The Ability to Adapt

Merie Wallace/Fox Searchlight

From condensing huge works to expanding smaller ones, screenwriters showed off their skills in 2011.

The writers of the adapted screenplays of 2011 faced distinct and varied challenges: Sometimes, fidelity to a well-known text was paramount; in other cases, it was boiling down massive books or making reams of specialized information digestible to a mainstream cinema audience. While the number of truly distinguished adapted screenplays was not high, the quality was strong at the top.

Steven Kloves received his fair share of recognition for the epic job he did reimagining the Harry Potter novels for the screen. Having written all but one of the movies, Kloves has arguably been at the center of the series' success as much as producer David Heyman and the leading actors, working out how to fit all the essentials from the 600- to 700-page books, give a presence to the characters viewers wanted to see, pace and balance the narrative properly and maintain a consistent tone. By dividing the final Deathly Hallows novel into two parts, including all of the relevant material was less of a problem than before. However, especially in the widely acclaimed Part 2, Kloves played a critical role in concluding the saga in a way that would satisfy a planet of fans, which it unquestionably did. What Kloves did might not be perceived as screenwriting of the highest literary order, but in terms of structure and dramatic storytelling, it's deserving of a first at Hogwarts or anywhere else.

Great Britain also provided the source material for two other challenging novel adaptations this year. First, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre had been done many times before for film and television and, at a glance, does not seem like the toughest adaptation job. All the same, Moira Buffini adroitly pared the text. More daunting in most respects was the task facing the adapters of John le Carre's dense Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O'Connor. While the first stretch is certainly confusing, things begin to jell after a while thanks to deft, ruthless work on the part of the screenwriters.

Quite possibly the other trickiest adaptation of 2011 was of a nonfiction book, Michael Lewis' Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, which dwells on the mine of arcane mathematical and statistical material that formed the basis for Billy Beane's new approach to putting together a baseball team. It took the separate efforts of two of the best and most sought-after screenwriters in Hollywood, Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, to hit this pitch, but they combined to do so -- and out of the park.

The adaptation that was most transformative, in the sense that it turned a fair-to-middling novel into a far superior film, was that of The Descendants. Based on a decent but hardly distinguished book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, the early scripts were done by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, then these were overhauled by Alexander Payne once he came aboard as director. Far surpassing the novel, the script is sharper verbally, observationally and comedically.

It's too early to speak of Eric Roth's adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close or of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, written by Zaillian from the late Stieg Larsson's best-seller.

A Dangerous Method, adapted from John Kerr's nonfiction book, started life as a screenplay Christopher Hampton wrote before he transformed that into the 2002 play The Talking Cure, which he subsequently turned back into a film script. The long process seems to have worked as the dialogue and scenes are incisive, frightfully smart and diamond-hard. To write credible dialogue for the likes of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung is an imposing challenge, but with Hampton one feels there's no sweat involved.

For whatever reason, Roman Polanski decided not to use Hampton's excellent English-language translation of Yasmina Reza's popular play God of Carnage, which had served so successfully onstage in London and New York. Reza and Polanski share credit for the screen adaptation, which seems no more or less colloquial than Hampton's and does add the odd line of dialogue here or there but has crackle and verve and remains as barbed and amusing as ever.