The warm December sunshine that fell on Beverly Hills flowed through the windows of the Four Seasons Hotel and landed on E. Annie Proulx. The author shaded her eyes. Almost everything about the place, the weather, the enormous fresh flowers, the uniformed doormen, the minions from Miramax were all about as far away as one could get from the bleak Newfoundland coastline, the wild storms and twisted psyches that defined her Pulitzer-Prize-winning 1993 novel, "The Shipping News."
Hollywood, of course, harbors its own kind of peril. Its history is littered with the souls of wounded writers who, like Proulx, have sold film rights to their books. Filmmakers could have chewed up her imaginative prose and spit out "sentimental mush," she said. Sensible and uncompromising, Proulx previewed the rough cut before coming to town for the movie's premiere. What she saw pleased her. The novel's quirky wit and intelligence, its authentic atmosphere and awkward love story--it was all there, Proulx thought.
Screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs, in turn, was relieved by her reaction. He had been recruited for "The Shipping News" by director Lasse Hallstrom (with whom he'd worked on "Chocolat") after other directors and writers, including Laura Jones, Ron Bass and Beth Henley, had tried their own versions of Proulx's dense and layered novel. In awe of her talent, Jacobs knew he still had to make the script his own. He had rearranged, expanded and added scenes, compressed time, dropped characters without consulting her.
"The producer called me and said Annie loved it," Jacobs said. "I have to say I got misty-eyed."
The writers' mutual relief illustrates the lessons novelists and filmmakers have learned about adapting novels into films: Sometimes it's best to keep their distance and hope it all works out in the end. Somehow.
The process of turning novels into movies is an "inexact science," said Linda Goldstein Knowlton, a co-producer of "The Shipping News," which opened on Christmas Day. "When it happens, it happens," she said.
Getting there, novelists and filmmakers said, can be delicate and harrowing.
After participating in various ways in eight adaptations of his novels for film ("Phantoms") and TV ("Mr. Murder"), author Dean Koontz said he has given up on film. In a book, he said, "the writer is the final arbiter. In film, that is not anywhere close to the case. There's always one megalomaniac in the group, someone with enough power to distort what's going on." He said he has amassed a collection of "horror stories" he's saving for a memoir.
Unlike filmmakers whose work is part of a collaborative effort, novelists labor alone, noted director Phillip Noyce ("The Bone Collector," "Patriot Games"). Novelists "spend their lives preoccupied with the human condition. We spend our lives caught up in a whole host of other issues led by the politics of the system," he said.
Noyce said he starts with a story that grips him, one whose characters he'd like to live with for a few years. The quagmire, he said, comes with the attempt to distill the essence of the novel--a medium that depends on dense, often contradictory language--into roughly 120 minutes of visuals.
The more popular the book, the higher the stakes, he said. No one wants disappointed fans. And too often that's been the case recently with critically and commercially unsuccessful adaptations of such novels as "All the Pretty Horses" and "Snow Falling on Cedars." A similar fate could await "Shipping News," which opened to only mixed reviews.
Noyce is just finishing an adaptation of the 1958 classic "The Quiet American" by Graham Greene. "In the six years of developing the screenplay I was daily persecuted by the thought we should do anything to pollute Greene's original thesis," he said. "Every decision in terms of adapting the book was based on the question, 'Would this be acceptable to the Graham Greene lover?'"
Some movies such as "The Godfather" are widely acknowledged to outshine the original work. More often, though, it seems authors are disappointed. "If they just cash the check, it's usually a happier experience," said film critic and historian David Thompson. From the author's point of view, they can't lose. If the movie succeeds, they benefit from the publicity; if it fails, they can say they had nothing to do with it.
Yet others, lured by the money or the possibility of boosted book sales, can't resist getting involved. Also, Thomson said, "A lot of novelists are terribly in love with the idea of movies. They lead lonely lives. They're intrigued by meeting all these famous people."
Not Proulx. "Let's put it this way," she said, "[the film industry] is no more interesting than cattle auctions, or sorghum growing, or any occupation, except that it looms so large in our American cultural consciousness. I find it interesting, but it's not a thing that drives me."