The Case for Adaptation: Conversation at the Woodstock Film Festival

Nicolas Cage in 'Adaptation'/Image © 2002 Columbia Pictures

As Robert Frost famously replied when asked to define poetry, "Poetry is what is lost in translation." I doubt that novelists, playwrights, or short story writers are ever wholly pleased with the translation of their work to the screen (even Stephen King rejected "The Shining"), but if, as has been said, an adaptation becomes an "original" and the source is honored, the screenwriter has succeeded.

Quandaries about adaptation or translation from one art form to another are often discussed but not easily answered. The Woodstock Film Festival, now fifteen years old, added to that body of discussion on Sunday, October 19, with an impressive panel titled "From Novel to Screen." Sponsored by the Writers Guild of America East and moderated by film critic Thelma Adams, the panel included writers Tony Kushner, Lucy Alibar, and Malia Scotch Marmo. Of the three, two have worked on films with Steven Spielberg (Kushner on "Munich" and "Lincoln" and Scotch Marmo on "Jurassic Park" and "Hook"). Alibar adapted the film "Beasts of the Southern Wild" from her own stage play.

To warm up the audience and themselves, the panelists chose their favorite adaptations, which ranged from "The Princess Bride" and "The Shining" to "Housekeeping" and "Being John Malkovich," but the overwhelming favorite, quite appropriately, was Charlie Kaufman's brilliant film "Adaptation," directed by Spike Jonze and pretty much the only movie ever made about the question on the table. Kushner admitted to having Charlie and Donald Kaufman (the twins in the movie) bobble head dolls and cited the line in the film where the writer is called a "fat loser" as his recurring nightmare.

For anyone interested in the question of adaptation or translation, "Adaptation" is a must-see that proves, according to Scotch Marmo, that "A book is a book, theater is theater, but adaptation is an original."

The panel's give and take moved from specifics to more general statements with much of the discussion centering around Kushner's ability to gather his seven years of research into an immense number of sources into an Oscar-nominated script for "Lincoln." The challenge of too much information prompted his first instinct to turn down the project. But as he embraced it, becoming, as he says, "a fake expert for a while," he worked with Spielberg to create a well-told narrative. He admitted that most playwrights aren't great at plotting - "the greatest playwright of all time borrowed plots and the second greatest, Chekhov, had one plot that he used four times."

Kushner gives Spielberg a lot of credit for understanding how to create narrative propulsion - "the thrill of the ride" - which is connected, he believes, to profound optimism. So rather than being a chaotic series of events, his screenplay for "Lincoln" embraced the continuity of human events and the possibility of moving forward. To illustrate his point, Kushner quoted Spielberg, saying, "I film chaos that makes sense."

In writing the screenplay, the issue for Kushner was often about the ethics of hewing to historical truth, which he did for the most part. Yet he was often taken aback when he had to explain to people that he did not know what Lincoln said to Mary in the bedroom: "Clearly, I made it up." Playing to his Woodstock audience, Kushner quipped, "Art is an irresponsible process, which doesn't mean an artist should be irresponsible; that's reserved for hedge fund managers." He got the large laugh he expected.

Clearly, this was not so much a discussion of transforming novels into screenplays and little of the discussion focused on novels at all, but rather on plays or nonfiction sources. But in every case, where the originating work was well known, the work of the screenwriter was to make the film something new, to transfigure it. So when Scotch Marmo was working on "Hook," the object was to move the audience away from Mary Martin flying through the air and the earlier Disney films, while still honoring the readers and viewers who knew Captain Hook in other incarnations.

Externalizing what is internal in a work of fiction is another key issue for screenwriters, who are forced to make visual what is often inherently cerebral. In a novel, there are blanks for the reader to fill in, and the reader creates along with the author, yet film is such a hot, intimate medium, exposing so much of what goes on, that it is delicate work to honor the source, as Scotch Marmo says.

The balancing act between creating something new and honoring the originating work creates tension for all screenwriters, but in the case of Lucy Alibar, the screenplay she wrote with Benn Zeitlin liberated the play from the constraints of theater. "Beasts of the Southern Wild" allowed her to exploit what could be done with film as a medium. Her explicit examples were the use made of water and using the town as an ensemble.

But what might be seen as an easier translation, from theater to film, both being primarily dialogical, evoked the most controversy on the panel. Scotch Marmo felt that theater was closer to film in that both forms share the demand for a dramatic conflict and that both are more collaborative art forms. This drew a fervent response from Kushner who believes that theater is conflict with plot attached and that plot is not as important in theater as in film.

Anyone who knows Kushner's body of work can see his point of view and understand why he says that a good novel will give you a plot while a play and its theatrical illusions are not as easily translatable. He went on to deride the way in which filmmakers like to "open up" plays and take them outside of the usual proscenium stage. He quoted Vincent Canby to make his point: "Opening up destroys the essential claustrophobia of the theater." One wonders how he feels about the film adaptation of Angels in America. Edward Albee would agree -- he once cited what he viewed as the ridiculous addition of the roadhouse scene to the film of his play, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf."

Discussions about what is lost in translation will continue for as long as we attempt to transform sources from one art form to another. It was heartening to see that The Woodstock Film Festival panel added insights and vivid detail to the debate.