redgrave as the title character, did a good job of bringing Virginia Woolf's Joycean, time-bending novel into a more linear narrative.

Jonathan Harr's nonfiction legal thriller, "A Civil Action," was so steeped in meticulous detail and covered so many years, that it seemed unadaptable. But writer-director Steven Zaillian ("Schindler's List") boiled down the 500-page best seller with amazing grace (only to make the misstep of casting John Travolta in the lead role). What must have been a Herculean effort on the part of Zaillian earned him a nomination for a Writers Guild of America award.

One of the year's best adaptations was "A Simple Plan," which was nominated for an Oscar last week. That the long-awaited movie version of Scott Smith's acclaimed 1993 novel was such a success should come as no surprise; the book itself was germinated by Smith in a screenplay-writing class.

And, in a rare turn of events, Smith himself attended to the page-to-screen surgery, rather than the usual flotilla of "script doctors" who so often suture literature into a formulaic monster. But the reason why "A Simple Plan" succeeds as a movie is precisely because it did not hew to the book. Where Smith's novel -- a brutal thriller set in the snowfields of the upper Midwest -- focused on the relationship between the protagonist and his wife, the movie shifts the emphasis to the protagonist and his brother.

The change necessitated a few plot tweaks -- a character who dies early on the page lives much longer on celluloid -- but it also created a story that was more akin to classical tragedy than just another larcenous morality tale. (It also allowed actors Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton to shine.)

The idea to switch the focus of "A Simple Plan" came from the movie's producer, Scott Rudin, who when he met Smith told the author that after the book's pivotal death, "what's left?"

"To tear that apart and wade through the ruins was probably the hardest," said Smith. "I couldn't quite picture how it was going to come together. But ultimately I think Scott Rudin had the greatest effect on this script. You hear so many stories in the other direction."

Another change in direction came in director Sam Raimi's contribution to the project. Although the director is best known for such camp gore-fests as "Evil Dead," in the case of "A Simple Plan" he actually suggested that Smith tone down the violence of the book, which contained much bloodier scenes than appear in the movie.

Smith, who is working on another novel as well as another movie adaptation -- of Richard Stark's novel "Backflash" -- attributes his happy baptism in Hollywood to "having the flexibility to recognize that the movie's going to be something different than the book, and that's for the good of both."

Although "Shakespeare in Love" was nominated for an Oscar for best original screenplay, it veers into adaptation territory, as it wittily weaves dialogue from "Romeo and Juliet," as well as other Shakespeare plays, in and out of its narrative.

Marc Norman, who wrote "Shakespeare in Love" with Tom Stoppard, was familiar with adaptation, having brought the book "Bat 21" to the screen in 1988. He agrees with the truism that bad books usually turn into better movies.

"The best movies are made from the central idea of a book," he explained. "If a book has a good central idea and isn't executed well, that doesn't matter, because the screenwriter is looking for an inspiration. The better the book author is, the more his prose is internal, in the minds of the characters. So the better the book, the more daunted the screenwriter is, because so much of what's wonderful about it is in the prose. The screenwriter has to make it visual."

Still, it's possible to represent an interiorized work on screen, even without the crutch of narration. "The Sweet Hereafter," Russell Banks' 1992 novel about the aftermath of a school bus crash in a tiny Canadian town, was told in four interior monologues. When the director, Atom Egoyan, adapted the book for the screen in 1997, he completely retooled the book's structure, even introducing his own conceit of using the children's story "The Pied Piper" as a recurring metaphor.

The result was a movie that, while not a literal enacting of Banks' book, evoked the novel's emotional tone of grief and moral ambiguity. The same could be said for "Affliction," Paul Schrader's adaptation of another Banks novel, which opens in Baltimore Friday. Like Egoyan, Schrader switched the focus of Banks' original somewhat. The story concerns two adult brothers coping with the legacy of physical and emotional abuse at their father's hand.

In the movie, the point of view is from the older brother (played by Nick Nolte), whereas in the novel the younger brother is more prominent. Like Egoyan, Schrader has created a movie every bit as powerful as the material that inspired it.

Banks considers himself "charmed" to have had two successful screen adaptations of his work. Both filmmakers, he said, "got right to the heart of the matter. That's why I feel so supportive of both films. The thematic concerns of 'Affliction' the book are the same concerns as 'Affliction' the movie, and it's the same with 'The Sweet Hereafter.' It's hard to do, and it rarely happens." (Banks has three more adaptations of his books in the works, including "The Book of Jamaica," which will be directed by Bruno Baretto.)

Then there are books that exist not in the minds of their characters, but in their words and actions. Such are the books of Elmore Leonard, whose punchy, dialogue-driven thrillers have met with mixed success on screen, but which have definitely hit their stride recently with the efforts of Scott Frank.

Frank, who wrote the screenplay for the 1995 movie "Get Shorty" and was just nominated for his first Oscar for his adaptation of "Out of Sight," has been credited for avoiding the pitfalls that have bedeviled other Leonard adapters.

Rather than focus on the books' plot, he has preserved the characters' zippy dialogue and decidedly oddball personae. The results have been screen efforts that may not have hewed exactly to Leonard's plot lines ("Out of Sight" the movie has an entirely different ending than the book), but that honor in full what makes Leonard and characters like Jack Foley and Chili Palmer so beloved.

Something the success stories of 1998 have in common is an author, screenwriter and director who were on the same page -- literally and figuratively. When filmmakers share the author's vision, and when an author respects the fact that film is ultimately a director's medium, Banks says, a writer can happily cede control. "If you're working with an Egoyan, a Schrader or a Barreto, they're not just guys in suits in a committee. They're auteur filmmakers."

Pub Date: 02/14/99

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