Adaptations can pack suprises for original's writer

"Mystic River"


Any author who wakes up to find his or her book is a critical or financial success is without a doubt thrilled. But when Hollywood comes calling -- usually following that success -- the emotions can be decidedly more mixed.

Susan Orlean still recalls the shock she felt when she read "Adaptation," the 2002 screenplay very loosely adapted from her book "The Orchid Thief." "I was afraid that it was going to have a really bad effect on my career," she says. "I was concerned that it would be misinterpreted by people who would think that the events in the movie had actually taken place."

Orlean was one of several writers who have had the experience of seeing acclaimed literary works translated into Oscar-winning movies. But she is probably alone in being portrayed as a character in the movie -- and a highly fictionalized one at that.

"At first I said, 'You have to change my name, because I just can't be portrayed as this crazy person,'" she remembers. "But it meant something in the context of the movie that these were real people. I said to one of the producers, 'This is really going to make me look bad.' But he said, 'Come on, look at how (screenwriter) Charlie Kaufman shows himself masturbating through the whole movie. What do you have to complain about?'"

Orlean agreed, and she now considers the final film "brilliant" -- although she admits that people still come up to her in the mistaken belief that she had an affair with the title character of her book.

"It still happens," she says. "The reach of movies is enormous."

Tom Perrotta also found their reach was enormous when publishers gave the green light to his unpublished novel "Election" after Alexander Payne chose to film it.

He, too, loved the final 1999 film result, although he says it was subtly different from his novel.

"The difference to me is much more of sensibility than plot," he notes. "Anyone who reads the novel and sees the film will realize that they are versions of the same story. Payne and (co-writer) Jim Taylor saw a kind of suppressed satire and really drew it out, but the novel itself is more realistic and melancholy than the film."

The tenor of Perrotta's work was more evident in the 2006 movie "Little Children," again based on his novel -- but that was partly because Perrotta co-wrote the script. He says he did so not because he in any way had a bad experience on "Election," but because its success led him to get work as a screenwriter.

Curiously, the movie did not give the novel "Election" huge sales. The benefits of the name recognition that ensued were much more visible with his subsequent novel, "Joe College."

"That did really well," he says, "and I realized I had a much higher profile."

Dennis Lehane already had a high profile when Clint Eastwood filmed his novel "Mystic River" in 2003, and that made him somewhat reluctant to part with the rights. "I was very adamant I didn't want to sell it," he says.

After some persuasion, he agreed to let Eastwood make the film. Unlike Orlean and Perrotta, he was brought into discussions about the screenplay at several points. "Brian Helgeland did a beautiful adaptation, which I saw after the third draft," he says, noting that he loved the movie -- as he did Ben Affleck's recent rendering of his "Gone Baby Gone" for Miramax.

Lehane asked for two changes to "Mystic" and got both -- one of which he recalls proudly, the other he regrets.

The change he is proud of was adding the parade at the end of the film. But the one he regrets and says he will "fall on my sword for" came when he asked Helgeland to return a character he had excised: the silent wife of Kevin Bacon.

"She was my favorite metaphor for the danger of silence," he explains. "But Brian was right. The actress is wonderful; it just skews it and doesn't feel right. It is like magical realism walking across a Stephen Crane novel."