Books Magazine

Did This Screenwriter Cross The Line?

By Robert Bruce @robertbruce76

We’ve all had the experience of reading a novel, loving it, then being terribly disappointed by its film version.

In my 6 Things That Suck About Reading post last week, I listed crappy movie adaptations as one of the things that irked me.

But in defense of the screenwriter, translating a book to film isn’t easy. Though I believe the screenwriter should respect the novelist’s intent in writing the story, the screenwriter also is working in an entirely different art form than the novelist. Changes happen.

Take Possession, for example. This 2002 movie, written and directed by Neil Labute, was based on the A.S. Byatt book published in 1990. The movie was widely criticized for the amount of freedom LaBute took in changing the story. But, as Labute says below, many of his changes were based on A.S. Byatt’s notes on earlier versions of the screenplay.

From The New York Times:

”One of the reasons I felt I could make this change,” Mr. LaBute said, ”was that I read some early notes from Byatt… For someone who’s not a screenwriter, she wonderfully understands movies. What she basically said was, ‘This is Roland on the page; you must make him different in a film!’ She got that Roland needed more drive. Just seeing those notes kind of gave me the keys to the kingdom. And so in the film, Roland keeps making these wild, imaginative leaps about the poets’ lives, and Maud’s both charmed and appalled. She’s like, ‘Are you a scholar or are you writing fiction?’ That really helped in the spark department.”

Instead of making Roland British, LaBute made him American. He was more “frat-boyish” than scholarly. Labute said he wasn’t “shamelessly pandering to the audience….in part, it was [just] more comfortable for me to write Roland that way.”

And that’s just one of the significant changes Labute made to the story.

So, having not actually seen the movie version of Possession, I’m not sure where I come down on this. LaBute obviously made major changes to the film, but Byatt endorsed changes to some degree.

But to that degree? I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll have to watch Possession after I finish the novel.

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