Life With Stepfather : Tobias Wolff’s memoir of a brutish ‘50s childhood, ‘This Boy’s Life,’ proves to be a rewarding challenge to its film adaptors

Patrick Goldstein is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Early one morning last spring, Michael Caton-Jones was on a deserted country road outside Concrete, Wash., filming a scene where the young hero of “This Boy’s Life” races through the dewy pre-dawn, delivering newspapers.

“It was kind of Scotch misty,” recalls the 35-year-old film director, who grew up in the tiny Scottish hamlet of Uphall Station. “And I just flashed back--physically and mentally--to the feeling of running down the road, delivering papers on my paper route when I was a kid. I just completely zoned out. I forgot I was out there, shooting a movie.”

Based on Tobias Wolff’s coming-of-age-in-the-'50s memoir of the same title, the movie offers a richly detailed, often disturbing portrait of our most vulnerable age--adolescence. Making the film had a similar effect on others involved in the movie. Veteran screenwriter Robert Getchell, who adapted Wolff’s book, also was surprised how much “This Boy’s Life” stirred complicated emotions he’d experienced in his youth as well.


“When a film draws from real life, it becomes personal for the audience, too. People relive their own lives through your film,” Caton-Jones said.

Opening Friday, the movie stars Robert De Niro, Ellen Barkin and 18-year-old actor Leonardo DiCaprio as Toby Wolff, the story’s ducktailed hero. An imaginative dreamer who often adopts the pose of a sullen delinquent, Toby accompanies his free-spirited mother to Washington state.

But all too quickly his mother has remarried, leaving Toby trapped in the brutish embrace of Dwight Hansen, his tyrannical stepfather. Persuaded that his stepson’s misdeeds arise from laziness, Dwight assigns Toby a paper route, enlists him in the Boy Scouts and gives him such chores as husking huge mounds of spiny horse chestnuts. When Toby asks for a dog, Dwight sells Toby’s beloved Winchester .22 to pay for an ugly hound with yellow eyes and a pink, almost hairless tail who growls at the boy whenever he enters the house. When Toby throws away a not-quite-empty mustard jar, Dwight erupts with a venomous rage.

For years, Toby--now Tobias Wolff, author of several acclaimed short-story collections--tried unsuccessfully to write a novel based on this experience. Stymied, he began studying coming-of-age tales by other writers, among them Frederick Exley’s “A Fan’s Notes,” Frank Conroy’s “Stop-Time” and Mary McCarthy’s “Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood.”

“I think I was fighting the impulse to write about my own childhood,” says Wolff, who lives with his family in Upstate New York. “But reading those books encouraged me to think that I could be extremely honest without disgracing myself.”

Perhaps Wolff’s memories were too painful, his boyhood scars too deep. Even today, Wolff refers to Dwight Hansen (who died last year) as “that person” or “my stepfather"--but never by name. When he talks about recalling the details of his troubled childhood, the verb he uses is exhume.

“Finally, I was compelled, by some instinct operating beyond my own will or immediate consciousness, to go back to this material and start writing,” Wolff explains. “I think it had a lot to do with the process of becoming a father myself.

“Once I started working the vein, things just welled up--it really surprised me. I had a sense of something just pulsing under the surface that-- boom-- came out of me.”

Last spring Wolff and his mother, Rosemary, returned to Concrete for the first time in 32 years to watch his youthful escapades being transformed into a Hollywood movie.

Everyone made a big fuss over his mother, who sat in Caton-Jones’ director’s chair and befriended Ellen Barkin, who plays her in the movie. Wolff renewed acquaintances with boyhood pals who were appearing as extras in the film.

Wolff was startled by how little Concrete had been altered since he left--or so it seemed. “We’d spent all this time stripping the facades of the stores and ‘50s-izing them,” Caton-Jones explains. “So when Toby turned up, he said, ‘Oh my God, it hasn’t changed at all!’ He didn’t know it was our work.”

But it was seeing Robert De Niro, dressed in his stepfather’s two-tone shoes and hand-painted ties, using the hand gestures and vocal inflections he remembered so well, that really sent Wolff reeling back in time.

“There were moments of--well-- collapse ,” Wolff says now, his voice betraying only a tiny whiff of emotion. “I don’t know how else to put it. I felt my mind collapsing back somehow as I stood there and watched them filming--us--this terrible family walking down the street together.”

Michael Caton-Jones doesn’t mince words, whether he’s offering a tart thumbnail sketch of Hollywood (“a town built on laziness, fear and stupidity”) or defending his right to tamper with the text of “This Boy’s Life.”

“You’re always up against people who’ve read the book and want you to make the book exactly as it was,” he says dismissively, munching on a hamburger and fries at a Santa Monica beachfront eatery. “But I’m making a movie, not rewriting a book. If it’s different from the book, my response is ‘So (expletive) what!’ ”

“This Boy’s Life’s” passage from memoir to motion picture began shortly after its publication in 1989 when Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman Peter Guber, then running Guber-Peters Productions at Warner Bros., bought the rights to Wolff’s memoirs.

The author’s initial reaction was mixed. “In a way it was very flattering,” Wolff recalled. “Peter Guber met with me and even asked who I thought would be good in the movie.

“But I was also apprehensive about my past--and my mother’s past--being opened up in a way that was no longer in my control. Selling your book to the movies is a very Mephistophelean bargain. When you write a book, it’s up to you to decide what to reveal, and how to reveal it. Once it’s a movie, they get to do what they want with it.”

Soon after the sale, Getchell wrote Guber a letter, volunteering to write the script. After Guber left Warners, producer Art Linson took over the project and met with Getchell.

“Art was great,” recalls Getchell, who has written two Oscar-nominated scripts, “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” and “Bound for Glory,” as well as the recent adaptation “Point of No Return.” “Once he made the decision to go with me, he didn’t even want to hear what I was going to do. He gave me my head.”

For nine weeks, Getchell worked ‘round the clock, writing a first-draft script, hewing close to the book’s dark portrait of boyhood alienation. “I was obsessed,” Getchell says. “I almost never left my house or yard.”

The hardest part of the adaptation was giving the book, which is loaded with character sketches and dramatic incidents, a strong narrative drive. “The characters, especially Dwight and Toby, were all there, in Technicolor,” Getchell explains. “But as a movie, the story needed a throughline. So I made a two-page list of story points which could act as a bridge to get me across the water.”

Any incidents or characters, no matter how colorful, that took him away from Toby were left by the wayside. “The kid was the heart of the story,” says Getchell.

Getchell says he’s delighted with the way Caton-Jones stuck closely to his script. There’s only one scene he really misses--a sequence in which Toby and Dwight, anticipating Toby’s mother’s arrival, paint the entire house white. The beds, chest of drawers, dining room table--everything.

Dwight even paints the black-walnut piano white, down to its antique-yellow white piano keys. “That was the set-piece of my script,” Getchell says. “To me, without a line of dialogue, it conveys the vague monstrousness of Dwight’s obsessions.”

Caton-Jones shot the scene, but editing the film, he decided it had to go. “I felt as if we were stopping for a song,” he says. “It just had no great dramatic purpose. We’d already established how obsessive Dwight could be. We had the perfect actor to do that.”

Finishing his hamburger, Caton-Jones flashes a satisfied grin. If he had any concerns about capturing Dwight Hansen on screen, they were solved the minute Robert De Niro took the part.

Before filming began, De Niro studied the book, then visited Tobias Wolff, a thick notebook tucked under his arm. “It was incredible,” Wolff recalls. “The notebook was filled with 200 pages of observations about him (Dwight).

“De Niro would ask me about the tiniest details: What did he wear when he came out of the bathroom? A towel around his waist? Did he wear a bathrobe? Did he walk around the house naked? Did he wear skivvies and a T-shirt?

“He compiles details like a scholar. He wanted to know everything.”

To a film director with a thousand worries, De Niro is an ace in a hand full of wild cards. “Once you have him, you have a level of quality that sends a signal to everybody--don’t get on board unless you’re serious about this,” says Caton-Jones.

“Bob must’ve tried on 200 jackets before deciding what he’d wear in a scene, all because he saw the clothing as a statement of his character’s emotional makeup.”

There’s a passage in “This Boy’s Life” where Toby maliciously mimics Dwight’s ritual lighting of a cigarette. Wolff describes it as “a prolonged drama of ignition: the unsheathing of his monogrammed Zippo from its velvet case; the snapping open of the top against his pants leg; the presentation of the tall flame with its crown of oily smoke.”

De Niro was especially curious about that bit. “I don’t understand,” he told Wolff. “How does it work?”

Wolff dug up an old Zippo from a neighbor and gave De Niro a lesson. “He couldn’t quite manage it before the end of our session,” Wolff recalls. “So he had me borrow a camcorder and videotape myself doing it over and over. And damn it, when I went out to watch him filming, if he didn’t stop in the middle of the street, take out the lighter and-- whamer-- open it perfectly with one hand.”

Michael Caton-Jones found it easy to identify with young Toby Wolff, an incorrigible kid who stole small change from people along his paper route, who got into fights to impress his ruffian friends, even though he imagined himself better than them.

“I had a lot of Toby in me as a kid,” says Caton-Jones, a blunt, opinionated guy who proudly recalls his blue-collar origins. “I was kind of wild, always having schemes, living on my imagination. I had this feeling of superiority. It’s a common childhood feeling--great ambition without any focus.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I certainly wasn’t going to do what everyone else did.”

Caton-Jones left school at 16. He dug ditches and delivered bills for the local butchers and bakers. The latter job earned him a free pass to the local movie theater. One day, when his work took him to a film set, he came to a quick realization: “That was where I belonged.”

Perhaps it was Caton-Jones’ youthful self-reliance that provided him with the resolve necessary to get “This Boy’s Life” made. Despite its prestigious literary pedigree, the book wasn’t considered an especially commercial property.

“Studios tend not to make films like this because they’re terrified of offending anyone,” says Caton-Jones. “Warners was terribly skeptical because the script didn’t follow the traditional three-act structure. People would say, ‘It’s too downbeat, it’s about child abuse.’ We always had a new hurdle.”

Constantly under pressure to abandon “Boy’s Life” for more commercial projects, Caton-Jones and producer Linson finally dug in their heels.

“We went to the studio and said, ‘Look, we know you want us to do something else, but this is it--this is the one we want to do,’ ” Caton-Jones recalls.

The studio finally relented, mollified by the director’s track record, which includes films based on real-life events, “Scandal” and “Memphis Belle,” as well as a commercial comedy, “Doc Hollywood.”

As is often the case, the studio became noticeably more enthusiastic once “Boy’s Life” received a warm response at research screenings.

“In fact we’re doing so well,” Caton-Jones impishly volunteers, “that suddenly we’re getting a rash of backaches.”

Backaches? Is that some obscure Scottish colloquialism?

“You know,” he says, bending forward at the waist. “Everyone is taking bows for it now.”

Caton-Jones seems especially heartened that young moviegoers appreciate the film. “It’s really awful the way Hollywood and the media are so scared of picturing adolescence as it really is,” he says. “I’ve talked to kids who’ve seen the film, and their reaction is very interesting. They don’t see it as depressing. They see it as realistic.”

If “This Boy’s Life’s” graphic portrait of Toby’s battles with his stepfather cuts too close to the bone for anyone, it’s Tobias Wolff. He acknowledges that he hasn’t let his own children read his boyhood tale yet. He has two boys, now 12 and 14, and a 3-year-old girl.

“It’s by mutual agreement,” he says. “I think they’d get more out of it if they waited a little bit more.”

He laughs shyly. “To be honest, they really haven’t shown that much curiosity.”

Wolff seems a bit relieved after having finally seen the finished picture. “I’m too close to the material to view it objectively,” he says after returning from a screening in New York. “But my wife loved it. She was very moved by it.

“I thought I had a right to expect that they would respect the spirit of the book--and I think they did.”

Wolff brought his older brother, Geoffrey Wolff, to the screening. Though he’s only briefly mentioned in the film, you might call Geoffrey an interested party. The boys were raised separately after their parents split up. A decade before Tobias’ book was published, Geoffrey wrote “The Duke of Deception,” an equally unsettling memoir of his life with their father, a flamboyant con man named Arthur Wolff.

Owned by Warner Bros., “The Duke of Deception” is being adapted by none other than Robert Getchell. Though slowed by the departure of original director Ed Zwick, the project has regained momentum, says producer Gene Kirkwood, especially now that Richard Gere has expressed interest in playing the title role.

“When they approached me, I just said, ‘Where’s the dotted line?’ ” recalls Getchell. “I found both boys’ experiences fascinating. It seemed that their violently upsetting childhood was a big component in their becoming writers. I guess it’s the grit of sand in an oyster that produces a beautiful pearl.”

Like everyone else on the project, Getchell found that the Wolffs’ account of their troubled childhoods hit close to home.

“My father was a high-stepper just like the Duke,” Getchell recalls. “He gambled heavily and our money came and went. When he did well, we lived well. When he did badly, we lived badly.

“Later on, when my mother remarried, I had a very rocky relationship with my stepfather, who was very much like Toby’s stepdad. So I could identify with both of their stories.”

What makes Dwight and the Duke so fascinating is their status as larger-than-life characters--one a chilling villain, the other an irresistible rogue, each possessing an almost hypnotic power over an awe-struck youth.

“They’re bravura parts,” says Getchell. “They’re such out-sized characters that they almost feel operatic.

“That’s why I gave Dwight the last line of the film: ‘You’ll remember me.’ Because in my mind, he’s indelible. You’ll never forget that man.”

So what is lost--and what is gained--when a book makes its rocky voyage to the big screen?

Tobias Wolff, defending the honor of literary tradition, quotes Yeats: “Man is in love and love’s what vanishes.”

“What movie could give you that?” he asks. “Those lines come back to me so often, their meanings deepening and resounding over the years. That’s a power movies just don’t have.

“Movies come to you. But you have to go to the words. And the very act of going to the words, of opening up a book, whether it takes you to the steppes of Russia or the trenches of World War II, makes it all happen inside of you.”

Yet movies, especially ones inspired by real-life events, have a peculiar hypnotic power, their vivid images fusing memory with imagination.

After his lunch interview, Michael Caton-Jones stopped to chat with the restaurant’s owner, who was surprised to learn that this young Scot had directed “Memphis Belle,” a film celebrating the heroics of a World War II bomber crew flying their last mission over Germany.

“You made that movie?” the white-haired restaurateur exclaimed incredulously. “I flew B-17s during the war. I was a bombardier.”

He immediately produced a postcard with a photograph of a B-17 on the front, prompting a lovingly detailed discussion of the fine art of setting a B-17 bombsight.

“It seems so long ago you’d almost think it was a dream,” the restaurant owner concluded. “But your movie brought it all back again.”

After he left the restaurant, Caton-Jones walked to the edge of Pacific Coast Highway, looking out at the ocean.

“That’s really the way people are about movies, especially if it’s about something from their own life,” he said. “You never think about this stuff when you’re out there, making a film. It’s just your work.

“But to them, it’s very personal. It’s their life up there. In a way, it’s not your film anymore. It’s theirs.”