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The book on adapting

Nicholas Meyer tells how he turned Philip Roth's 'The Human Stain' into a script that's true to the novel.

September 07, 2003|Ellen Baskin | Special to the Times

Finding the key to effectively adapting a novel into a screenplay can be something of a mystery, so it seems appropriate that Nicholas Meyer was hired to turn Philip Roth's "The Human Stain" into a script. After all, Meyer is best known for turning his own novel "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution" into a successful film, and that tale told of the greatest sleuth of them all, Sherlock Holmes.

In addition to his many writing and directing credits -- including helming two chapters in the "Star Trek" saga, "The Wrath of Khan" (1982) and "The Undiscovered Country" (1991) -- Meyer wrote half a dozen novels, and he clearly understands the pitfalls that face a writer adapting a well-known piece of fiction. "The more important or beloved or significant the book is, the more you have an obligation to try to do it some kind of justice," he observes. And with those works, he adds, "it will be more difficult to do it justice. People are going to be paying attention."

Gazillions of Harry Potter readers can attest to that, being able to recite chapter and verse any variation from the popular book series in its transition to the big screen. And things can get even trickier when the assignment is a prize-winning work of literary fiction, such as "The Human Stain," written by one of the most heralded novelists of our time. "You have to split the difference between respect on the one hand and the kind of flexibility that may border on what some may call irreverence on the other," Meyer notes. "It will be simplified, but with luck and determination and maybe even skill it will not be simplistic."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 07, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
Philip Roth -- Novelist Philip Roth's name is misspelled as Phillip on the cover of today's Calendar.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 14, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
These errors appeared in Sunday Calendar on Sept. 7:
Philip Roth -- The novelist's name was misspelled as Phillip on the cover.

Simply put, "The Human Stain" is about Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins), an erudite college professor in his early 70s whose long, illustrious career comes to an abrupt halt when he is accused of making a racist remark in class. In the aftermath of his disgrace, Coleman embarks on an impetuous affair with a much younger working-class woman (Nicole Kidman), becomes friends with a neighboring writer (Gary Sinise), and a shocking secret is revealed. (That's all you're going to learn about it here, so feel free to read on.)

Directed by Robert Benton, the film opens Oct. 3, a little more than two years after Meyer was approached to write the screenplay. Once he signed on, the first thing Meyer did was to "make an outline of the book, a couple of sentences for every page. This is a way of memorizing the book and also of internalizing it, making it mine in a way."

Turning to an entry in the 28-page outline that comprises his overview of the novel, he reads, "Page 164, Faunia's destiny is to be a stepdaughter.' That's the summary of something that happens on that page. Once I've got this, then I can go through and read the book again in sort of shorthand and say, 'What do I need?' " Meyer thoughtfully likens the process of turning a novel into a screenplay to "a translation. And it's also a transposition, like taking it from one musical key to another."

While writing the script, it was of course necessary for Meyer to rearrange certain scenes from Roth's novel, eliminate others and create some that didn't exist. "The novelist is juggling a million balls, and he has all the time in the world to catch each one," he says. "I have 115, 120 pages, and I won't be able to catch every one, so I can't toss them all. Everything about adapting a novel, no matter what your aesthetic goal, no matter what you owe to the novel, is a process of elimination. How much can you combine? How much can you do without?"

Meyer didn't talk to Roth about "The Human Stain" and was not present on the day Roth visited the film set. "Someone there had the temerity to ask him if he had read the screenplay," Meyer relates, "and he said no. When I was told this, and I got over being hurt and relieved -- not necessarily in that order -- I thought, 'Well, sure, why does he want to see Mrs. Meyer's oldest [mess] up what he wrote?' Then I thought about it some more, and I understood. He got it the way he wanted it in the novel." When it was Meyer's turn, "I got it the way I wanted it in the script."

In doing so, Meyer changed characters as well as events, and this is most notable in his treatment of Nathan Zuckerman (Sinise). Thought of as the author's alter ego, Zuckerman has played a role in eight Roth novels since first appearing in 1979's "The Ghost Writer." The line between fact and fiction seems especially obscured in "The Human Stain," which finds Zuckerman, like Roth, an aging writer living in relative seclusion and recovering from a bout of prostate cancer that has left him impotent. Meyer kept the parts about cancer and seclusion but opted to remake Nathan as a notably younger man.

"I wasn't sure how dramatically compelling it was to have two old men in this story," he explains. "It seemed to me a somewhat redundant dynamic. I thought that if Nathan was younger, it would be an effective counterpoint to Coleman, whose life is largely behind him."

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