Screenwriters avoid getting lost in their translations

"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"


Long before a director gets his hands on a script, the art of adaptation -- whether of a novel, a short story or an article -- begins with the script. A writer has to find ways to render the literary in a visual manner, delivering on readers' expectations -- while allowing nonreaders entree into a new and possibly confusing world.

Getting such a project made often requires a certain obsessive quality, and that's what drove director Ang Lee and Focus Features' co-chair James Schamus, who dreamed of making a film based on Eileen Chang's story "Lust, Caution." Yes, Schamus, who has been Lee's longtime screenwriter, acknowledges that -- after 2005's "Brokeback Mountain" -- it was a good time for Lee to return to China and make a Chinese film, but the seed had been planted years before. Drafts shifted back and forth in English and Mandarin, with both writers facing the vexing issue of staying true to a work that had become a touchstone for many Chinese -- while finessing it into a visual art form.

"We really did stick incredibly close to the story," Schamus says. "There was no debate on that whatsoever. It seemed a given to us."

Those are the kinds of issues, among many others, that have faced this year's adapted screenplay contenders, including Paramount Classics/DreamWorks' "The Kite Runner" scribe David Benioff; Miramax's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" writer Ronald Harwood and "Gone Baby Gone's" Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard; and Universal's "Charlie Wilson's War" writer Aaron Sorkin.

When Ethan and Joel Coen came to adapt Cormac McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men" for Miramax, they at least had one advantage: There was an inherent filmic-ness to the story.

"It seemed like a genre story that (was) well suited to having a movie made from it," notes Ethan, "though, in certain respects, it defied those genre expectations, which made it more interesting. On the most general level, it is a chase story -- an action chase, with a bad guy pursuing a good guy; and there is a sheriff whose point of view is interesting."

These basic factors made the book much more readily adaptable than some other McCarthy novels, he says. "We liked all of Cormac's books, but 'Child of God' is about necrophilia, which seems less promising for a film."

In the case of "No Country," the big problem was one of reduction.

"With the book, every other chapter is a narrative, furthering the plot, and every other chapter is kind of an interior monologue of the sheriff character (played by Tommy Lee Jones). It is all interesting, but it is very digressive. The first problem confronting a book like that is: What do you do with all the nonplot monologue stuff? And basically we dumped most of it."

The Coens were lucky in that McCarthy had no say over the screenplay. Indeed, Ethan notes that when McCarthy came to the set, they never spoke about the adaptation.

"He is a very amiable, very gracious person. But we barely talked about the story. He was not there to render judgment."

Christopher Hampton had a rather different experience when he came to adapt Ian McEwan's novel "Atonement" for Focus Features. In this case, McEwan had the right to approve him for the job.

"He's suffered from time to time (with previous adaptations of his novels), and therefore he didn't want the screenplay to veer away too radically from the book," Hampton explains. "I knew him slightly, and we went to have dinner, and I just outlined more or less how I saw the adaptation -- and got the job."

Hampton told McEwan he believed in sticking to the source material on principle. "I said what I felt --that I wanted to be as close to it as possible, while doing whatever was necessary to translate it into a completely different medium."

On a theoretical level, that sounded fine. In practice, it was rather more complicated. Among other problems, there was the obvious element of rendering interior scenes in a filmic way.

"It is a very interior kind of piece -- a lot of it passes within the minds of the various characters," Hampton reflects, "and so you need to be able to dramatize that, getting the characters to say the thoughts they think in the book and so on."

Nowhere were the practical issues more apparent than when Hampton had to decide how to render the changing age of the main character, Briony, shown at three stages in the novel -- at ages 13, 18 and in her 70s.

Initially, Hampton wrote the material for two actresses, a young one and an older one. That remained through the several drafts he worked on with Richard Eyre, who initially was attached to direct. But when Eyre exited to make last year's "Notes on a Scandal" and Joe Wright came on board, Wright steered Hampton closer to the novel.

"I had been trying to find a formula whereby the same actress could play the young Briony and the (slightly older) Briony," Hampton explains. "That idea would have involved casting a 15-year-old actress who could have gone both ways. And I am very glad that didn't happen."

Because it didn't, and the script was written for three actresses to play the one role, the final draft ended up "even closer to the original book than I'd imagined."

For his adaptation of the Ron Hansen novel "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" for Warner Bros., rather than add artificial suspense or build the drama with a clearer hero-villain conflict, Andrew Dominik also opted to stick closely to the source.

"The book had its own way of working," he says. "The choice was either to go with that or not make the film. Like anything, the book has its strengths and its drawbacks, and the two things are kind of entwined: You can't get rid of the drawbacks without also getting rid of the strengths."

Like most screenwriters interviewed for this story, he adds: "I am a big one for preserving the writer's intention."

The original screenwriter of Focus Features' "Reservation Road," John Burnham Schwartz, believed that too -- which is hardly surprising, given that he also wrote the novel.

But that script changed somewhat when writer-director Terry George became involved with the project about two men whose lives are altered when one kills the other's son in a car accident.

"It is difficult to adapt in that it is told from the perspective of three people and is about the thinking in their head," says George. "You are taking a book that is essentially psychological and trying to make it have both a psychological and a thriller element. But the crucial element was always in the book, in that the two male characters were always headed toward a collision."

Still, he notes that he did veer in a different direction of some significance when he changed the nature of Mark Ruffalo's character.

"He was much darker in the book: He was an abusive father and a drunk. And I wanted the story to be more about creating a monster in your head and then have a person who was a flawed human being who knew he made mistakes -- and was basically trying to claw his way back to decency."

Decency was at the heart of Paramount Vantage's "There Will Be Blood" -- though it is more about a man clawing his way toward indecency. That was poles apart from the source material, Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel "Oil!" and in many ways Paul Thomas Anderson ranged the furthest from his source material among this year's screen adapters.

"It is certainly not a faithful adaptation," he admits, which was partly a response to the practical necessity of being able to make the movie on a modest budget.

"It is an enormous book," says Anderson, who came across the novel while browsing through a London bookstore. "If it had been faithful, it probably would have had to be a mini-series or something for HBO, just in terms of its length and size. On top of that, I knew it would be out of our reach to obtain that much money."

Anderson centered on one part of the story that intrigued him the most: that of the rise and fall of the turn-of-the-century oilman played by Daniel Day-Lewis. But much of that character's story was created by Anderson as he worked on the script, inventing, adding and cutting chunks of the tale.

Anderson had the advantage that Sinclair's book has fallen by the wayside as far as today's readers go. Indeed, he says, he only met one other person who had read it during the course of developing the film.

By contrast, when Leslie Dixon adapted New Line's "Hairspray," she was basing her script on a stage musical that has become something of a phenomenon. Staying true to that but turning the stage play into a film had its own set of challenges.

"The first challenge is: How the hell do you get an audience to accept that sort of idiotic conceit that this is going to be the kind of musical where people burst into song out of nowhere, with an orchestra you can't see?" Dixon asks. "The next challenge is figuring out what to preserve from the play that would make fans angry if (it) were missing. At the same time, all these scenes are 12 or 14 minutes long and in the same location (in the stage version), and if you did that on film, the audience would head for the exits. Everything had to be cut into small pieces."

Dixon handled the first of these problems by immediately announcing her genre: Song and dance erupt at the very beginning of the movie. But to stay true to the original, she had to reinvent parts of it, including much of the dialogue.

"I only kept about 30 lines of dialogue from the play," she says. "But they were the right lines and really memorable."

Schamus did not have that luxury with "Lust, Caution." He knew he was dealing with a literary work of great importance to modern Chinese readers that would be decimated by critics if he made the wrong changes.

Because of that, right from the beginning, he and his co-screenwriter, Wang Hui-Ling, decided to stay close to the novella's structure, in which most of the story is recounted as a flashback in the hours leading up to the heroine's decision whether or not to betray her lover.

Language barriers were often issues, notes Schamus, who says, "Working with Ang on his Chinese-language films, I'll be writing stuff and won't understand that I may have stumbled on things that he can play with."

Case in point? The title of the story: "Se, jie." "In Chinese, 'jie' is a homonym for ring," he says. "So when I was writing the scene where (one character) puts a ring on the table, Chinese audiences hear 'jie' there repeatedly, and it is very much a play on the title of the film. (The main male character) says, 'That's not my ring.' And the audience hears: 'That's not my caution.'"

For the Chinese audience, this made Schamus' adaptation more faithful than even he had imagined possible.

He pauses and laughs. "Of course, I didn't know that. In Mandarin, I can just about order a beer."