Early in his literary career John Updike said that he had had the best of both worlds, with every one of his novels optioned by Hollywood and none of them made. James Cain, when asked how he felt about what Hollywood had done to his novels, said that no one had done anything to them; the novels were on his shelf, safe and sound. One suspects that he had asked himself a thousand times, "Why can't they do them better?" before reaching that mature position. If screenplays generally require more craft than art (William Goldman likens screenwriting to carpentry) adaptations are certainly all craft, so why the frequent lament, "It was okay, but the book was better?" Some of it, of course, is technical: shoehorning 300-plus pages into 120 script pages; cutting interior (and sometimes inferior) monologues; dropping a character who provides color and interest but doesn't move the story forward; dropping effective anecdotes for the same reason (a veteran producer on a screenwriting project asked what I was going to do with the novel's terrific "antidotes," and I never thought fast enough to say I planned to poison them).
More difficult to fathom from a distance are the changes that come out of the committee nature of movie making. Studios, upon optioning a book, don't hand it to a screenwriter to carry off to a lonely room for six months. Before actual writing begins, fundamental decisions are generally hashed out in story conferences that include the screenwriter (who, in insecure moments, suspects he isn't being invited to every story conference), producers, studio executives and the director, if one has been brought on so early. The executives, and sometimes a producer, often haven't read the novel ("I haven't actually read it," they say) but have read coverage, a synopsis written by someone whose specialty it is. (I've heard executives complain that they don't have time even to read all the coverage they need to.) While the story line, since it is likely a major reason the book was optioned, generally survives these conferences, the ending is often transformed from "unhappy or ambivalent" to "happy, uplifting, or at least hopeful." Who can really argue, since millions of moviegoers make their distaste for unhappy endings known at box offices, while readers often find them more satisfying?
Also bear in mind that while a publisher generally risks tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, a studio risks tens of millions. (Which underlies an executive's pithy comment to an A-list screenwriter who had just handed in a first draft that, "The writing's terrific, but these characters are far too complex for a picture with a budget this big.")
For the author neither in the position of the young John Updike—whom Hollywood later discovered, turning Rabbit Runand The Witches of Eastwickinto major motion pictures—nor yet as sensible as James Cain, there is still hope; magic sometimes happens. The great example is The Godfather I and II adaptations, which used a good book—Puzo said that he wished he had written it better—to make great movies that were absolutely true to the novel (with a single quibble I'll get to).
First, one needs to produce a book as good as The Godfather, in which Puzo, writing purely for commercial success, cast aside the literary style and depth of which he was capable (read Fortunate Pilgrim), with the felicitous, unintended consequence of eliminating a potential distraction that might well have set the screenwriters off in more nuanced but less fruitful directions. He drew characters so perfectly realized that they would become a part of our popular culture, and used them to people a marvelous immigrant saga, culminating in the American-born Michael's stark choice of family and tradition over assimilation. No easy task. Second, one needs a director with Coppola's genius and feel for the material. There are a few out there.
My quibble (mandatory, I suppose, for a writer) regards "true to the book." I never believed that in Godfather II Michael would have killed his brother Fredo, who wasn't a threat at that point in the story. I attribute it to Coppola, who knew that a movie wants the most extreme dramatic choices. I also note that the Godfather I screenwriting credit reads Puzo & Coppola while Godfather II reads Coppola & Puzo. And position matters on screenwriting credits. Every book author in the following list should only have such quibbles.
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