If the publishing industry really does collapse, as some predict it will, it won’t be the big houses or the independent bookstores that will be most affected, it will be Hollywood. This year’s crop of Oscar contenders raises the question “Can there be a cinema without books?” I’m skeptical. Try to imagine this year’s Academy Awards without Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close or Moneyball or The Descendants or The Help or Hugo. Even Midnight in Paris couldn’t exist without Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. Without books, Scott Rudin would have to have to find work as a dentist or something.
Of course nowhere is Hollywood’s literary addiction more apparent than the Adapted Screenplay category. This year’s crop of adaptations includes four movies adapted from books and one adapted from a play (The Ides of March). Since I haven’t seen live theater since I went to my friend’s improv show a year or two ago, I can’t comment on how faithful The Ides of March is to its source material. I can state with near certainty, though, that the guys who played the two leads on stage were not as good looking as Ryan Gosling and George Clooney. Call it a hunch.
This year’s crop of book-to-movie adaptations is a varied bunch. Moneyball (about which I’ve written before) delivered on some of the promise of Michael Lewis’ book, while managing to dramatize a business strategy. Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, famous for writing Schindler’s List and The West Wing, respectively, may have turned A’s assistant GM Paul DePodesta into loveably portly stat-geek Peter Brand, but in doing so, they gave a bit of humanity to the cold, hard pursuit of truth.
I will admit to wondering whether another of the Adapted Screenplay nominees was even necessary. With its 1979 miniseries, the BBC so thoroughly and completely brought to life John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the cinematic adaptation felt superfluous. Could anyone possibly be George Smiley but Alec Guinness? But I have to admit I was entertained and enthralled as the two-and-a-half-hour spy drama played out on the big screen. Some of this was the stellar cast (I particularly enjoyed Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr), but the writers deserve kudos, as well. Packing a work as dense and detailed as Tinker Tailor into a mere two hours-plus is no small feat, and yet screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan not only accomplished it, they did so with style. In their Tinker Tailor, Control is revealed to be an alcoholic old coot while erstwhile ladykiller Peter Guillam is cleverly reimagined as a homosexual. The most faithful adaption of the year it isn’t, but it might be the best executed.
Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, adapted from Brian Selznick’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, is likely to win the Best Picture this year. I say this not because it was the best movie of the year, but rather because the Academy loves nothing more than patting itself on the back. What could be more congratulatory than celebrating a movie about the history of movies (especially French ones!). It’s down to this and The Artist, another movie about making movies, and I bet that most of the Academy voters spent the first few minutes of The Artist screeners messing with the settings on their TV to make sure the audio wasn’t screwed up. So the smart money is on Scorsese.
And finally there’s The Descendants. Much like Sideways, Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel was not widely read before Alexander Payne and his crew decided to adapt it for the screen. Also like Sideways, The Descendants is a story whose location plays as big a role as its protagonist. I’m starting to think that Payne picks his movies based on where he’d like to shoot. I imagine he and his wife in bed. She finishes a book and he asks “How was it?”
“Eh, not bad. I’ve read better.”
“Where’s it take place?” Alexander Payne asks.
“The South of France.”
Payne sits up and takes off his glasses. “Tell me more.”
I think this is the clear runner-up in the race, despite being a satisfying story with a fun cast. As for the book, I can’t say, as I’m not one of the few pre-Payne readers to have tried the novel.
So there you have it. This year’s best adapted screenplay nominations are again dominated by the literary world. That may change in the near future, though. In a sign that the movies don’t intend to get caught looking should the Random House building become a 30-story erotic massage parlor, they’ve already begun exploring another source for material, the board game industry. Battleship premieres this spring.