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Comparing TV, film versions of 'State of Play'

How a six-hour BBC miniseries was streamlined and Americanized into a two-hour political thriller.

April 12, 2009|Robert Abele

Andrew Hauptman, producer of the new film "State of Play," remembers what he thought while watching the original six-hour miniseries in London when it was first broadcast in 2003. "The reaction was, 'This is the best piece of television I've ever seen,' " says Hauptman, who is American. "And I've gotten that reaction from so many people I've shown it to. It just grabbed you by the neck and didn't let go."

Written by Paul Abbott, "State of Play" (which is available on DVD from BBC Video) was a galloping thriller with multiple strands covering a variety of themes: personal ambition between friends, government collusion with private industry, and the thorny relationship between the press and law enforcement when each wants the other to butt out (except when one has information the other needs). Everything unraveled from a pair of seemingly unrelated deaths that opened the first episode, as two gung-ho Fleet Street reporters named Cal (John Simm) and Della (Kelly MacDonald) followed a trail of clues that led to the inner workings of a big-oil-bashing independent energy policy report being prepared by ascendant politician Stephen Collins (David Morrissey), who happens to be an old friend of Cal's.

In addition to the wrenching twists and memorable characters -- including Bill Nighy's sharp-witted, troop-rallying news editor, a performance so beloved it earned the actor job offers in journalism, and James McAvoy as a rogue-ish cub reporter -- what galvanized critics and viewers was the series' timeliness. Here was a nail-biter that addressed gathering public concerns about how closely big business -- namely, the oil and energy industries -- was driving government policies. But even Abbott has acknowledged that while politics was a spark, what drove him to write "State of Play" was sheer fondness for a complicated, drawn-out yarn that couldn't be told in one "Law & Order"-sized sitting.

"I really missed that kind of television, the six-hour, escalating, continuous narrative," Abbott told The Times in 2004. "I wanted to see whether an audience would stick with it."

They did, but it was a different dilemma that presented itself to Hauptman after he secured the rights to make a film version of "State of Play." How do you condense a six-course feast into one satisfying entree?

Early, hassle-free alterations under the project's first screenwriter, Matthew Carnahan, included shifting the action from London to Washington, D.C., and turning the conspiracy spotlight from a nefarious energy lobby to the skulduggery of a private military contractor under congressional scrutiny.

When it came to the scalpel work, though -- "a wrenching process," Hauptman says -- Abbott himself lent a reassuring note, a dirty secret of sorts to his much-praised spider web. "He would say to me, 'Andrew, the amount of new information that we learn in the series isn't nearly as much as you think,' " says Hauptman.

Broken down, the original is fueled on the one hand by the painstaking nuts and bolts of news gathering -- finessing sources, back-scratching with cops, getting around higher-ups who want the story killed -- and on the other by the personal relationships between Cal, Stephen, and Stephen's wife, Anne. It meant that the here's-the-facts skeleton of the new "State of Play" could remain intact -- who killed whom and why -- while the road to those revelations could just be sped up or made more cinematic. According to Hauptman, for example, screenwriter Tony Gilroy -- part of the streamlining crusade when director Kevin Macdonald came aboard -- turned the discovery of one crucial clue from a line of dialogue in the miniseries into a comic-then-suspenseful bit for Cal, played by Russell Crowe in the film, as he's making cellphone calls while driving his beaten-up Saab.

Elsewhere, there were excisions, like McAvoy's character, and a gender switch, from Nighy to Helen Mirren (whose British accent makes for a linguistic tie to the original). Other alterations play as clever updates: The film's newspaper is a behemoth in financial straits, while Cal and Della (played in the new version by Rachel McAdams) are now an oil-and-water team in which he represents traditional investigative journalism while she comes from the chatter-heavy, fact-challenged blogosphere.

Another big change was a boiling down of sorts, turning the miniseries' time-intensive affair between Cal and Anne Collins -- a critical element in how the emerging scandal affects the leads' personal lives -- into a cordial bar scene between longtime chums and a suggestion of intimacies past. "It was an enormous debate," says Hauptman. "But we didn't have six hours to show that relationship, and luckily we had great actors" -- Robin Wright Penn plays Anne -- "who could signify it rather than spell it out."

As for the climax, the key issue was to make it feel more like a cohesive wrapping up, rather than the winding down of a willfully complex ride, says Eric Fellner of Working Title Films, a producing partner on "State of Play."

"To do what Paul [Abbott] brilliantly did, he was fortunate that he didn't have to hold an audience for six hours on the trot," says Fellner. "By the time you reach the end, you may have forgotten about story elements from five weeks ago. But when you've got people parked in a dark room for two hours, they expect every single thing to make sense."

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