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12/29/2001 - The Real Deal

So my vacation's almost over, a vacation tainted by the pulled scapula muscle which refused to heal despite five days rest. Don't get me wrong, it's great to see family, but Christmas just isn't Christmas when the days are chopped into four-hour segments as I await the next allowable dose of Advil.

I'm writing this on the airplane (using the barf bag as paper), waiting for the flight attendant to come by with peanuts, so I can toss back four more pills. She'd better bring me peanuts. If she tries to pass off those wretched dusty pretzels I'll probably snap and try to stuff the little airline pillow down her throat.

Why am I so cranky? It probably had something to do with the fact that I missed my original flight. I got bumped onto this next flight by enduring the gate attendant's incredulous questions: "What happened? Didn't you hear us call your boarding number over and over? Didn't you hear us make the last call? Didn't you see what time it was?"

I tried to explain that I'd been standing in the wrong line, but the real culprit was the book I had my nose in. What can I say? I get engrossed and tune out the real world a little too well. After two hours of endless snaking airport lines, it was (for me) an inevitable mistake.

At least I finished the novel before the plane took off. It was an incredible book; a raucous satire of a time and place that begs to be savaged. But is it a movie? With a satire, it's hard to tell. So much in this epic would have to be toned down for the movie that it's as if the author dared anyone to adapt his work for the screen. To remove the offensive parts would gut the book's absurd edge, but could it be pulled off? Could I think of a way to preserve the integrity of the material while developing it into a palatable film? The question is really this: at what point do development personnel stop adapting a story and start creating something entirely different?

It's only sensible to assume that an author wouldn't want to have their book changed. Presumably J.K. Rowling felt that the only way to preserve the dignity of HARRY POTTER was to contractually prevent any major changes in the story. The producers of POTTER were also clever to leave the story exactly as it was written, to appease the hoards of H.P. fans who knew every detail of those books like the backs of their hands.

But what about stories that the public isn't familiar with at all? Let's focus on true stories in light of Hollywood's fascination with them, from DONNIE BRASCO to ERIN BROCKOVICH to A BEAUTIFUL MIND, ad infinitum. What happens to a "true story" in the development process? Here the biographical subject (or his estate) is comparable to the novelist (or his estate), for they both are handing over their tales to filmmakers who inevitably will want to, shall we say "massage" the details to produce an enjoyable (and marketable) film.

However, adapting a true story can cause a commotion, because somebody's going to get his or her shorts in a knot about something written in or written out. And then there are the lawsuits. Even without lawyers, public outcry can be a pain, although it's always good publicity (a fact regularly overlooked by the outcriers).

Media outlets diligently report complaints voiced by people such as Lana Tisdale, the true-life girlfriend of Brandon Teena, the main character depicted in BOYS DON'T CRY, and gay activists/spokesmen protesting the omission of the homosexual experiences of John Nash, Jr., the central character of A BEAUTIFUL MIND. Lana has sued the filmmakers of BOYS DON'T CRY, angered by (among other things) the film's suggestion that she learned that her boyfriend was no boy and stayed in the relationship regardless. Whether or not this is true, I can certainly understand why that aspect of the plot would have appealed to the filmmakers. Perhaps Lana had to vocalize her objection to a quasi-lesbian portrayal to avoid the small-town penalty that befell Brandon. Who knows?

A BEAUTIFUL MIND makes no mention of apparent homosexual experiences described in the biographical novel. Some gay activists have complained that this proves mainstream Hollywood's refusal to portray heroic homosexuality. The fact is that both Nash and his biographer are both alive, so they sold the rights to the book and his life without insisting that the gay experiences be portrayed. As the owners of the underlying rights, they were ultimately in control of such sticking points. They probably chose to take the money and acclaim and let the filmmakers adapt the novel as they saw fit.

Obviously, the public detractors are right when they claim that "true stories" are less than perfectly faithful to the truth. But now that we've looked at the matter from their point of view, I invite them to look at it from the filmmakers' point of view. How many of these protesters have successfully managed a multi-million dollar budget? How many of them have tried to adapt the loose ends of a personal story into a taut, two-hour, commercially viable, marketable, widely distributable theatrical release? Do they know that years of personal and professional blood, sweat and tears get boiled down to one weekend's gross? With these harsh factors in mind, how can dramtic liberties not be taken?

My plane is now skimming over nighttime Los Angeles, which as always looks like a glinting jewelry box. I'm glad to be home. I'm also running out of barf bags to scribble on, so let me try to sum up:

1. For the Author: A book isn't a movie, it's a book. The development process by nature will dramatically alter a book, and this must be clearly understood by the author. Unless the title includes the words "Harry Potter".

2. For the Development Exec.: Yes, it is possible to adapt a good book into a movie, but be honest with yourself about how much you want to change. Not everything can or should be put on the screen. Don't abuse a writer's labor of love just to turn a popular title into quick cash. It's a new decade, a new year and a new world. Let's wipe some of the tarnish off the development placard.

3. For the Scribe: Don't try to adapt a true story unless it's yours, or you've carefully scoped out the legal ramifications. Or you have a big brawling studio backing you up.

4. For the protestors: Don't expect mainstream Hollywood to reflect your personal values. Yes, it's a liberal-minded industry, but movies cost astronomical amounts of money. It's business first. The successful production of a movie (even a terrible one) is often nothing short of a life-draining miracle. Everybody's a critic, but few are bona-fide producers.

Happy New Year.


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