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The Novel Approach to Scripts

Adapting a book for the screen takes respect and invention, as Steve Kloves learned with 'Wonder Boys.'

March 25, 2001|SEAN MITCHELL | Sean Mitchell is a regular contributor to Calendar

Surely it must be easier, one could assume, to make a movie from an existing book or play than to have to come up with an original story, but talk to filmmakers who've done both and you will hear otherwise.

"To me, writing an adaptation is just as hard as writing an original," says Robert Nelson Jacobs, the writer who adapted the novel "Chocolat," one of this year's Academy Award nominees for best screenplay adaptation, along with "Traffic," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "'Wonder Boys."

"You have to create a new animal," says Jacobs, who also co-wrote last year's "Dinosaur." "I had to make a lot of changes, add characters, take away characters."

It took John Irving four years to write "The Cider House Rules," but it took 13 years and four directors to turn his novel into last year's Oscar-winning screenplay. He wrote dozens of adaptations along the way, until arriving at the one Lasse Hallstrom filmed in 1999.

Certainly one of the most challenging adaptations among this year's nominees is "'Wonder Boys," the Michael Chabon novel adapted by screenwriter Steve Kloves and director Curtis Hanson.

"I think it's fair to say that no one at Paramount was overjoyed to be buying the book in the first place and certainly not overjoyed to learn that I would be the one adapting it," says Kloves, the humorous, self-deprecating writer-director of "The Fabulous Baker Boys" and "Flesh and Bone," two critically acclaimed movies that were not big box office hits--as has been the case with "Wonder Boys."

In the parlance of the marketplace, "Wonder Boys" is "literary" fiction (or, in Hollywood-speak, "nongenre")--that is, a novel not about spies, submarines, serial murderers, the supernatural or the stock market. It is, in fact, a novel about a novelist and his best student. Written in the sparkling prose that has elevated Chabon to the top shelf of American letters, the book was nevertheless hardly a natural for Hollywood. Its hero, if he can be called that, is beset by personal and professional failures, revealed in bits of dark comedy as he meanders through a literary festival weekend at a small college.

"I always thought it was a movie from the minute I read it," says Kloves, 41, who had written only original screenplays and turned down numerous adaptation jobs before producer Scott Rudin sent him galleys of "Wonder Boys." "It's curious because then I would run into people after the book was published, and they would say, 'I don't see how in hell this is a movie.' But it probably goes back to having cut my teeth as an audience member on the movies of the late '60s and early '70s, because it was clearly in that bag for me."

Starring Michael Douglas as writer Grady Tripp, who published a first novel to great success and seven years later is still trying to produce his second, "Wonder Boys" is about staying in the game of life when you've peaked early, about living up to others' expectations. Tobey Maguire plays Grady's talented but morose and sexually ambivalent student James Leer; Robert Downey Jr. is Grady's flamboyant, gay editor; and Frances McDormand is the college chancellor with whom Grady is having an affair.

"Anyone who's seen my work knows that I'm clearly more obsessed with character than plot," says Kloves one morning, seated in the courtyard of Dutton's Brentwood and sipping a tall latte. "I am one of those who subscribes to the theory that character is plot. I embraced the 'shaggy dog' aspect of it," he says, referring to the story's rambling, loose-jointed structure. "I thought that's what made it entertaining and dramatic. I didn't see it as a weakness."

"Movies about writers are usually not very good," says director Hanson. "What a writer does doesn't translate that easily. Had this been a movie just about a writer, I don't think I would have wanted to do it. But the themes of the movie apply to all of us, in that we're all looking backward and forward in our lives, trying to figure out who we want to be, what our purpose is, and how to retain a sense of renewal."

But how to get Chabon's 368-page comic novel into the form of a two-hour film? Certainly the video stores are well-stocked with literary adaptations that either didn't scream to be films or screamed after being made into films--titles like "Bonfire of the Vanities," "Angela's Ashes," "Beloved," "Bright Lights, Big City," "Texasville" and the recent "All the Pretty Horses."

A shibboleth in Hollywood holds that good movies are made from bad books and vice versa. Kloves doesn't agree with this, but says, "The danger of a good book is that it is the voice of the author, and the language and his or her craft is what's making it evocative, and, absent that, when you put it on the screen it just won't work. So you have to find a way to bring that voice into the screenplay and onto the screen."

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