Adapting a book into a screenplay is a high-wire act. As writers, we want to be loyal to the source, especially if the book is beloved. Yet that desire can run opposite to crafting a compelling, watchable movie. The process becomes a balance: what to keep, what to condense and what to skip.
The great William Goldman offers sound advice on this in “Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade.” Goldman won Oscars for his screenplays for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969) and “All the President’s Men” (1974), and he’s adapted at least two of his novels (“Marathon Man” and “The Princess Bride”) into films. He asks the question: Does it play?
In other words, how will this play onscreen? Is what’s happening dramatic? Does it advance the plot? If your characters make hotel reservations, arrange for child care or order food, probably not. Everyday tasks and most inner monologues take up precious minutes and test an audience’s patience. (Charlie Kaufman hilariously dramatized this in “Adaptation,” where his onscreen alter ego struggled with how to write a screenplay from Susan Orlean’s lyrical “The Orchid Thief.”)
The two films below were adapted from acclaimed or popular books. One gets it right essentially by using the book as an outline. The other gets it oh-so-wrong by not adding more for the audience. (Warning: Contains spoilers.)
What works: “The English Patient” (1996)
I chose this film in part because writer-director Anthony Minghella’s screenplay is available in book form to compare with Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 novel, which won the Booker Prize for fiction. The book weaves a nonlinear narrative around two love stories and four main characters at the end of World War II: a battle-weary nurse, a combat engineer, a maimed thief and the titular patient, a burn victim who turns out to be a Hungarian cartographer.
In the foreward of his screenplay, Minghella writes that he hopes the novel’s admirers “forgive my sins of omission and commission, my misjudgments and betrayals; they were all made in the spirit of translating his beautiful novel to the screen.” In that spirit, he keeps the novel’s events and themes (connection, mistaken identity, regret, forgiveness) but creates scenes and original dialogue for the characters as they reveal the novel’s surprises. (He writes memorable lines too, such as “New lovers are nervous and tender, but smash everything. For the heart is an organ of fire.”) He also ends the screenplay logically after the patient dies instead of following the remaining characters after the war. The result? Nine Oscars, including Best Picture.
“This poetic, evocative film … circles down through layers of mystery until all of the puzzles in the story have been solved, and only the great wound of a doomed love remains,” film critic Roger Ebert wrote. “The novel is so labyrinthine that it’s a miracle it was filmed at all, and the writer-director, Anthony Minghella, has done a creative job of finding visual ways to show how the rich language slowly unveils layers of the past.”
What doesn’t: Jack Reacher (2012)
This film adapts Lee Child’s 2005 thriller “One Shot,” featuring Jack Reacher, the popular protagonist of his long-running series. Reacher is a drifter, a decorated Army veteran and former military policeman played by Tom Cruise. On the page, Reacher calls to mind someone more like Brian Dennehy, but the movie’s flaws lie more in director Christopher McQuarrie’s script than with Cruise.
The plot involves former Army sniper James Barr, accused of killing five people in a park. Barr says he’s innocent and tells authorities to “get Jack Reacher” — an odd request, as we learn that Reacher wants Barr punished because of a tour-of-duty shooting spree. Barr falls into a coma before Reacher arrives. Yet Reacher assists his defense attorney after deducing that a trained sniper wouldn’t have conducted the shooting the way it occurred.
For starters, the film doesn’t give Reacher a compelling reason to help a man he purportedly can’t stand. Detectives on “Law & Order” would have unraveled the twist — that four other people died to divert attention from the true victim — within the first act. Here, the reveal doesn’t have the groundwork needed to keep an audience intrigued by the conspiracy.
What’s more, efforts to show Reacher’s special qualities, such as how he plans fights through physics, fall flat. When a group accosts him outside a bar, Reacher outlines how the fight will happen. Then it strays from his plan, and he has no quip to poke fun at that, not even “Nobody’s perfect.” Scenes toward the climax also lose momentum.
Overall, as Entertainment Weekly said, the film is “choked with visual clichés and dreadfully moldy dialogue.”