"Beginnings are very important to me, whether it's a letter or an e-mail or a screenplay or a novel or play," said Ronald Harwood, a master of most of those forms. "I think all those things should begin with 'A shot rang out.' It should be so gripping."
His latest films open with a death and the blink of an eye, respectively. "Love in the Time of Cholera" portrays the fanciful decades-long romance originally presented in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, while "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" tells the true story of a healthy 43-year-old man who suffers a stroke and finds himself unable to move any part of his body except his left eyelid.
Although starting an original work can be difficult enough, adapting a novel for the screen presents an entirely separate set of challenges. But after five decades in the business, Harwood, 73, said he vastly prefers writing film adaptations to original screenplays. "If I have an original idea, it's bound to come to me in a play," due to his theatrical background, he explained. But then, he's likely to adapt his own plays to the screen as well.
Born and raised in South Africa, Harwood moved at 17 to England, where he worked as part of Sir Donald Wolfit's Shakespeare Company, playing small roles -- "I was a bad actor," he insisted -- and serving as the dresser to Wolfit from 1953 to 1958, before beginning his writing career. The experience inspired his 1978 play, "The Dresser," his first theatrical hit after years of penning novels, teleplays and films.
When director Peter Yates brought "The Dresser" to the big screen, Harwood adapted it himself, to great success; the 1983 film, starring Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay, garnered five Academy Award nominations, including one for Harwood. "In those days they didn't seem to make as much fuss about the Oscars," he noted.
By the time Harwood had his second experience with the Oscars, winning the adapted screenplay prize for 2002's "The Pianist," the award season climate had changed considerably. But he never would have imagined that ending to a project that was hard for him to begin.
He and director Roman Polanski had traveled to Poland together to do preliminary research, and Harwood recalled, "We watched archive material for three days. It had never been shown to the public because it's so awful, shot by the SS. We'd go out to dinner each night and I'd get quite drunk, and we'd try to cheer ourselves up."
Then Polanski sent him back home to London to write the script, calling periodically to ask how it was proceeding. "I'd say, 'Terrific, Roman, thank you so much.' I lied, I hadn't put a word down," Harwood confided. In fact, he was at a complete loss as to how he should approach Wladyslaw Szpilman's harrowing tale of surviving World War II in Warsaw. "After the third call, I said, 'Roman, I'm going to come clean. I haven't written a word, I don't know how to begin.' He said, 'It's called 'The Pianist!' Start with him playing the piano!' " Harwood did just that and found his way into the story.
With "Cholera," he had to determine what to cut from Garcia Marquez's dense novel, which painstakingly recounts, over the course of hundreds of pages, every nuance of Florentino Ariza's burning ardor for Fermina Urbino, the woman who spurned him in his youth. "The challenge really was, what story are you telling," he said. "I decided that it was one of the great love stories that had ever been written." With that focus, everything else fell away.
"Diving Bell" was another matter. Harwood had read Jean-Dominique Bauby's memoir long before he knew it was to be adapted. "I thought it was the most wonderful testament to triumph over adversity I'd ever read, and that was that," he said. "About 18 months later, [producer Kathleen Kennedy] offered it to me, and I said yes without rereading it. It was very rash. I'll never do that again."
"I must have been stuck for two weeks, pacing up and down the corridor of the apartment," Harwood continued . Just as he was about to call Kennedy and tell her he couldn't do it, inspiration struck. "Nothing concentrates the mind of a writer more wonderfully than the thought of having to give back the money," Harwood noted. "Suddenly this idea burst into mind that he should be the camera."
As the film opens, the camera 'blinks' when Bauby does, and the audience sees everything -- his hospital room, the medical staff -- from his point of view. Once Harwood hit upon that concept, the rest of the story came easily; he wrote the script in about five weeks.
Kennedy learned about his struggles after the fact. "With the difficulty I knew that we were going to be up against, trying to adapt this material, it just struck me that he might be somebody who'd really understand how to do it," she said. "He sent a spectacular first draft," she added, one good enough to lure Julian Schnabel on board to direct.