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What does Stephen Gaghan know that Charlie Kaufman doesn’t?

By posted at 4:25 am on August 29, 2006 2

coverAs many of you no doubt have read in the trades (Wait, you don’t read the trades? What town do you live in, anyway?), Stephen Gaghan, the writer of such sprawling, multi-narrative films as Traffic and Syriana, is set to adapt Malcolm Gladwell’s latest quasi-scientific non-fiction potboiler, Blink (IMDb). Anyone who’s read the book can tell you, it ain’t going to be easy. Blink follows no central character, takes place in a multitude of settings, and covers such diverse topics as law enforcement, ancient art, and advertising.

On the surface, this seems like pure folly, destined to lead to a Charlie Kaufman-esque exercise in navel gazing and postmodern self-reference. This Variety article seems to support this claim (By the way, check out the gaudy sum of money Gladwell pockets in this deal). According to the article, Leonardo DiCaprio is set to star as a jury selection expert who has a sixth sense about people based on first impressions. If that ends up as the plot of the film, it would be the worst adaptation since The Lawnmower Man (IMDb).

But the more I thought about it, the more Gaghan seemed like the right choice, maybe the only choice, to adapt the book; furthermore, the book seemed like the perfect project for him. His last time out, Gaghan took two or three paragraphs from Robert Baer’s CIA memoir See No Evil and turned it into a two hour feature film that dealt with practically every aspect of the oil industry. The finished project looked so different from the book that it was nominated for the Academy Award in the best original screenplay category (The official credit says that the book “suggested” the movie, whatever that means). Putting his three major scripts in perspective, it would seem that Stephen Gaghan has hit upon a new and arguably better way to adapt non-fiction to the screen. He doesn’t aim to duplicate every twist of plot, every detail of character, but rather to hone in on the theme, the mood, and the message of whatever material he’s adapting and to riff on it. The result is a movie that works on the same level as the book, discussing the same subjects with a similar tone, but also functions as a work of art separate from its original source material. While this wouldn’t have worked for, say, The Godfather (“What? Why is Sonny’s character now combined with Fredo’s?”), it seems like the only way to tackle a book like Blink. Maybe if Charlie Kaufman had taken this approach, there might actually have been a film version of The Orchid Thief.





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2 Responses to “What does Stephen Gaghan know that Charlie Kaufman doesn’t?”

  1. Edan
    at 2:21 pm on August 29, 2006

    I'd love to see Gaghan adapt Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, to my mind the best nonfiction book of the year.

  2. Steelydan
    at 8:07 pm on February 4, 2008

    Gaghan is superficial. What do you get from his movies that you couldn't get in a more honest and powerful way from reading the New York Times, the New Yorker or any other publication? Comparing him to Kaufman is pretty silly. Superficial people think Gaghan is great because they see him doing a movie about War, or Drugs, or the CIA and think, "oooh, those are serious themes, so he must be saying something deep." Well, in fact, they aren't themes at all. They are subject matters. What themes he does manage to get around to examine – greed, pride, fear – are all done with the depth of a comic book, and in fact, the movies are even structured similar to a graphic novel. Kaufman may write about seemingly mundane experiences, but he gets in there and mines gold. Try reading a paper or two once in a while… maybe, you wont need Gaghan's comic books anymore.

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