Tolstoy vs. Tolkien: The Best Adapted Screenplays of 2012

2012-44 FEA Awards Anna Karenina H

Tom Stoppard honors Tolstoy's achievement by avoiding a simple focus on the Anna-Vronsky passion.

THR's chief film critic Todd McCarthy breaks down an extraordinary year for scripts based on literary material.

It’s not as high-profile as the performance categories, but one of the most crowded artistic fields this year lies in the realm of adapted screenplays. Not only were quite a few films of 2012 based on weighty, acclaimed and/or simply difficult to adapt novels -- Anna Karenina, On the Road, Life of Pi,Cloud Atlas, The Hobbit -- but a number of others were either partially inspired by nonfiction articles or books, such as Argo, Lincoln and Bernie, or little-known dramatic pieces, as in the cases of Beasts of the Southern Wild and Hyde Park on Hudson.

Depending upon the sources, the challenges of adaptation can be diametrically opposed: Boiling down a massive novel by the likes of Tolstoy represents an entirely different proposition than does fashioning playable dramatic scenes peopled by real-life figures from a piece of journalism or historical biography; the first requires judicious editing and condensation, the latter imaginative recreation and, almost inevitably, a degree of fictionalization. Fans of the literary perennials by Jack Kerouac and J.R.R. Tolkien have demanding expectations they might fear cannot be met by a film, while readers of a work as uniquely literary as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas would have to accept going in that a literal adaptation would be impossible and look only for a creative rethinking.

There are other issues as well. For instance, Tom Stoppard wrote his balanced and highly focused adaptation of Tolstoy’s oft-filmed Anna Karenina before director Joe Wright decided to shoot much of it on deliberately artificial, theatrical sets; therefore, the writer can receive none of the credit -- nor the blame, depending on one’s opinion -- for the film’s over-arching artistic approach.

If one has read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s massively researched best-seller Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, it’s clear that the book could only have been one of screenwriter Tony Kushner’s many sources for his teeming scenario, which in all but official credit reads like an original screenplay. Similarly, the script that Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin evolved into the basis for Beasts of the Southern Wild is based on just a small portion of the former’s play, which never has been staged in any prominent setting. Just as Kushner’s script is credited onscreen as being based “in part” on Goodwin’s book, the Beasts screenplay might most accurately have been described as having been “inspired” by Alibar’s play, so far does the film venture off in largely visual directions.

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So adaptation can mean many things -- from immaculate fidelity in fact, tone, theme and perspective (The Perks of Being a Wallflower novelist Stephen Chbosky not only wrote but directed the adaptation so as to protect his baby) to radical departure from or betrayal (willful or otherwise) of the original text (Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer rejiggered the entire storytelling approach of Mitchell’s novel for Cloud Atlas).

When the source is a Man Booker Prize winner and has sold in the millions, perhaps the pressure on the screenwriter is greater than usual to respect everything that made readers love the book. David Magee has reflected everything that is essential about Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi and found a way to concisely provide it all to director Ang Lee so as to make the film a nearly ideal screen representation of the novel. Voice-over also is crucial to the film, much of which takes place on a lifeboat inhabited by only a teenage boy and a Bengal tiger, and many potential pitfalls have been avoided by the writer and director, who succeeded in retaining the buoyancy of the novel’s humor. A few other adaptations come to mind for their comparably fastidious, if generally more somber, distillations of ambitious texts where survival hangs in the balance: Sophie’s Choice, The Pianist, The English Patient.

Francis Ford Coppolagave up the task and numerous other screenwriters have admitted defeat in the effort to give cinematic form to Kerouac’s immortal account of several epochal automotive adventures, among other sorts of trips, in On the Road. Even if Walter Salles ambitious film hits both high points and potholes, it’s hard to say that Jorge Rivera’s adaptation doesn’t do about as reasonable a job as one could imagine at condensing and paring down the author’s sprawling yarn, which originally was composed on one long scroll. Much about the novel had to be sacrificed, much more was meaningful only because of the way it was written, and it’s possible that the generational and attitudinal breakthrough the book represented never could be sufficiently conveyed by a film more than 60 years after the fact. But the script provided a solid chassis.

Providing a contrast to these films based on celebrated literary sources are three pretty nasty pieces of work that surround the viewer with some thoroughly unsavory characters. One distinctive adaptation was Andrew Dominik’s take on George V. Higgins’ crime novel Cogan’s Trade, known on the screen as Killing Them Softly. Higgins was a Boston wiseguy writer par excellence, and his novel consists almost entirely dialogue; by switching the setting to contemporary New Orleans, Dominik changed the tenor of the piece somewhat. Further, and more controversially, he chose to politicize it by backdropping the action with the 2008 economic meltdown and presidential race. There are some great lines and monologues for a number of fine performers -- two or three scenes would provide splendid stand-alone audition pieces for aspiring actors -- and the writing is pungent.

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Another tasty item that seemed to deliberately invite disrepute was The Paperboy. Director Lee Daniels and novelist Peter Dexter share screenwriting credit on the adaptation, the biggest surprise of which is how the script makes aspects of Dexter’s late-’60s Deep South mystery story trashier and wilder than what’s in the book.

Another instance of a source author and a director collaborating on a script and delivering a lot of fun with it is the black comedy Bernie. Working from Skip Hollandsworth’s Texas Monthly article about the very strange true-life murder of an old lady by her only friend and companion, he and Richard Linklater wrote a memorable character for Jack Black and wrung wonderfully mordant scenes from a case history.

Two of the country’s most celebrated presidents turned up on the big screen this fall in very different sorts of films. Hyde Park on Hudson is the charming, lightweight entry of the two, adapted by Richard Nelson from his own radio play about the offbeat, and at the time unknown, design for living in the FDR household in the late-’30s. The characters are plausibly drawn, their interplay witty, but it’s less convincing when it gets reflective and serious.

Kushner spent years on the Lincoln screenplay and eventually compressed a bigger perspective down to a time frame of less than four months. His intelligence and political acumen is clear from everything he’s ever written, and where this script excels is in maintaining clarity while juggling so many characters and points of view; it also covers a great deal of historical ground without sounding like a school lesson. The screenplay is dense and convincing, making for an incredibly talky film in which all the talk is damn interesting. But if Kushner’s work is based on Goodwin’s book, it certainly is based equally on dozens, if not hundreds, of other sources, making his Lincoln come across like an original screenplay no matter how many hundreds or thousands of hours he must have spent researching it.

Four other films loaded with dialogue that handle the situation in different and arguably successful ways are Argo, Silver Linings Playbook and Anna Karenina. Chris Terrio’s screenplay for Argo, which is based on a magazine article, conveys a good deal of complicated exposition in as compact a manner as possible and turns the neat trick of injecting unexpected hilarity into a thriller context.

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The topics at hand in Silver Linings Playbook, which David O. Russell adapted from Matthew Quick’s novel, are few: The variability of the leading man’s mental health, his would-be girlfriend’s own emotional issues and his father’s obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles. But, as if in a one-on-one basketball matchup, Russell shoots from all angles -- a layup here, a hook shot there, a long three-pointer, then a dunk -- which keeps the actors, the film and the viewer on their respective toes. It’s lively, quirky, confronting work all around, even if its long arc is, in the end, thoroughly conventional.

Boiling a nearly 1,000-page novel into a two-hour film represents a huge challenge unless you intend to discard large portions of it. The most satisfying aspect of Stoppard’s adaptation of Anna Karenina is that he manages to retain the big picture by honoring Tolstoy’s great accomplishment of examining so many different kinds of love, not to concentrate just on the Anna-Vronsky grand passion, as the majority of previous adaptations have done. Most important, he has retained the important Levin character, Tolstoy’s personal stand-in, for whom love and marriage represent something quite different than what they do for the others. Whatever director Wright did to elaborate upon or deviate from what was originally intended, this all-important component of Stoppard’s approach has not been sacrificed.

Whereas Stoppard succeeded at boiling down a huge work to a two-hour miniature in which you can distinctly recognize the original, the screenwriters for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey set about something quite the reverse, expanding the first part of Tolkien’s under-300-page novel into a film that runs nearly three hours and is merely the first of three films that will constitute the full adaptation. Purists obsessed with absolute fidelity to source material will find nirvana here, as the visual equivalent of every last comma and period can be perceived in the reverent approach of scenarists Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro, not to mention a wealth of backstory that has been amplified to fill out the epic scope and running time of the film.

There was a lot of skillful screenwriting that made its way to the screen this year (almost all of it in films released in the fall). In the ingenuity with which they tackled the diverse challenges of their adaptations, the writers involved demonstrated that there are quite a few ways to cook a literary egg.