As Scott Rudin, producer of No Country for Old Men, gave his acceptance speech for his Best Picture win at last month’s Oscars, the first person he thanked was Cormac McCarthy, the author of the original novel. The film’s biggest competitor that night, There Will Be Blood, also happened to be loosely inspired by Upton Sinclair’s Oil!
It may seem like Hollywood has found its new ticket to success, but book adaptations are anything but new.
“Anyone can see that adaptations of books are as old as the movie business,” said Ronald Mangravite, University of Miami associate professor of motion pictures.
From Gone with the Wind (based off of the 1936 novel by Margaret Mitchell) to The Godfather (a 1969 Mario Puzo novel), Tinseltown has always turned to the literary world for inspiration.
At a seminar that took place at last month’s Miami International Film Festival, literary agents and the screenwriters of Brokeback Mountain and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe were at hand to discuss the adaptation process.
“Books are like insurance in a way for Hollywood,” said Keya Khayatian, motion picture literary agent and seminar moderator.
In the high-risk movie business, studios usually flock to what has been proven outside of the film world in an effort to be financially or critically secure.
“The originality is frightening to the movie studios,” Mangravite said. “And, arguably, they’re right. The odds are you’re going to lose money on a movie, so you’re trying to minimize your risk.”
While books benefit from usually being created outside of the Hollywood process, they also cost less to make.
“Being daring in a book or even being outrageously expensive in terms of your vision in a book is not going to cost you anymore than a book that’s very timid,” Mangravite said.
However, the relationship between the world of film and the world of literature isn’t entirely commercially minded.
When screenwriter Diana Ossana first read Annie Proulx’s short story for Brokeback Mountain, she was floored and worked with writing partner Larry McMurtry to directly option the adaptation rights for what would become their Oscar-winning screenplay.
“Immediately, I saw it as a movie, I wanted to get it out to the world somehow,” Ossana said.
Apart from special cases like Brokeback, studios will often acquire a property and hire someone else to write an adaptive screenplay. Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely were attached to write the first film in the Narnia series, which ended up becoming the second-highest grossing film of 2005.
While they were handed an already-written script, the draft was so faithful to the original C.S. Lewis novel, their favorite kids’ book, that they had to carefully rewrite characters and alter scenes in order to have it work on the silver screen.
“Adaptation is about cherry-picking,” McFeely said.
Advocates of ruthlessly faithful adaptations would cry foul at such an idea. The panelists agreed that a film adaptation must keep the basic core of what made the original so special in order for it to not only succeed, but also be remembered for years to come.
“We’re in the business to make art,” said Geoff Morley, vice president for Scott Rudin Productions. “But [also to], obviously, make commerce as well.”
Rene Basulto may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.