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Did This Screenwriter Cross The Line?

We’ve all had the experience of reading a novel, loving it, then being terribly disappointed by its film version.

In my 6 Things That Suck About Reading post last week, I listed crappy movie adaptations as one of the things that irked me.

But in defense of the screenwriter, translating a book to film isn’t easy. Though I believe the screenwriter should respect the novelist’s intent in writing the story, the screenwriter also is working in an entirely different art form than the novelist. Changes happen.

Take Possession, for example. This 2002 movie, written and directed by Neil Labute, was based on the A.S. Byatt book published in 1990. The movie was widely criticized for the amount of freedom LaBute took in changing the story. But, as Labute says below, many of his changes were based on A.S. Byatt’s notes on earlier versions of the screenplay.

From The New York Times:

”One of the reasons I felt I could make this change,” Mr. LaBute said, ”was that I read some early notes from Byatt… For someone who’s not a screenwriter, she wonderfully understands movies. What she basically said was, ‘This is Roland on the page; you must make him different in a film!’ She got that Roland needed more drive. Just seeing those notes kind of gave me the keys to the kingdom. And so in the film, Roland keeps making these wild, imaginative leaps about the poets’ lives, and Maud’s both charmed and appalled. She’s like, ‘Are you a scholar or are you writing fiction?’ That really helped in the spark department.”

Instead of making Roland British, LaBute made him American. He was more “frat-boyish” than scholarly. Labute said he wasn’t “shamelessly pandering to the audience….in part, it was [just] more comfortable for me to write Roland that way.”

And that’s just one of the significant changes Labute made to the story.

So, having not actually seen the movie version of Possession, I’m not sure where I come down on this. LaBute obviously made major changes to the film, but Byatt endorsed changes to some degree.

But to that degree? I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll have to watch Possession after I finish the novel.

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14 Comments Post a comment
  1. the changes that you refered alone would make a complete different story, considering that it changes the reaction and motivation of the main character. An American, with a frat-boyish attitude will respond entirely different then a British scholar. As both an aspiring screenwriter and novelist, there is a lot of food for thought in this post, and it looks like now I shall use the book and the movie as a study. Thanks

    Like

    March 13, 2014
    • Awesome. That’s the goal. Would love to hear what you find out.

      Like

      March 13, 2014
  2. Reblogged this on TEMPORAL.

    Like

    March 13, 2014
  3. teresa #

    I will definitely have to take a look at the movie. Sounds like it could even solve a few of the problems of the book by infusing a bit of energy into the main character. Now we’ll need to see if making him into a frat boy goes too far.

    Like

    March 13, 2014
  4. “Possession” is one of my favorite novels of all time, and I truly hope you enjoy it. The movie, however, is pretty terrible. Making Roland an American changes too much about the way the characters interact. Instead of being about how intuitive scholars and formulaic scholars approach a puzzle, the film becomes about Brits versus Americans. Also, a lot of the emotional poetry disappears (and no, I don’t mean the -literal- poetry) in the film, and it becomes much more a whodunit.
    In short, the book is amazing and the movie is not so much. Curious to hear your take on things.

    Like

    March 13, 2014
  5. I feel fairly schizophrenic on this topic. On the one hand, a film “adaptation” is an entirely new work of art so it should have full freedom to become what it wants to be. But I also feel that it should respect the original author’s intent. Quite the conundrum for which I have no answer.

    Like

    March 13, 2014
  6. I have seen the movie but have not read the book. I do not remember Roland being that much of a Frat-boy but I did enjoy the journey that Eckhart and Paltrow were on to solve this mystery. It is not a movie I will purposely seek out but I will watch it if it pops up on TV.

    Like

    March 13, 2014
  7. My husband is a screenwriter and I write novels and we have these discussions often. All I know is: I would be quite unable to write a screen play. It’s more like writing code than anything else. The efficiency of word, the predominance of plot, the deficiency of emotion. They are two very different types of writing so I can understand the risk of losing much of what made a book great in the movie version of the story.

    Like

    March 13, 2014
  8. I’ve never read the book are saw the movie you’re talking about, though I am basing my response off of your post. The author did endorse for the screenwriter to bring her character to life on the screen. So maybe making those few changes was his way of doing that. Though I’ll have to check the book out and the movie to really understand what’s going on. Nice post!

    Like

    March 14, 2014
  9. Do watch the movie. It’s worth a couple of hours of your time.

    Like

    March 14, 2014
  10. Paraphrasing what Jodi Piscoult said at the ALA conference, “having your book made into a film is like giving your child up for adoption.”

    Like

    March 17, 2014
  11. waoo

    Like

    March 18, 2014

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