For All the Gory Details, Better Read the Novel

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In one spirited scene in "Anywhere but Here," a mother and daughter (Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman) speed through the desolate desert around Las Vegas. The first of what will be an endless stream of spats ends when the hotheaded mom screeches the car to a halt, throws her 14-year-old out and speeds off down the long highway and into the horizon, leaving the girl marooned in the dust.

The scene is one of the most memorable in the book from which the film was adapted.

Novelist Mona Simpson has said it was this image that spawned her first novel, a contemporary gem that depicts the most exasperating, insupportable and credible mother-daughter duo to make its presence felt in recent fiction, according to a 1987 New York Times book review.

The incident depicts the complexity of this relationship, in which parent and child are drawn together and repelled from each other by equally strong agencies. Simpson still recalls the way readers reacted to this scene during the book tour for "Anywhere but Here," which she wrote in her mid-20s.

"I can't tell you how many people came up to me on the book tour and said, 'I did that [kick a child out of a car],' " she said in a recent interview. "And some recalled the incident with a mirthful chuckle, and other people thought it was a horrible thing."

In the film, the scene is played to arouse a mirthful chuckle. Although the book was described by one critic as "a portrait of a daughter in thrall to a nearly lethal mother," the movie is, according to director Wayne Wang, a very different animal. The Fox movie, which opens today after numerous delays, is more heartwarming than gut-wrenching. (See review, F23.)

Saying she is both "too close and too far" to critique the movie, Simpson is reluctant to pass judgment. Instead, she said she is used to multiple interpretations of her work.

"I think that writers are used to letting go," she said. "In a way, you let go every time an intelligent person reads the book. Readers are less directed than moviegoers in terms of what to think. You might have two readers who have very, very different interpretations of the characters of the story."

In the movie, the character of Adele August, played by Sarandon, has been re-conceived. When former L.A. Times book critic Richard Eder reviewed the book, he described Adele as a mixture of Auntie Mame, Blanche DuBois and Willy Loman. Wang and screenwriter Alvin Sargent went mostly with Auntie Mame. Dressed loudly in hot pink, Sarandon's Adele swoops up her daughter Ann, amicably kisses her second husband goodbye and drives out of Bay City, Wis., with visions of Tinseltown dancing in her head.

When she was Ann's age, Simpson moved with her mother from Wisconsin to L.A., but she said Adele is her own creation. She describes the book as a "classic American story of ambition," told in an uniquely female context.

Portman plays the responsible, sometimes mortified daughter to Sarandon's frivolous mom. Ann had been happy in Bay City and is apprehensive about her mother's farfetched dream of the glorious promise of California.

The two move from one catchpenny apartment to another within the wealthy Beverly Hills school district--a scenario similar to last year's indie film "The Slums of Beverly Hills." ("My Hollywood," Simpson's novel-in-progress, continues this theme of how class differences play out in L.A.; the author lives in Santa Monica.)

Fox purchased the rights to "Anywhere" from Disney, which had snapped up the option soon after the book's publication as a possible Meryl Streep vehicle. But Streep decided at that time to do "Postcards From the Edge" and didn't want to do another mother-daughter film. There were various drafts of the film by other screenwriters, and other directors were attached to the project before it ended up with Sargent and Wang.

Wang updated "Anywhere" from the '70s and the onset of the women's movement to the present day. "In the '90s, there's an illusion that women in this society have achieved certain freedoms, but it's still very, very difficult," Wang said.

In the film, Adele clings fervently to the hope of a happy ending with a handsome dentist who uses her callously. Incapable of taking the hint, she chases him. She pursues him, inappropriately calling long-distance from Wisconsin after her nephew's funeral. This crushing scene reveals both Adele's selfishness and her desperately quixotic nature.

According to Wang, Sarandon was initially hesitant to play such an unlikable role; she agreed on the condition that she play against Portman. The cross-country car scenes recall "Thelma & Louise," but Sarandon told Wang that this time she is Thelma. Indeed, she plays Adele as eccentric, quirky and much more benign than Simpson's Adele.

Though the book depicts a disturbing bond that suggests abuse, Wang said he felt compelled to lighten it up to appeal to a wider audience. He said he found the book "intimidating and wonderful" but feared that an audience would be turned off by Adele's destructiveness. Recalling that the original Adele steals, threatens suicide, hits her daughter and harbors delusions, Wang feared it would be too intense to make a successful mainstream movie.

"You need something between the two characters where at least you feel there's a reason for them to be together," he said. "Why doesn't Ann just run away from her then?"

Simpson feels that the answer to that is in the book. "There are a million reasons that someone would stay with someone like that," she offers.

Darker Version

Repelled Audiences

Though Sargent's script softens the pain in the relationship, Wang did try out a darker version and said that in test screenings, the audience stopped responding to the film halfway through.

"There was no identification on any level with Adele," Wang said. "[The audience would say] 'She doesn't even care about her daughter. She's so selfish, she's so abusive. Why do we want to watch her?'

"I've made movies where I said, 'I don't care if anyone watches them, I'm just going to do them.' When I make a studio movie and it costs like $25 [million], $30 million, I feel like there's a responsibility there. You should make a movie where people go and at least can connect with the movie; that's important," the director said.

His 1993 film of Amy Tan's best-selling "The Joy Luck Club," another tender women's film about the complex bond between mothers and daughters, was a huge hit.

In a recent Authors Guild Foundation panel in New York, at which novelists discussed film adaptations of their work, this type of budget consideration was echoed.

Writer Russell Banks said that the adaptations of his books "Affliction" and "The Sweet Hereafter" were successful because "they were made for as little money as they were." He recalled Paul Schrader, the director of "Affliction," telling him that "somewhere around $14 million you put white hats on the good guys and black hats on the bad guys." But with a lower budget, he said, "you can still have ambiguity, explore things that are painful to many people."

Joining many writers on the panel, Simpson said she is grateful for the film version of her novel because it has given her the financial security to write fiction. Simpson, who lives with her 6-year-old son, Gabriel, and her husband (a onetime assistant U.S. attorney who writes for "King of the Hill"), noted that "financially it was helpful, but I don't think it was important to me to have the book made into a movie."

The author is very understanding of the ways in which the character and the story needed to be changed to suit the different medium. "Since the way we see and know characters in a movie is visual and not so internal, I suppose one can't accommodate as radical shifts and still feel the cohesion of one character," she said.

"When you think of Madame Bovary or the big characters in fiction, they contain a lot of opposites. When I think of my Adele, I think of her as somebody who contains a great deal of hopefulness--she has refinement, intelligence, flair and charisma that one believes might be able to really help her. But she also has a real depth of fragility and perhaps even madness."

Still, Simpson noted: "I'm grateful that something I made is being given a second life. Wanting a movie adapted from your novel to somehow mirror the book or follow it is like wanting your children to become lawyers because you're a lawyer. It shows a great lack of imagination and an inability to accept surprise."

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