Screenwriters find it difficult to adapt

Surely it must be easier, one could assume, to make a movie from a book or play than to have to come up with an original story, but talk to filmmakers who've done both and you will hear otherwise.

"To me, writing an adaptation is just as hard as writing an original," says Robert Nelson Jacobs, the writer who adapted the novel "Chocolat," one of this year's Academy Award nominees for best screenplay adaptation, along with "Traffic," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "Wonder Boys."

"You have to create a new animal," says Jacobs, who also co-wrote last year's "Dinosaur." "I had to make a lot of changes, add characters, take away characters."

It took John Irving four years to write "The Cider House Rules," but it took 13 years and four directors to turn his novel into last year's Oscar-winning movie. He wrote dozens of adaptations along the way, until arriving at the one Lasse Hallstrom filmed in 1999.

Certainly among the most challenging adaptations among this year's nominees is "Wonder Boys," based on the Michael Chabon novel by screenwriter Steve Kloves and director Curtis Hanson.

"I think it's fair to say that no one at Paramount was overjoyed to be buying the book in the first place and certainly not overjoyed to learn that I would be the one adapting it," says Kloves, the humorous, self-deprecating writer-director of "The Fabulous Baker Boys" and "Flesh and Bone," two critically acclaimed movies that were not big box-office hits -- as has been the case with "Wonder Boys."

From words to actions

In the parlance of the marketplace, "Wonder Boys" is "literary" fiction (or, in Hollywood-speak, "non-genre") -- that is, a novel not about spies, submarines, serial murderers, the supernatural or the stock market. It is, in fact, a novel about a novelist and his best student. Written in the sparkling prose that has elevated Chabon to the top shelf of American letters, the book was nevertheless hardly a natural for Hollywood. Its hero, if he can be called that, is beset by personal and professional failures, revealed in bits of dark comedy as he meanders through a literary festival weekend at a small college.

"I always thought it was a movie from the minute I read it," says Kloves, 41, who had written only original screenplays and turned down numerous adaptation jobs before producer Scott Rudin sent him galleys of "Wonder Boys."

Starring Michael Douglas as writer Grady Tripp, who published a first novel to great success and seven years later is still trying to produce his second, "Wonder Boys" is about staying in the game of life when you've peaked early, about living up to others' expectations. Tobey Maguire plays Grady's talented but morose and sexually ambivalent student James Leer; Robert Downey Jr. is Grady's flamboyant, gay editor; and Frances McDormand is the college chancellor with whom Grady is having an affair.

"Anyone who's seen my work knows that I'm clearly more obsessed with character than plot," says Kloves. "I am one of those who subscribes to the theory that character is plot."

"Movies about writers are usually not very good," says director Hanson. "What a writer does doesn't translate that easily. Had this been a movie just about a writer, I don't think I would have wanted to do it. But the themes of the movie apply to all of us, in that we're all looking backward and forward in our lives, trying to figure out who we want to be, what our purpose is, and how to retain a sense of renewal."

Getting into character

But how to get Chabon's interior, 368-page novel into the form of a two-hour film? Certainly the video stores are well-stocked with literary adaptations that either didn't scream to be films or screamed after being made into films -- titles like "Bonfire of the Vanities," "Angela's Ashes," "Beloved," "Bright Lights, Big City," "Texasville" and the recent "All the Pretty Horses."

A shibboleth in Hollywood holds that good movies are made from bad books and vice versa. Kloves doesn't agree with this, but says, "The danger of a good book is that it is the voice of the author, and the language and his or her craft is what's making it evocative, and, absent that, when you put it on the screen it just won't work. So you have to find a way to bring that voice into the screenplay and onto the screen."

Fiction goes inside the characters' heads. Movies must bring it all to the surface. "You have to end up externalizing the life of, say, Jack Baker," Kloves says of the battered lounge-pianist hero (played by Jeff Bridges) of "The Fabulous Baker Boys." "You could easily evoke what's going on inside Jack Baker in a novel -- not easily, but the tools are there. You have to find other ways to do it in screenwriting. Often the men in my movies are reticent; it's their behavior and the occasional word they drop that is revealing.

"I did think about halfway through 'Wonder Boys' that next time, I'm going to take a really inferior piece of literature and [I'll] look like a hero, because the only thing I can do here is fail. Because it's a wonderful book and he's an extraordinary writer."

"Most adaptations are approached as condensations, as opposed to the bolder approach of starting over," says Hanson, who won an Oscar in 1997, with writing partner Brian Helgeland, for his adaptation of James Ellroy's crime noir "L.A. Confidential."

"The key is going after the essence of the characters and then letting the plot go where it needs to go to illuminate the essence of those characters," Hanson says. "You want to be inspired by the book, not enslaved to it."

"I remember thinking, This is going to be easy," says Kloves of "Wonder Boys," "because there's all this great stuff here. You know, I don't have to do all the heavy lifting. [Chabon] created the characters, he's created the world, he's given me a lot of great incidents. Let's just sit down and start typing this up.

"I learned very quickly that in some ways it was more difficult than writing originals. One, because you can use source material as a crutch, which is not a good thing -- you have to avoid that."

Being choosy

What Kloves believes he brought to Chabon's semiautobiographical tale of a man trying to recover from success was "a certain emotional punctuation." As well as reduction.

"In the book there is a darkness and a kind of melancholy, but I don't think it's quite as in evidence as it is in the screenplay and the final movie," Kloves said.

"Michael has an ability to do farce. I'm not comfortable with farce and don't do it well, so I tended to respond to the more melancholy, the darker aspects of the novel, and they became the overall tone of the screenplay and movie. A novelist has a broad palette of colors and emotions he can use, but a screenplay has to be more selective. I had to choose that which I thought was most important emotionally to best express the internal life of Grady.