It turns out the novel is alive and well and living in, of all places, Hollywood. Who would have thought? As recently as 1998, all five finalists for the Oscar for Adapted Screenplay drew on novels for their source material, but by 2014 not a single Oscar nomination went to a screenplay adapted from a novel. Last year, Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice was the lone work of fiction in a field of sources dominated by biography, autobiography, and, weirdly, a short film.
(T)he novel is now in retreat — and not only in Hollywood — as screenwriters and moviegoers turn their gaze to movies based on established franchises, comic books, graphic novels, musicals, non-fiction books and magazine articles, TV shows, memoirs, and biographies. There’s nothing inherently wrong, or particularly new, about such source material. Screenwriters have been adapting scripts from comic books at least since 1930, and filmmakers have always favored a “true” story (or, better yet, something “based on a true story”) over fictional stories. That’s because “true” stories are easier to write, make, and sell. I would argue that they’re also less likely to amaze than stories that come from a gifted novelist’s imagination.
What a difference a year makes. This year, for some unknowable reason, Hollywood screenwriters mined novels — from the shamelessly commercial to the highly literary — for four of the five adapted screenplays that garnered Oscar nominations. (The fifth nomination went to the team of Adam McKay and Charles Randolph for their adaptation of Michael Lewis’s non-fiction book, The Big Short.)
What happened? Did some pixie slip a vial of smart powder into the L.A drinking water? Did someone in Hollywood start a book club for screenwriters? Since there’s no way to parse the reading habits of Tinseltown, let’s cut straight to the nominees. Here, in chronological order of their release dates, are the four movies with scripts based on novels that are up for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar on Feb. 28:
It seems that the Irish writer Colm Tóibín (pronounced Col-um toe-BEAN) wrote this 2009 novel with sepia ink — and without a worry that his pacing and hushed tone might put some readers to sleep. But readers who stick with the novel will be rewarded by a story that accumulates a fierce power. It’s the story of Eilis (pronounced AY-lish) Lacey, a plain Irish girl who leaves her mother and sister in the provincial Irish town of Enniscorthy and emigrates to Brooklyn in the early 1950s, a world of shocking sights and sounds and customs, where she overcomes crippling homesickness and haltingly makes her way toward financial independence and even manages to find a decent man who loves her. But a return trip to Ireland after her sister’s sudden death will threaten to rip apart Eilis’s fragile chance at happiness. This is no potboiler, obviously. The drama takes place inside Eilis’s head and heart.
How to turn such interiority into a compelling movie? Mainly by hiring talented actors who can convey deep emotions through the slightest facial gesture or body movement. Saoirse Ronan (pronounced Sur-sha Row-nin) was an inspired choice to play Eilis, and her portrayal of a plain young woman’s blossoming has justly won a nomination for the Best Actress Oscar.
Equally important to the movie’s success was the choice of screenwriter. The mission of a writer who sets out to transport words from page to screen is both simple and devilishly difficult: be always faithful to the spirit of the novel without ever being slavish to it. For this reason, it’s usually better for a novelist to stay in the wings when the screenwriting assignment gets doled out. Most novelists are too close to their own material not to be enslaved by it.
Tóibín never considered adapting his own novel, instead suggesting to the producer, Finola Dwyer, that she hire Nick Hornby, who is both an accomplished novelist (High Fidelity, About a Boy) and screenwriter (An Education, Wild).
“And I soon realized that nobody wanted me around,” Tóibín told The New York Times. “Nick was doing it. He didn’t ask any questions, never even got in touch. And I thought that was perfectly reasonable. It was the only way it could work. He took the central spine of the novel — the romantic story and the immigration, the two things that really matter — and left other things off to the side. But he wasn’t trying to tell a new story. He was faithful to the book within the constraints of film.”
And that’s why the movie works every bit as well as the novel.
In adapting Patricia Highsmith’s second novel, The Price of Salt, screenwriter Phyllis Nagy remained faithful to the book within the constraints of film. The result is a spellbinding script for a movie that was renamed Carol — just one of numerous instances when the movie strays from the letter of the novel without betraying its spirit.
Like Hornby, Nagy left out some things and changed others but preserved the central spine of the novel — the story of forbidden love between a radiant but unfulfilled suburban housewife named Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and a plain New York City shop girl named Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara). Nagy has changed Therese from an aspiring theatrical set designer into an aspiring photographer, and she has cleverly jumbled time sequences. But what she left intact, most crucially, is Highsmith’s unhurried unfolding of the romantic love between the two women, a story that plays out against a backdrop of impeccable 1950s period details, from cars and fashions to interiors and even the way women move.
Nagy’s writing has certainly benefited from the high quality of the production it serves. The movie is up for six Oscars, including Blanchett for Best Actress, Mara for Best Supporting Actress, and the cinematographer Edward Lachman, who gives an appropriately gauzy look to a story about infatuation amid fuzzy moral boundaries.
This movie is proof that most novelists should follow Tóibín’s lead and leave it to others to adapt their work for the screen. In adapting her own novel, Room, Emma Donoghue made the mistake of following the text almost to the letter — then leaving out the wrong parts, the very parts that would have given the movie heft and drama. Both novel and movie open with an enthralling setup — a woman has been imprisoned in an 11-foot-by-11-foot shed for seven years, where she gave birth five years ago to a boy named Jack. The revelation that this loving, seemingly happy pair are actually being held prisoners by a monster named Nick is handled, in novel and movie, with supreme assurance. It’s perfectly horrible.
The trouble begins when Ma (Brie Larson) helps Jack (Jacob Tremblay) escape, and suddenly they’re thrust into the outside world that’s utterly foreign to the boy — and far from welcoming to his traumatized mother. In the novel, they’re hounded by the ravenous news media and by medical professionals who are less than sympathetic to their ordeal and its lingering effects. This tension is gone from the movie, and instead we get Ma coming unglued and fighting with her own mother (Joan Allen), while her father (William H. Macy) puts in a pointless cameo. Jack, meanwhile, wanders through something that passes for healing. It’s all drift. I have a hunch that a screenwriter who wasn’t so close to the source material would not have made these missteps. Just a hunch.
4. The Martian
Andy Weir went to work as a computer programmer for a national laboratory at the age of 15 and has been working as a software engineer ever since. He’s also a self-proclaimed space nerd who’s into relativistic physics, astronomy, orbital mechanics, and the history of manned spaceflight. How do you spell geek? In this case, you spell it n-o-v-e-l-i-s-t.
Weir’s first novel, The Martian, became a bestseller and fodder for a big-budget Hollywood production with Matt Damon in the lead role of Mark Watney, a botanist on a Mars mission who gets abandoned by his crew when a freak storm blows up and they mistakenly believe he’s dead. And voilà, we have a high concept: Robinson Crusoe stranded on the Red Planet.
Actually, Weir’s book is less a novel than a blueprint for a movie. Just as no one will question Weir’s scientific bona fides — he wrote his own software to make the physics of space travel as accurate as possible — no one will accuse him of being a graceful writer. The novel is full of junior high prose like this: “They gathered. Everywhere on Earth they gathered. In Trafalgar Square and Tiananmen Square and Times Square, they watched on giant screens. In offices, they huddled around computer monitors. In bars, they stared silently at the TV in the corner. In homes, they sat breathlessly on their couches, their eyes glued to the story playing out.” But people don’t read books like this for the artful prose; they read them for the ingenious setup and the brisk storytelling.
Screenwriter Drew Goddard has connected the dots from Weir’s novel to create a script that’s seamless and irresistible. The movie winds up being superior to the novel because it’s comfortable being what it is — a thriller that manipulates the audience without shame, an entertainment that wants nothing more than to please its audience at all times. You can hear Goddard pulling the levers — or is that the sound of him painting by numbers? — but you’re having too much fun to care. This is partly due to the deft direction of Ridley Scott, who is most at home in outer space, and strong performances by Damon and a supporting cast that includes Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Weir’s book is a novel that wants to be a movie. The movie is content to be a big, fat, satisfying, popcorn thrill-fest. What’s wrong with being comfortable inside your own skin?
And the Oscar For Best Adapted Screenplay Goes to…
Phyllis Nagy for CAROL!!!
Now that justice has been served, for once, I’m hoping that when Nagy gets up onstage and finishes thanking her agent and her producer and her mom and Todd and Cate and Rooney and her Jack Russell terrier, she’ll have the decency to hoist her statue to the heavens and give a shout-out to the novelist who made this terrific movie possible — that princess of darkness, the diabolically great Patricia Highsmith.
Image Credit: Flickr/Dave_B_.