LOS ANGELES – David Benioff was sitting on a plane, having a perfectly pleasant conversation with an elderly passenger about his job as a screenwriter, when he mentioned that he was working on an adaptation of “The Kite Runner.”
“She grabbed my arm and said, ‘That’s my favourite novel. Don’t change a word!’ “
Based on the international best-seller about a man who returns to Afghanistan to right a childhood wrong, “The Kite Runner” is one of an inordinately large number of films in this year’s awards race that come from books.
Screenwriters like Benioff are acutely aware of the inevitable comparisons between book and movie and face the daunting challenge of telling a cinematic story that will resonate with audiences, while remaining somewhat true to the source material.
Sure, every year there are several book-club favourites that turn up at the multiplex. Perusing the list of Academy Award best-picture winners can feel like a trip to Barnes & Noble – from “Gone With the Wind” and “The Godfather” to “The Silence of the Lambs” and “The English Patient.”
But, during this tumultuous, strike-hobbled awards season, at least a dozen movies with literary roots have real shots at winning the biggest prizes. Some of those novels, like Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner,” are beloved and readers feel proprietary about them. Others, like Ian McEwan’s “Atonement” and Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” seemed impossible to adapt because they were too complicated, too internal.
The adaptations themselves range from the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men,” which maintained much of Cormac McCarthy’s rich Texas vernacular, to Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood,” in which the writer-director merely used Upton Sinclair’s “Oil!” as a leaping-off point. Still others come from novellas (“Lust, Caution”), graphic novels (“Persepolis”) or are based on non-fiction works (“Charlie Wilson’s War,” “Into the Wild,” “A Mighty Heart”).
Benioff was lucky in that he’d read “The Kite Runner” before he got the job, and he’d started his screenplay before the book became a huge hit. Halfway through his first draft, though, he began to feel the pressure.
“It’s an amazingly emotional story. People become attached to those characters and they really long for redemption for Amir, for him to make up for what he has done, to heal those wounds,” he said.
As a novelist himself, having written “25th Hour” and adapted the screenplay for director Spike Lee, Benioff said he “felt an extra layer of pressure – I didn’t want to let Khaled down. I liked him a lot and respected him a lot and he was a real ally. . . . When it’s your own book, you want the movie to be good but there’s less pressure.”
Veteran Ronald Harwood already has an Oscar for adapting 2002’s “The Pianist,” but still found himself pacing his Paris flat for weeks, trying to figure a way into “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” The late author, Bauby, was the editor of French Elle who suffered a paralyzing stroke at 43 and used his left eyelid to blink out what he wanted to say, letter by letter. Harwood tried to blink the alphabet to get into Bauby’s head and it drove him mad.
Finally, it occurred to him to begin from Bauby’s woozy, obscured perspective in the hospital room.
“That was my breakthrough,” said Harwood, whose script is up for a Golden Globe and who has a new book of his own on the subject, “Ronald Harwood’s Adaptations: From Other Works Into Films.” “I thought, ‘This is the story I could tell – the story of his illness.’ And the camera did the blinking – that was my idea, because it did two things: It gives the audience the sense of what it’s like to have locked-in syndrome, and the second thing it did was that they didn’t have to look at him for two hours, which would have been dreadful.”
Christopher Hampton read “Atonement,” a sweeping drama about a young girl’s damaging lie, while on vacation and found it so obviously cinematic, he couldn’t wait to dash home, pick up the phone and call someone about writing the script. The movie has a leading seven Globe nominations, including best screenplay.
“I didn’t know it would turn out to be far harder than I thought it was going to be,” said Hampton, who won an Oscar for 1988’s “Dangerous Liaisons.” “It was a long, long process with many, many drafts.”
Adapting “Atonement” was daunting because it’s about a writer and much of it takes place within the characters’ interiors. Hampton initially had written in voiceover and a framing device – none of which exists in the finished version, which is closer to the book’s structure.
“The most effective way is the simplest,” he found. “Show it from the young girl’s perspective, then loop back and show what really happened. It’s so simple. I can’t tell you how many different ways we approached it.”
It helped to have a rapport with author McEwan, who chose Hampton himself and got an executive-producer credit.
“The relationship between the adapter and the adaptee, if there is such a word, is very delicate, because you’re taking his child and educating it and changing it in your own way,” Hampton said. “Fortunately, Ian is very experienced in the sense that he’s had a lot of his books turned into movies and even done one or two himself. So he knows what the score is.”
McEwan said he realizes the process of adaptation is “a kind of demolition job.”
“You’ve got to boil down 130,000 words to a screenplay containing 20,000 words,” the author said in the “Atonement” production notes.
Aaron Stockard, meanwhile, was terrified to meet author Dennis Lehane while adapting “Gone Baby Gone,” his first produced screenplay, with director and longtime friend Ben Affleck. The crime drama comes from one of Lehane’s books about a pair of private eyes in a rough part of Boston, and has made an awards front-runner of supporting actress Amy Ryan as a junkie mom.
“When he came on set for the first few times I intentionally avoided him. I felt like (he must have thought), ‘What in the world is this kid doing taking this story I wrote, with characters I’ve written six books about, and making these changes?”‘ Stockard said of Lehane, who also wrote “Mystic River.” “But I kind of kept reminding myself, this needs to stand on its own. And I can’t do it to please him and I can’t do it to please fans of the book.”
In determining what to cut and what to keep, “Lust, Caution” co-writer James Schamus says the key is to remember always that you’re making a movie. Based on a short story about passion and betrayal by revered Chinese writer Eileen Chang, the film is a Globe nominee in the foreign language category.
“You have to keep that in mind – not that you are in some way responsible to or beholden to the underlying work,” said Schamus, the Focus Features chief who’s also adapted “The Ice Storm,” “Ride With the Devil” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” for his longtime friend, director Ang Lee. “The primary task is to make sure the movie is good, not to make sure you’re faithful to any part of the underlying work. That doesn’t mean you’re disrespectful – far from it.”
Anderson only used about the first 100 pages of “Oil!” for “There Will Be Blood,” the story of a volatile oilman which has Globe nominations for best picture and actor Daniel Day-Lewis. Still, that was a huge departure for the maker of the original ensemble pieces “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia.”
“The benefits of the adaptation was that it helped me do things that my natural instincts wouldn’t lead me to do,” Anderson said recently, acknowledging his inclination to “spin off the rails a bit more.”
“It was like collaborating with somebody,” he added.
John Orloff did have a collaborator in Mariane Pearl while adapting her memoir “A Mighty Heart: The Brave Life and Death of My Husband, Danny Pearl,” about the murder of her journalist husband. (Angelina Jolie is up for a Globe for her starring performance; Orloff’s script has earned him a Spirit Award nomination.) But he also went beyond her book to interview the people who investigated Pearl’s death and present a fuller picture.
“I talked to Mariane constantly. It was both intimidating and really helpful,” Orloff said. “Mariane, in person, is this incredibly open, giving partner in all this who wanted nothing more than having her story be told in the most accurate, dramatic way possible. That said, as a writer, I had this incredible – and I think everyone who had anything to do with the film – had this incredible onus and responsibility to get it right, and to make her feel we got it right.
“One reason I fell in love with ‘A Mighty Heart’ was because I didn’t have to make stuff up,” he added. “I didn’t have to make changes. I didn’t have to – quote, unquote – be inspired by a true story.”