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In his own words:
On Adaptation

 Studio executives in Hollywood have a good deal in common with football managers. It's hard to know exactly what they do. They're inevitably fired. Presiding over a creative activity in desperate pursuit of industrial theory, these bosses are revered when the results are good, reviled when they're bad. They pay millions for the wrong players, they find talent on the street. They either have no strategies or else they are gurus. and just as the best time for any manager, the safest time, is preseason before a ball has been kicked in anger, so is it manifestly true that in Hollywood the only really dangerous activity is to make a film. The rest is marvellous.

 Photo courtesy of Vanity Fair magazine


From any rational business perspective making films makes no sense. Movies cost far too much, there are no prototypes to test, they're impossibly unwieldy to regularly insane people called directors, they refuse to conform to a pattern, there is no safety net, what worked last year won't work this year, the creative participants will often celebrate their indifference to commercial success, the audience is fickle, the marketing costs prohibitive, the stars crippling their demands, and again, like soccer, the general public- the fans- obsessing their collection of information and minutiae, evaluate and analyse the weekly results, the grosses, with a wuthering eye. What is to be done when, in this current season, a film-maker has delivered a film for more on a hundred million dollars in excess of its original budget? In another industry he might as well be in prison. In this one he's collecting awards. He's also, of course, created probably the most financially successful movie of all time. In Los Angeles the denials, the distancing, the disavowals are hastily traded in for celebrations and bonuses. The bewilderment and the tearing up of the rule book occurs in private, the rewriting of history in public. Success has may fathers, the adage goes, failure is always an orphan.
This is to put in context the film producer's comfort with adaptation. In an industry where the oddest are so absurd any thing which reduces them is attractive. Adjudicating a new idea is a rigorous and dangerous activity. It it's true of literature that the only real critic is one who judges new work and is exposed in that judgment, so it's true that in movies people generally prefer some clues as to what they're supposed to be thinking. It's less difficult to to admire a piece of material which has topped the best seller list. It's sometimes not even necessary to have to read it. I recount this without jaundice. It's a wonder any project gets through the sieve of angst, suspicion, second-guessing, calculus, flirtation and fear which is known in Los Angeles as development.
When a project has an established literary credential, it makes it easier for everybody to imagine the film, to talk about the film, to participate in the evolution of the film. There's already a putative audience, although the book's readership alone cannot sustain a movie -however well a book might have sold-so great is the negative cost of an average film, so small is the population of readers. And so the movies go to the library - to ransack and pillage, mostly acknowledging sources, very occasionally celebrating them, sometimes disguising them. In a collection of short stories published under the banner No, but I saw the movies there is a tacit lament for the appropriation of credit by film directors for creating something which is, in fact, borrowed from another medium. Hitchcock's Rear Window, Capra's It Happened One Night, Francis Coppola's The Godfather all began their lives with the possessory credit allocated to the novelists who created these stories, not to the directors who either brilliantly reimagined or plundered them, depending on your point of view.
Readers are unsurprising proprietorial. They are frequently indignant at the mess films make of their favourite literature, appalled at casting choices and compromises, irritated by the conflations, amputations and distortions which reading a novel is the creating of an inner landscape in which the book plays out, with each reader proving face and voice to a character, dramatising events in the mind's eye, placing emphasis and finding in memory visual correlatives for scenes set in places beyond our own experience. Reading is personal and private. Movies make prosaic the poetic, flatten everything out and cast movie stars whose age is rarely within ten years of the stated age of the fictional character. Moscow becomes Burbank, New York; Toronto; London; Bristol. Tragedies become comedies, endings change, equivocations yield to certainties. It's shameless.
1997 Academy Award winning
The English Patient
Ralph Fiennes and Kristen Scott Thomas
Wisdom used to have it that only bad books made good movies. Such dispiriting theories stem from Hollywood's fear of literature and literary figures because of course, the pillage I've described can only succeed in a climate of mutual suspicion. The studio view is that films which aspire to the conditions of art, the complexities of a really good book, the equivocations and debates, the edginess or complexities of a really good book, or worse still, the melancholy, will necessary be limited in their appeal, consigning the to that circuit of dungeons known as the art house (a place which has always held a sneaking appeal, even in its name). The English Patient is a prime example - a period story, thematically burdened, with a central character burnt beyond recognition, European, elegiac and tragic. It was impossible to find a backer. Successful movies aim low, is the studio mantra, aspiring to the atmosphere of the fairground not the salon, the fireworks display not the microscope. Even those who've asserted and achieved the poetic in cinema are at pains to distance themselves fro books. Berman insisted that movies had nothing to do with literature and that the character and substance of the two forms are generally in conflict.
Having written original material for most of my adult life I find myself in the middle of a trilogy of adaptations, which began with The English Patient, continues with my current project, Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley and will end with Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain. I must deduce, then, that I, too have fallen prey to the same desire to steal a march on the elusive process of getting a film made. It makes great sense, I thing, to be the writer of the films I direct but the metabolism of film-making is slowed accordingly. Years can pass before I can walk back onto a film set. The English Patient took over four years to write and direct. If I want to make a film I have to have a subject. Starting with a book accelerates the process. I am afraid it may be as banal as that.
So it behoves me to make a case for the value of movies based on what the Academy of Motion Pictures quaintly calls previously published material. Books are books; films neither improve them, nor are the contents of novel mysteriously changed by the alchemy of a movie adaptation, successful or catastrophic. Books are to hand, on book shelves, to be read. And reading remains the most poignant, personal and important of activities. Nevertheless, some movies based on previously published material are works of art in their own right. The synthesis of constituents in film; darkness; light; colour; sound; music; movement; the appalling intimacy conjured from the lens' ability to suggest a point of view or focus on the particular; the power of a smile enlarged a hundred times; is selection of images; what in The English Patient allowed me to shift effortlessly from a tiny pulse on a woman's throat to the yearning emptiness of the Sahara; to situate the private event in public landscape; makes it the most powerful art form of the century. and most frequently trivialised.
At the very least good film adaptations become a pungent advertisement for their source material, like hearing a friend recount their excitement at having read a new book.For that is what the role of a film-maker seems to me to be, the enthusiastic messenger, bringing news from somewhere else. remembering the best bits, exaggerating the beauty, reeling the mystery, probing the moral imperative of what he or she has read, its meaning and argument, watching for gasps or tears, orchestrating them, ideally, prompting the captive audience to make the pilgrimage to the source. the adaptor must attempt to be the perfect reader. But, as Italo Calvion said of storytelling, the tale is not beautiful in nothing is added to it. Nothing gave me more pleasure last year than to see Michael Ondaatje's magnificent book perched on the top of the best seller lists, his other books reprinted, a whole new audience discerning for themselves the power and delicacy of his prose. I had a similar fission from the sight of Herodotus enjoying a revival in a new edition, or Marta Sebestyen's music finding its way into the charts. I think my work has always carried an encoded catalogue of what currently delights me, be it Bach or Beckett.
The screenplay, closer to an architect's drawing than it is to literature exists as a blueprint for the film. Film-making is first of all, like architecture, contingent. A building must fit on its lot, must be practical, must accommodate people and their needs. Some many also be beautiful. Most certainly aspire to beauty and to longevity. but they are hostage to what is possible within the discipline of the form. This is the way it is with movies. They are experienced in real time, intended for public arenas, they must fill in what a novel can merely suggest, provide the whole face where a novelist must be content with an eyebrow, the room where the novelist need only describe a chair, the whole street where on the page was simply the mention of a pedestrian. Kurosawa once memorably explained that a developing shot which appeared in one of his films had its idiosyncratic design, not for reasons of aesthetics, but because it had to avoid a petrol station and an apartment block. The metonymical quality of prose fiction gives way to the literal in films. The camera is a recording device. It must have something to look at or else nothing appears on the negative. The cost of creating those worlds- a Cairo souk in 1939, the Piazza di Spangna in 1958, a battle in Virginia at the end of the American Civil War, the landscape of the moon, a huge ship smashing against an iceberg- can be astronomical. But it must be done before an audience will surrender to the convention of its fictional experience, settling into its strange collusion with the film series of still frames running through a projector at 24 frames per second, as real enough to pass for the truth.
The cinema can manage its own poetry. Often this achieved by manipulating the grammar of film - where shot size, camera angel and movement, the length of a shot, the amount of light on a subject, the palate of colours and most significantly, the edit - replace the syntax of noun, verb and adjective. More mysteriously, when the camera looks with purpose at an image it seems to capable of transmitting that purpose, subcutaneously, to the viewer. I wrote at the start of the The English Patient screenplay The desert seen from the air...makes the dunes look like bodies pressed against each other and no matter that I had never been to the desert, when we flew above the Sahara and the camera pointed down it brought back images of sensual curves and voluptuous mounds that which when place in the film, without comment or caption, spoke to the audience of bodies.
In the novel exposition can be achieved in the baldest way - it was Saturday, he was dying-- tenses can be manipulated - ten years previously, the next month, when he was four something strange happened - the globe navigated with profligate ease - he flew that morning to Naples and then drove down the Amalfi Cost, before returning to the airport and taking the night flight to Tokyo. the film-maker has to work within more rigid disciplines - most audiences tire after a couple of hours, get confused by a decentralised narrative, can't tolerate fractured chronology unless it is transparently presented, need to spend time with characters simply to recognise them and situate them.They cannot stop the film to check some information from a previous scene, they have to from opinions about characters and events without the novelists ability to guide them - nothing he said had been true. And none of this takes into account the way a film is read, what happens to a movie when an audience recognises an actor from a previous role, has a vestigial impression of that other character, or is only there because they want to see that actor again had have very strict notions of how he could behave in any story. Contingency obtains.
In The English Patient, for example, my original draft was over 200 pages long, about twice that of a standard screenplay. Reducing its length meant eliminating precious material and also involved rationalising its structure and geography. I don't regret this particularly, but acknowledge that every choice I made - of what to dramatise, what to omit, what to invent, what to change - said as much about my own preoccupations as it did the novel's. The film had to stand alongside Michael's book and not as some kind of book-on-film experience. In our test screenings, fewer than 4% of the audience had read or knew of the novel. Similarly, in The Talented Mr. Ripley successive drafts have eliminated the New York element of the novel (hugely expensive) and the film takes place wholly in Italy rather than the three continents Highsmith took her reader to. the budge requires it; the film, I think will be better for it. Coherence is everything in these decisions, just as it is in architecture. For the consonance of form is at least as telling as content.
Michael Ondaatje handed me a proof copy of Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain in Toronto last summer with a recommendation from its publisher. Destined for a modest hardback release, the manuscript - the work of a first-time novelist-had attracted no serious film interest (the same had been true of The English Patient). When I returned to London another copy of the book was waiting for me, this time from Bill Horberg at Sydney Pollack's production company in Los Angeles. I took this as an omen. I read the book.The prose is like denim, made for work; serious steadfast sentences which talk of the land, of loss, of terrible damage to the country, the end of something. There's a resolute man walking home to find the woman who waits has also changed, irrevocably, in his absence. It's a story which makes you want to go walking. Nature is brought into the reader's room by Cold Mountain with visceral power. I can't ever remember having been made to feel so alert to changes in temperature, altitude, the seasons. Flakes of snow fall in the pages with tragic consequences. It announces itself as a masculine book, reverent about the workings of guns and tools, about the way to skin a hog, hunt a bear, read a trail. But it is the women who stay in the mind, Ada and Ruby remarkable and original creations, flinty, clear and funny. I was mesmerised.
A week later a sudden rally of interest had led to an auction in which the price for the film-rights escalated. In a telephone conversation I spoke to Charles Frazier about my passionate regard for the novel and my profound ignorance of the period it rehearsed, or the landscape in which it was set. I know nothing either about the causes and effects of the American Civil War. This seemed to amuse him and the next day Unite Artists acquired the right for me with Sydney's company to produce. By Christmas there were a million and a half copies of Cold Mountain in print, it stood at the top of the New York Times best seller list, had won the National Book Award, and was a published phenomenon. Cold Mountain fever had gripped America. As I write this the novel is still the number one selling novel in the country after 20 weeks.
Fazier's genius has been to cast his account of a deserting Confederate soldier's journey home in the shape of the Odyssey, or rather to see- in the true story of his ancestor's walk through the state of North Carolina at the end of the Civil War- resonant parallels with Homer's epic poem. The book has the quality of myth, as if it has always been there, as if the book itself had been discovered on the trail to Cold Mountain (a real place, incidentally, and once partly owned by Frazier's great-great uncle W.P. Inman, who give the protagonist his name). It is by turns unflinchingly violent and intensely tender. It's a very cruel book. I took advice before I committed to taking it on. One friend recounted how, after reading it, she had wailed so much in the night that her children had come into her bedroom to see whey was crying; another was so incensed by the events of the last pages that he threw the book across the room. This seemed promising.
Boiled down to its bones, the book makes an irresistible case for adaptation to the screen; an honourable man, a journey; a purpose; a series of obstacles; someone waiting with forbearance, and Cold Mountain itself, a place which becomes more than a place, becomes a goal, stands in for a time and way of life which has been lost. At its heart the book has a question, is it better to have tired and failed then not to have tried? A blind man finds Inman's notion of a few minutes' gift of sight to be an appalling one. For Inman there is no question that is preferable to never seeing and he sets off, deserting the rebels and a pointless hopeless war to get sight of Cold Mountain. In a lawless world, the violence stunningly casual nature indifferent, only an indomitable cussedness pushes Inman forward. In it's effortless flexing between epic sweep and the tiny details of the landscape, in its insistence on the relation between the private world and the public one, Cold Mountain goes a long way towards earning the instant classic status it has attained in America.
I went to North Carolina and visited Frazier. During the course of an inspiring week I discovered a man as careful with the words he speaks as he is with the ones he commits to paper. He has walked Iman's paths and showed me some of them. Looking out at Grandfather Mountain, the most distinctive of the Blue Ridge peaks in western North Carolina, we discussed the movie. At this point I was in architect mode. I have made a breakdown of the key scenes and sequences in the novel. If each one is allocated only five minutes of screen time the film is already four hours long. There will be amputations. And the chronology will have to be simplified. Some characters will have to go, some amalgamated, some will have their functions altered. I am working on the book with a tape measure and compass and a scalpel. Sitting with Charles Frazier on the porch where most of his novel was written, the mountains in front of us shrouded in mist, I was conscious of a strange moment, as if I were adopting someone's child. I was staring the long and painful journey to make Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain. readers know otherwise.


--Anthony Minghella  





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