When we see a feature film that is adapted from a novel, how affected are we by the literal translation from page to screen? Very little.
We enter the theater knowing that time constraints make it unlikely that the filmmakers can capture all of the details in the novel. We assume that the filmmakers will modify details for narrative purpose. The success of the effort is best measured by overall coherence. Does the story being told make sense?
1999 provides an excellent case study.
John Irving published his novel CIDER HOUSE RULES in 1985. In 1999, he published
MY MOVIE BUSINESS, his account of his 14 year struggle to turn his novel into a feature film. On March 26, 200, he received an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
There are significant differences between the novel and the film, beginning with the fact that the novel covers a 70 year timeframe, whereas the primary action of the film takes place during the middle of World War II.
Major characters in the novel (such as Melony & Angel) are completely eliminated in the screenplay.
Nevertheless, the film version of CIDER HOUSE RULES succeeds by keeping a tight focus on the book’s primary
relationship: the bond between Dr. Wilber Larch (Michael Caine) and his “adopted son” Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire).
Facilitated by Director Lasse Hallstrom, Irving not only achieved his cinematic purpose, he also achieved the political purpose of his “didactic novel.” Agree with him or not, there is no doubt that Irving has now provided cinema’s strongest case for the “Pro Choice” position. Did Irving intend this? You bet. When he stood up to accept his Oscar, he thanked NARRAL (the National Abortion & Reproductive Rights Action League) by name.
On the other hand, we did not agree with the Academy’s nomination of
TALENTED MR. RIPLEY for Best Adapted Screenplay. The Tom Ripley character created by Patricia Highsmith is a cold, methodical murderer. The Tom Ripley character in Anthony Minghella’s screenplay kills Dickie Greenleaf spontaneously, under provocation. The chilly coherence of the novel is utterly lost.