Thursday, December 04, 2003

Film directors don't always play by the book
By Claudia Puig, USA TODAY

Andre Dubus III can't believe his good fortune that Ben Kingsley is starring in the movie version of his novel, House of Sand and Fog.

Novelist Andre Dubus III said he had Ben Kingsley in mind for the character of the Iranian emigré when he wrote House of Sea and Fog.

"My wife and I were just talking in a fantasy way: If this were a movie, who would you see?" says Dubus. "Right away, I saw Kingsley."

For his part, Kingsley read the novel, found it "crushingly sad," and moved on to other work. "It didn't haunt me."

Still, he took the part.

"Andre's wife wrote to me and sent me a copy of the book 18 months before it was even considered to be a film," says Kingsley, who is getting Oscar buzz for his portrayal of Massoud Behrani, an Iranian colonel who emigrates to the USA but struggles in his new country. "She very sweetly said, 'No strings attached.' Simply stating the fact that her husband had always envisaged Behrani as me, that I was the scaffolding for the building that was Behrani."

At least nine filmmakers are using successful novels as the scaffolding for their films this month. While there's nothing new about adapting books to the screen, this season has a flurry of them. Master and Commander, Mystic River, The Human Stain and In the Cut are in theaters now. The Missing, starring Cate Blanchett as a woman who turns to her estranged father to find her kidnapped daughter in 1880s New Mexico, opened last week. Still to come:

•Big Fish, starring Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor in a story of a man coming to terms with his storytelling father, who is dying. Dec. 10, New York, Los Angeles.

•Girl With a Pearl Earring, starring Scarlett Johansson as a servant who catches the eye of artist Vermeer, played by Colin Firth. Dec. 12 in New York and Los Angeles.

•House of Sand and Fog, starring Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly. An immigrant sees a house as the realization of his dreams, but it has been wrongly taken from a woman who saw the house as her last hope. Dec. 19, New York, Los Angeles.

•Cold Mountain, starring Nicole Kidman, Jude Law and Renee Zellweger. A wounded Civil War soldier makes an epic journey to reunite with his sweetheart. Dec. 25, nationwide.

Basing a movie on a well-known novel has its perils. Despite a built-in audience of readers, there's always the possibility fans will dislike the way characters they've imagined are portrayed. But if successful, the film portrayal of a literary character can make a character even more indelible — as Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable become the personification of Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler in the movie based on Gone With the Wind.

"If you're adapting a novel that's both widely read and intensely loved, you have a certain responsibility," says Peter Webber, director of Girl With a Pearl Earring, based on the best-selling novel by Tracy Chevalier. "It's also really scary because everybody who's read the book has cast it in their head. Your version has to be more effective than their version. That's a tall order."

The cinematic embodiment of characters has sometimes proved controversial, as with Anthony Hopkins' role in The Human Stain as a light-skinned black man, and glamorous Nicole Kidman playing a janitor. Anne Rice famously blanched at Tom Cruise being cast in the movie of her novel, Interview With the Vampire, but recanted when she saw the film.

"People quarrel with every incarnation of a book on film," says Anthony Minghella, who wrote the screenplay and directed the movie based on Charles Frazier's best-selling Civil War tale, Cold Mountain. "And that's their privilege."

Sometimes casting choices are made that authors did not envision, but then realize enhance their work. Novelist Thomas Eidson was thrilled by director Ron Howard's choice of Blanchett to play the lead role in his western thriller, The Missing, based on Eidson's novel, The Last Ride.

"Cate Blanchett has so much of my sense of Maggie that it almost startled me," says Eidson.

For some, total immersion

Actors vary in their use of the source material to inform their portrayals. Firth, who plays the Dutch painter Vermeer in Girl With a Pearl Earring, read the novel closely. When author Chevalier came to the set, "I pounced on her and picked her brain."

Firth explains: "I absolutely got consumed by a desire to discover something about him. I went to look at paintings and read what I could and did as much painting as I could do. I referred to the script, the book, to pictures. It was like a candy store. You do all this stuff and in the end, I don't know how much of it makes any difference to anyone watching the movie. But it made me enjoy it."

Johansson, who played the title character, made a conscious choice to trust her instincts.

"I did not read the book before or during filmmaking," she says. "It's written in a first-person narrative from my character's point of view. I just didn't want to be told what I should be feeling at a particular time."

Johansson read the book after the film wrapped.

"I was dying to read it," she says. "We had a copy of it on the set, and it was very tempting. I would start to look over some dialogue, and my eyes would wander over to the page and then I'd go 'No! Stop reading!' "

Kingsley called upon the cultural expertise of Jonathan Ahdout, the 14-year-old Iranian-American who plays his son in House of Sand and Fog, and the boy's family, to flesh out Behrani.

"Behrani has nothing to do with me or my experience," Kingsley says. "It's wonderful to take that leap into the unknown."

Similarly, directors choose their own approaches to adapting books to the screen. Some, like Webber, keep the novel as an ever-present guide on set.

Others, like Minghella (who also adapted The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley into movies) don't refer to the book during its cinematic adaptation.

"I have a quite radical but well-intentioned and perhaps foolish method of adapting, and I hit upon it with The English Patient, and I'm now doing it perhaps also out of superstition: I don't take the book with me when I go to write the adaptation," says Minghella. He holes himself up to write at a house in the English countryside with a piano and sketchbook nearby.

He explains his strategy: "Cold Mountain is a poem which changes chronology and voice and perspective. If the screenplay tried to follow too closely, it would be absolutely impenetrable."

'I won't change the ending'

Though novelists may not be involved in the adaptation process, some insist upon a shared vision with the director and screenwriter.

Movie vs. book portrayal

Ben Kingsley, House of Sand and Fog Book by Andre Dubus III, 100,000 paperbacks in stores, Back story of Colonel Behrani's life in Iran and political past is just implied in the movie

Cate Blanchett, The Missing, based on The Last Ride by Thomas Eidson, 100,000 paperbacks in stores, Very true to the book; Tommy Lee Jones' character's past is more fully explored in the book

Albert Finney, Big Fish, Book by Daniel Wallace, Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions, 75,000 paperbacks in stores, Finney's character in the book was a serial womanizer. In the movie, that aspect of his character is not depicted

Colin Firth, Girl with a Pearl Earring Book by Tracy Chevalier, 500,000 paperbacks in stores, Firth's Vermeer is informed by his research on the artist. The movie doesn't age the characters, as the book did

Dubus said he had received more than 130 calls from filmmakers inquiring about adapting his book, but he was always disappointed when they wanted to make a substantive change he couldn't support.

"They'd always say 'That ending is so terrible, can we change it?' I'd always say I won't change the ending to make it more palatable."

Finally, director Vadim Perelman promised: " 'I will make the movie that was the book,' " says Dubus. "I knew I was in good hands."

It helps if the filmmaker has a connection with the material.

"Big Fish hit me very strongly," says director Tim Burton about the novel by Daniel Wallace. "I was immediately taken by the fact that it put an image to things that are quite difficult to discuss: the relationship you have with your parents."

The prolific Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Planet of the Apes, Beetlejuice) chose for his first adaptation a slim volume about a charmer who tells tall tales but can't get close to his son.

"To turn a really well-known novel that's 400 pages into a movie can be quite daunting and may rub people the wrong way," says Burton. "Because this wasn't a really well-known novel, or that long, this seemed not quite as daunting. The book was more like a blueprint for what (screenwriter) John (August) did with the script. If I had read the book first, I would never have said, 'Movie.' "

And though the movie has substantive changes from his book, Wallace believed the alterations were wholly necessary.

The main character in Wallace's book is based on his father, a larger-than-life businessman who is dying. The character's womanizing was softened for the movie. And, he says, Finney's characterization "had a more patrician Southern quality (than my father), but his upper-class kind of feel works with the movie completely." Finney captured the mellowing that occurred in his father's final days, he says.

"Big Fish, the book, is not as plot-heavy as the movie is," says Wallace. "But the difference between the movie and the book is necessary. It's like changing a fish to a mammal. You can't expect it to be the same."

Imposing an artistic vision on a well-known work is "not just a filmmaker sucking the life of the book," says Minghella. "All readers are filmmakers in a sense. Reading is personal, particular and wonderful and it's not for me to say my version is definitive. I'm just going to my inner screen and sharing it." - Film directors don't always play by the book

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