The year in literary adaptation broke out into two distinct camps: the faithful wife and the sultry mistress. Steadfast adaptations like “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” gripped their source material in a white-knuckled clutch while fickle glosses like “Cloud Atlas” left no hand unheld. And though wives were few and mistresses plentiful, it is loyalty that’s being rewarded by the Academy no matter how much fun we’ve had in the dark with our paramours.
The most constant of the five nominees for best adapted screenplay is David Magee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi.” One of three playwrights in this category, Magee wears another, perhaps much more significant hat: abridgement writer. “I abridged over eighty books,” he says at a press conference after the film’s New York Film Festival run. “Everything from best-sellers to bodice rippers.” It’s a strategy that runs through the script, which condenses Martel’s 336-page, 2002 Man Booker Prize winner, but changes very little. Magee admits to aging the main character by about five years “to create that first taste of adolescent doubt,” but ultimately his goal is “to remain true to the major story.” For Magee, the payoff is if audiences can’t remember if something happened in the book or not. “Naturally we added some things and took others away,” he says. “But ideally, you want to create a film that’s similar to reading the book for the first time.”
Matthew Quick’s 2008 sports-heavy debut novel The Silver Linings Playbook is the wife who is still dedicated, but has had it with the football. Notoriously hot-tempered director David O. Russell’s first adaptation strips away much of the sports mechanics that weigh down the book and keys into the bipolar storyline, no doubt because his own teenage son is affected by the disorder. During a conversation after the film’s New York premiere, Russell estimated he rewrote the script twenty times over five years, weathering the project through cast changes that included Vince Vaughn and Mark Wahlberg in the lead. Russell takes the opposite tact of Magee, shortening the mental hospital interment of his main character, eventually played by Bradley Cooper, from four years to just eight months. “That’s a big part of the book,” Russell explains. “The guy’s been away for four years. That was so extreme and I didn’t have any experience with that, but I could write someone who’d done a couple months midlife in a hospital. I know those people. So in a weird way, by making this major alteration, I was able to stay truer to the emotional tone of the book.”
Chris Terrio’s script for “Argo” is the mistress you’ve seen for a few months only to learn she’s been telling everyone that she’s your wife. She’s the script made out of a molehill. At a party for the film in Manhattan shortly after the film’s release, Terrio discussed blowing out a scant magazine article clocking in at less than five thousand words into the two-hour film. “Josh Bearman’s story in Wired captured the high paradox involved when Hollywood and the CIA collide,” Terrio says of the true story behind the 1970s Iran hostage crisis, but says he did lean on other sources. “Tony Mendez’s memoir describes all the minute details of working for the CIA,” Terrio adds, explaining he’s always been interested in the things left out of the Bond movies. “How do you come home at night to your wife after being a spy all day?” he asks.
This is a good question for Tony Kushner’s script for “Lincoln,” which pared down the five-year span of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 book Team of Rivals to just four months in 1865. Kushner’s initial draft clocked in at five hundred pages, or more than eight hours of screen time, but the film was eventually made from just the first quarter of the book. Still, Kushner juggles such a wealth of source material, handing this script the Oscar would be akin to giving an award for best encyclopedia to Britannica’s volume N. After a special screening presented by Time Magazine this fall, Pulitzer Prize winner Kushner dismisses the idea that the movie is too talky to win an Academy Award. “At the end of the day,” he says, “as a screenwriter you need to focus on your job as primarily an entertainer. Film is not an essay.” Dispite that fact, over the course of the scripts many revisions, Kushner never strayed far from his twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary and diligently checked each and every word in the script to make sure it was appropriate for 1865 while at the same time trying to make certain his script didn’t play like “historical waxwork.”
Our final mistress is also our most wanton one. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” director Benh Zeitlin and his childhood friend Lucy Alibar collaborated on adapting her play Juicy and Delicious and in the process changed just about everything from the location to the age and sex of the main character. All the tinkering might make it a long shot as even faithful play adaptations like “On Golden Pond,” “Amadeus,” “Dangerous Liaisons,” and “Driving Miss Daisy” haven’t taken home Oscars since the go-go ‘80s. “In the play we had a twenty-five-year-old guy playing an eleven-year-old boy,” Alibar says on the phone from Los Angeles. “That’s not very realistic. So making that character a little girl and having her played by a little girl bring in a lot of real elements. It made me stop thinking of this as a fantasy film and more just the perceptions of a six-year-old. It just so happens that when you’re six, reality and imagination are not necessarily different things.”