ADAPTATIONS: THE ROAD FROM PAGE TO SCREEN by Paul Laight (from 2008)

Here’s an article I wrote in 2008 and it’s interesting to see that a few of these films have now been made.

ADAPTATIONS: THE ROAD FROM PAGE TO SCREEN

“The adaptation of someone else’s writing is, I think, the easiest, because someone else has done the brute work, made the people, invented the story.” William Goldman – Screenwriter

From the earliest days’ of cinema, filmmakers have raided the arks of literature, lifting writers’ slaved-over sentences; carefully constructed characters; and epic plots, before distilling them into bitesizeable two hour chunks we call the movies. Adaptation has always proved popular with filmmakers worldwide, and of course, the Hollywood machine leads the way when it comes to adapting the work of other writers, be it: novels, graphic novels, comic books, video-games, songs and even theme-park rides etc. Not a week passes without the film of the book of the video-game of the t-shirt being released to either: a baying mob of fanatics scrutinizing every frame ensuring a faithful screen conversion; or simple popcorn guzzlers yet to read the original source material.

Adaptations occupy over half of the top twenty spots in the all-time worldwide grossing films ever including: Jurassic Park (1993), The Lord of the Rings’ (2001-2003) trilogy and the Harry Potter franchise. Moreover, from the original summer blockbuster Jaws (1975), to the cash-cows that are Bond, Batman and Bourne, filmmakers continue to use novels and comic-books for inspiration; not simply because “it’s easier” as William Goldman purports, but because of the marketing possibilities ready-made fanbase offers. Furthermore, adaptations not only represent money-making exercises but have also produced cinema of breathtaking quality, including Best Picture Oscar winners such as: Gone with the Wind (1939), Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), The Godfather (1972), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), The English Patient (1996), Million Dollar Baby (2004) and most recently, Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (2007).

But what of the cult classics, critically acclaimed or bestselling novels that have yet to make it to the silver screen? Despite the abundance of adaptations produced there remains many great literary works unfilmed; either jammed in ‘development hell’ or simply proving too complex to make. The following novels arguably deserve adaptation but have yet to successfully make the jump from page to celluloid space. Paul Laight considers the what, the how and the why?

THE DICE MAN – Luke Rhinehart

Published in 1971, The Dice Man, follows the darkly comic adventures of an antihero psychiatrist who, bored with his ‘perfect’ life, gives in to whim and chance; allowing his actions to be determined by the throw of a dice. From this fateful moment his life spawns a series of anarchic episodes involving: sex, rape, murder, psychological breakdown and a ‘dice’ cult. The ‘Dice Man’ gains notoriety and, eventually, is pursued by the law; yet he remains unrepentant and above all else tastes ‘freedom’ via the random choices the dice dictates. As in Fight Club (1999), The Dice Man stands as a savage satire on ‘selfhelp’ groups and literature. Indeed, the cover confidently proclaims: “Few novels can change your life. This one will.”

Subversive and pitch black in tone, it offers the nihilistic premise: only self-destruction allows one to live life to the full. Not surprisingly then with such dark materials at hand, Hollywood have irked at bringing the lunacy of The Dice Man to the screen. One would think a screen version is not too far away: but the screenplay has been entrenched in draft purgatory for years. Paramount are rumoured to still own the rights to the film but at the moment a successful adaptation remains in perpetual limbo.

CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES – John Kennedy O’Toole

Following the valve-splitting misadventures of lazy, self-proclaimed genius and social misfit, Ignatius P. Reilly, this Pulitzer Prize winning novel has a backstory worthy of adaptation itself. Author O’Toole committed suicide in 1969 having failed despairingly to get his magnum opus published. Only through the dogged persistence of his mother did the novel finally reach the bookstands in 1980; winning the Pulitzer the next year. A work of unfettered genius and hilarity, Confederacy of Dunces picks and scratches at the seams of New Orleans’ street-folk, revealing a rich tapestry of insane characters and episodes; all anchored within the everyday plottings of the bloated, mooching, hypochondriac Reilly.

While he may be objectionable verbally, physically and morally, the reader cannot help but revel in Reilly’s articulateness, rebellion and utter repudiation of authority figures and societal norms. Ignatius is a cross between the Simpsons comic-book guy and a fatter, sober, non-bowling version of Jeffery ‘The Dude’ Lebowski. As such, free spirited oddballs always stand alone as an anathema to the perfect heroes Hollywood usually dishes up. Like The Dice Man, the films rights for Confederacy of Dunces are owned by Paramount and the most recent attempt to greenlight the book reached casting stage in 2005; with Will Ferrell and Drew Barrymore touted for the leads. However, the Scott Kramer and Steven Soderburgh penned screenplay failed to gain studio support and momentum floundered.

LIFE OF PI – Yann Martel

The eponymous Pi spends the heart of this story trapped at sea, for 227 days, on a raft with various animals including: a ravenous hyena, orangutan named Orange Juice and a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker. While on surface the bizaare relationship between man and beast appears unfilmmable, the book packs a incredible denouement; so memorable to render it a strong contender for cinematic success. Like Castaway (2000), Life of Pi is a story of attrition and survival under the most severe circumstances. The young Pi battles hunger, loneliness and the elements; all the while grieving for the loss of his family. Within the text, however, is a powerful allegory borne out through Pi’s relationships with the animals he must contend with, notably his nemesis, Richard Parker.

Life of Pi, ultimately blurs ideological boundaries from the zoological and religious to the metaphysical and real; delivering an imaginative, suspenseful, life-affirming drama. Any potential movie version could be a hard sell to a Friday night popcorn mob baying for hack encounters of the teenage kind. However, for those crying out for more challenging movies Life of Pi, if done right, would be an amazing cinematic experience. Esteemed directors such as M. Night Shymalan, Alfonso Cuaron and Jean Pierre Jeunet – who dropped out due to budget issues – have all been in the frame to helm the movie, but it currently remains cast adrift within the choppy waters of the Hollywood system.

NEUROMANCER – William Gibson

Gibson’s classic debut novel starts when ‘computer cowboy’, Case – in searching for a cure to his drug addiction – is coerced by an anonymous agency to work on the ultimate hack. From thereon it spirals into a story that explores themes of virtual reality, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and global oligopolies overpowering the state via cyberspace. Sound familiar? A seminal literary work that not only presents a host of wonderfully monikered and totally loco characters including: Razorgirl, Molly, Chiba, The Finn, Lupus Yonderboy, The Dixie Flatline etc., but also introduces a generation of readers to now familiar terms such as: cyberspace, hacker and even ‘the matrix’. Indeed, without Neuromancer, arguably, the Wachowski brother’s box office behemoth may never have existed.

Neuromancer has proved an elusive novel to adapt and author Gibson is understood to have the rights back in his possession. The last known attempt to adapt was by music video director (see his infamous Aphex Twin’s “Come to Daddy”) Chris Cunningham. However, the screenplay saw only red-lights from the studios and alas Neuromancer remains one of the greatest science fiction works not to reach the cinema. Moreover, given the number of imitators it has spawned it may never get the adaptation it truly deserves.

ON THE ROAD – Jack Kerouac

Kerouac’s 1950’s paean to jazz and the open road is – a freewheeling, improvised stream of consciousness – rumoured to have been written in three weeks fuelled entirely on caffiene, ink and benzedrine. Heralded as the bible of the ‘beat generation’, On The Road, is a road movie (waiting to happen) without apparent direction; yet all the more powerful for it. It defined a sub-culture of poets, artists and musicians who disregarded structure for structure’s sake, improvising their loves and lives without concern for what tomorrow brang. Narrator, Sal Paradise tells of the moment his life changed when meeting free-spirit Dean Moriarty; thus precipitating his journey across the landscapes, towns and contours of America.

The road movie has proved a very successful genre for Hollywood with Rain Man (1986), Into the Wild (2007) and Thelma and Louise (1991) being excellent examples of the form. However, On The Road, compared to those stories mentioned, is virtually plotless without crystal clear character motivation and therefore seemingly unadaptable. Gus Van Sant owned the rights for many years, however, the film may yet see the light of as director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries (2006)) is moving the film into production; although no release date has been confirmed at writing.


CATCHER IN THE RYE – JD Salinger

Famous and infamous (John Lennon’s assassin Mark Chapman had a copy in his possession when he carried out the shooting) in equal measures Catcher in the Rye remains an incredible examination of teenage angst and depression; of a young nonconformist, Holden Caulfield, at odds with the ‘phonys’ of the world, authority and the 50’s society he exists in. Caulfield presents himself as ‘protector’ of the young from the venal inhabitants of New York and rails against those all around him. However, it is not simply a book about teenagers, but is a story for all outsiders who struggle to fit in.

The angry, vulnerable yet eloquent teenager Caulfield is a difficult character to transfer to the screen. Moreover, given the novel is presented as a internal monologue, adaptation has proved problematic not only in terms of the episodic structure, but also ‘marketability’ to a mass audience of such a unique character. Having said that the book is high on the biggest selling books of all time and Hollywood has tried on many occasions to bring it to the cinemas. Movie luminaries, down the years, such as: Jerry Lewis, Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando and Leonardo Dicaprio have all tried, but failed, to walk in Holden Caulfield’s shoes. The inconvenient truth is that the reclusive author JD Salinger, himself, is refusing all attempts to adapt the work and this may continue even when he passes.


THE WASP FACTORY – Iain Banks

Banks’ incredible debut novel is so dark and filthy as to render the reader blind and unclean, reaching for torchlight and soap once reading is over. Introducing the eccentric (or, depending on your viewpoint, insane) Gauldhame family and told from the point of view of the youngest member, Frank; The Wasp Factory tells a twisted tale of life in an isolated town. Frank – who, himself, would have us believe is a murderer – spends his day’s physically rampaging across the Scottish landscape dismembering all manner of wildlife, notably wasps, while metaphorically searching for his own identity in a perverse, maladjusted and masculinized world.

A shocking and deeply disturbing read, The Wasp Factory, if adapted, would probably create a movie furore like nothing since Cronenbourg’s Crash (1996) was released. However, at it’s heart is a scathing attack on family, organized religion and the difficulties, like Catcher in the Rye, of a young protagonist desperately trying to find meaning in the world.  Frank is a tragic character and the amazing denouement is a twist right out up there with the horror of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1956) and M Night Shymalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999). While it would certainly not be a huge box office draw The Wasp Factory is potentially a ‘cult’ classic in the making.


THE DEMOLISHED MAN – Alfred Bester

Not to be confused with the Stallone versus Snipes cockfight that was Demolition Man (1992), Bester’s science-fiction classic was written in 1953 but contains a story that is timeless, such is the imagination and ingenuity presented. Columboesque in structure – beginning with a murder and developing via a subsequent police investigation – the plot is thickened up by pitting the wits detective Lincoln Polwell against a chief suspect, corporate oligarch Ben Reich. The twist is that there has been no murders in 70 years because, in this future, Detectives such as Polwell are psychics and therefore able to read the minds of any suspects; immediately knowing whether they are guilty or not. Murder is eradicated because criminals cannot hide their guilty thoughts.

Perhaps, The Demolished Man treads similar ground to Spielberg’s Minority Report (2001) and I, Robot (2003), both placing a standard cop story in a futuristic setting, however, the novel is resplendent with beautiful concepts and terms such as: ‘espers’, ‘peepers’ and ‘jumpers’. More importantly, the cat-and-mouse, battle of wits between Polwell and Reich makes it a compelling story. The book also stands the test of time; a Godfather to Gibson’s Neuromancer and other subsequent ‘cyberpunk’ literary offspring. The film rights are rumoured to be owned by Morgan Freeman but no studio has confessed an interest to construct a movie from the pages of The Demolished Man.


A MILLION LITTLE PIECES – James Frey

Described by The Observer as: “As a memoir, it is almost mythic. You can imagine it made epic by Martin Scorsese, the auteur of wayward American maleness in all its extremity”; Frey’s celebrated non-fiction memoir charts the author’s journey from substance addiction, physical and mental disintegration to moral and spiritual redemption through rehab and the love of his family. Protagonist Frey begins his story, aged 23, wrecked by crack and alcohol and wanted by the law in three US States. From rock-bottom the only way is up as he begins the long road to recovery via the Twelve Step program.

Discredited in some circles by various commentators as ‘not ringing true’ and ‘fabricated’, Frey was ultimately ‘convicted’ as a literary fraud when appearing on the Oprah Winfrey show. Nonetheless, whether it is fiction or nonfiction (when did that ever bother Hollywood?), A Million Little Pieces is a compelling literary work and screams out for adaptation. In fact such notoriety could be worked into the screenplay and would only fuel the marketing potential of the film. Unbelievably, your friend and mine, Jennifer Aniston owns the films rights to the book but since the Oprah furore the studio has allegedly got cold feet. Then again, this could be pure fiction too.


CONCLUSION

With the literary and movie worlds both needing and feeding itself, it isn’t surprising to learn that adaptations of acclaimed literary works such as Cormac McCarthy’s dark western The Road (2009) and Blood Meridien (2009), sci-fi classics Ender’s Game (2009), The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009), Howard Marks’ drug memoir Mr Nice (2009) – and even the once considered daddy of the unfilmmables, The Watchmen (2009) – will hit our screens next year. Ultimately, when adapted by the right talent great novels produce amazing cinema, however, not all authors are impressed by the efforts of Hollywood in translating their work. Of his own opus, the aforementioned, Watchmen (2009), Alan Moore says, “I find film. . . spood-feeds us, which has the effect of watering down our collective cultural imagination. It is as if we are freshly hatched birds looking up with our mouths open waiting for Hollywood to feed us more regurgitated worms. I for one am sick of worms”.

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