This collection of essays originated in the observation that the study of literature-to-film adaptation has generally overlooked the actual process through which a source text is transformed into a motion picture. This process includes in particular the central role of the screenplay. The increasing attention to intertextual and intermedial influences in adaptation over the last two decades provides an opportunity to highlight the most consistent and crucial example of intertextuality at work, namely, the writing of the transmedial screenplay. Literature-to-film adaptation involves the textual transposition of a single-track medium of published writing into a document that embraces the scenic structure and dramatic codes of the multitrack medium of film. The composition of the screenplay illuminates the evolution of ideas that will determine the film production's relationship to its source text. In this introduction I describe the multiple roles and significance of the adapted screenplay and its history, as well as its centrality to the collaborative authorship that is at the heart of film adaptation. Focusing on the screenplay in adaptation necessarily foregrounds issues of authorship in a theoretical environment that has been weighted toward semiotics, poststructuralism, and broadly conceived influences of cultural intertextuality. The fragile status of authorship in the shifting landscape of adaptation theory is specifically addressed in the final section of this introduction.
The two previously published essays and ten original ones in this collection each emphasize some aspect of the process of film adaptation as it can be traced from the source text and adapted screenplay through the film's production, exhibition, and reception. The four parts of the book are organized around the three dominant arrangements for adaptive screenwriters in English-language cinema:
- The screenwriter in service to an activist producer or established auteur;
- The screenwriter and director as one and the same individual; or
- The screenwriter and director in a variety of other collaborative relationships.
Although not all the chapters place major emphasis on the screenplay in adaptation, all do consider some aspect of the adaptive process as such. The case studies chosen for discussion also represent both cultural diversity and diversity in critical approaches to adaptation. A focus on authorship, however, remains a touchstone throughout the collection.
Historically, the adapted screenplay has been viewed only as an interim step in the binary focus on the source literature (usually the novel) and on the film. The script has been deemed merely a skeletal blueprint for the adapted film and thus unworthy of serious consideration in its own right. There are several reasons for this binary critical emphasis, beginning with the essential point that a work of fiction or drama typically has a single author and a readily consumable existence in published form, just as an adapted film can be recognized as a finished entity on screen. The adapted screenplay, however, has had no comparable existence as a finished artifact for public consumption (with the exception of published transcripts). Interest in the adapted screenplay mainly follows from an initial critical or public interest in the adapted film. But whereas the audience of an adapted film might rush to purchase copies of the source text (underscoring an adapted film's direct value to publishers), a much smaller readership will seek the film transcript, and only a tiny group will seek a late screenplay draft or shooting script, assuming such is even available. Other reasons for disregarding the screenplay in adaptation study include the multiple revisions a script undergoes during development (at times by different hands), Hollywood's traditional low regard for the screenwriter generally, and a resistance to any sort of transposition of esteemed canonic literature (the "hallowed word") to another medium, especially one that has been associated with mass entertainment.
In respect to this last issue, the adaptation of high-profile best-sellers to the screen can prove as controversial as the adaptation of literary classics. In the recent adaptation of Dan Brown's best-selling mystery thriller, The Da Vinci Code, the film version was criticized for softening the book's main thematic thrust, namely, that since antiquity, conservatives within the Catholic Church have suppressed the role of women, including the role of Mary Magdalene, with whom Jesus may have sired children to produce a still extant lineage. Did film director Ron Howard (who at an early point worked with other producers and the screenwriter) already commit to deemphasizing that theme to stem possible boycotts and thus increase ticket sales? Often overlooked but also notable in this regard is that modern writers and directors tied to studio support are frequently asked to work with studio promotional departments to consider a film's marketing in relation to its final story construction. The who and why surrounding the process of adaptation at the screenwriting stage, then, can begin to answer these kinds of preproduction questions and issues. Meanwhile, the closed fixation only on literary source and finished film both in journalistic reviews and scholarly study has often shown an indifference to the evolving intentions of producers, writers, and directors and their shifting balance of input and authority.
In scholarly and trade publications, several articles and a few chapters in collections over the years have given some attention to specific cases of adapted screenplays (see especially Literature/Film Quarterly, in publication since 1973), although the script per se has received little extended treatment as the key step in the process of adaptation. Excluding the numerous how-to texts on screenwriting and marketing and at least two recent manuals on writing adaptations, only a handful of publications on the subject of screenwriting and screenwriters have mentioned adaptation even casually. Adaptation study as a whole has, however, received considerable academic focus, with no fewer than eleven books on the subject appearing since 1996, and three more from Robert Stam in 2005 alone. Kamilla Elliott, in her introduction to the collection Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate (2003), notes that "recent critics rightly protest novel and film studies' neglect of . . . screenplays" (6). Overall, then, the growing interest in the theory and critical assessment of adaptation supports the need for a closer look at the screenplay/screenwriter and writer-director collaboration in the genesis of adaptation.
For the moviegoing public in general, the screenplay has largely remained no more visible than a category on film credits or on film awards lists. In awards ceremonies that include recognition of the screenplay, the scriptwriter stands in for a document that few ever see or read. Those who have tracked down the screenplay have usually had to locate specialty libraries, vendors, or Internet sources, only then to have to rely either on an uncertain script draft dating or on a film's verbatim transcript, which is the version typically published when a feature screenplay is offered as a book. Such transcripts imitate the finished film in standard or nonstandard script form on the page and hence reveal little of the process of adaptation. To uncover that process requires comparing the completed film with the last script draft prior to shooting. Also helpful in understanding the process of adaptation are interviews with or commentaries from the principal figures responsible for a film—producers, writers, directors, and actors. Although such commentaries are often largely anecdotal, their increasing availability through publications, the Internet, DVD supplementary material, and television commentary has made investigating the adaptation process and the centerpiece screenplay more than ever viable.
It is the screenplay, not the source text, that is the most direct foundation and fulcrum for any adapted film. As the film's narrative springboard, it guides the screen choices for story structure, characterization, motifs, themes, and genre. It indicates what will or will not be used from the source, including what is to be altered or invented, and in what settings and tonal register. Because the modern adapted screenplay at the point of input from the director includes so many key decisions relative to the source, it remains the essential conceptual and creative bible for the film's construction. The writing births the overriding narrative that all the filmmaking participants serve during production. Unlike the original source text, which can be read at the reader's pace, the screenplay is the directive for the film performance in a designated time frame. Whatever alterations are made during shooting and editing, the adapted screenplay as it exists just before production starts is the most prescriptive guide to the film in the mind's eye of writer and director.
An adapted screenplay that is recognizable for its quality increases the likelihood that a successful film might be made. This belief is associated with the Hollywood truism that you can make a bad film from a good script but you can't make a good film from a bad script. A director may have the benefit of the screenplay and the source text for consideration in production, but script quality, irrespective of the quality of the source text, remains essential for production. In adaptive film projects, the lack of a relatively complete screenplay when production begins can cause great anxiety on the set and hurt the quality of the finished product. Since modern directors work out the transmediation of their source text in the screenplay (usually in conjunction with the adaptive scriptwriter), their interpretation of the literary property and its presentation is already largely decided on. Virtually all of Alfred Hitchcock's films were rather loose adaptations, but he was known for adhering closely during shooting to his finished scripts. Other auteur directors, such as John Ford and Robert Altman, have a reputation for improvising even adapted scripts on the set, although the script remains the jumping-off point for innovation, thus necessitating script rewrites after the fact to accommodate changes made along the way.
The basic format of narrative film scripts conveys their practical specificity. Their goal is to portray drama through concrete descriptive passages and character dialogue within individual scenes, which are designated as either interior or exterior locations. Scenes form the building blocks of sequences and story or character arcs that make up the larger sections or "acts" of the narrative. Because Hollywood scripts are usually written to fit within exhibitors' preferred two-hour maximum running time (120 script pages), as well as to appeal to mass audiences, efficiency and clarity in story and characterization have been standard practice. The adapted screenplay usually pares down dialogue and avoids metaphorical style in description. All of this is intended to set a mood and tone, as well as tell a story in the eventual service of an audiovisual design. The expressive language of fiction in paragraph and chapter form describes circumstances, attitudes, and feelings that readers are left to invoke ("imagine") directly for themselves, while the screenplay is structured to work in the service of a narrative that is read in the moving scenic terms of imaging for the camera. The screenplay must organize and telegraph audiovisual codes to directors, actors, and technicians for the sake of production. The script format thus appears intrusive to a reader, and its written style is less intimate and rich than fiction. It points to the potential specificity and power of fully realized, framed, and mobile iconic imagery ready for editing. The page layout and story elements of the adapted script demonstrate its media-transformational function for the performance of film narrative.
Unlike the solitary, imaginative origin of most fiction (however informed by a cultural milieu), the composition of an adapted screenplay takes place not only under the shadow of myriad narrative expectations but in a complex environment of business, industrial, and artistic considerations. Some version of a screenplay must answer in preproduction to a producer and director. It is usually required by a producer not only to generate specific project funding but also to initiate the attachment to the production of other above-the-line personnel, including the director, director of photography, and stars. Screenplays determine specific production budgets and can also leverage immediate capital from speculative investors, from upfront theatrical distribution deals, and from potential DVD sales for a film, including possible ancillary product contracts. The director, meanwhile, mandates the script required for performance and editing needs. This script presumes its eventual technical and aesthetic performance in an audiovisual space of specific time, pacing, and place. As the central narrative cog in all three stages of film production, the screenplay determines the contributions of the hundreds of individuals who typically work on any given project.
Given its many functions, then, there tend to at least two main versions of a script. In the preproduction stage, there is first the one that helps bring together budget resources and key personnel, and then the one that is coordinated by the director for production. In modern film development, William Goldman observes,
There are two entirely different versions of any screenplay. There is stuff that is written before the film is a go project, and there is what's written once the movie is actually going to be shot. And sometimes they have very little to do with each other. The purpose of the earlier version is to make it happen. The purpose of the latter version or versions is to be as supportive to your director as you can.
Goldman's also last sentence points up the service role that the Hollywood screenwriter plays in relation to the producer and director. Once the director approves the final draft, that screenplay is arranged into a shooting script for production, and notations on this script during shooting become the continuity script.
In one case, Stanley Kubrick, who wanted to work through his own extended visual conception for the adaptation of Arthur Clarke's The Sentinel, first composed a 40,000-word descriptive prose piece with Clarke in preparation for their writing the initial screenplay for what became 2001. Kubrick sought to fully develop the visual details that would be indicative of an atmosphere and mood for his largely style-driven narrative. This circumstance also highlights how some later auteurs, who often locate and purchase their own source material, already have some connection to the source material and some intention in relation to it, which they continue to develop throughout the scriptwriting stage. Directors use the screenwriting stage of development in collaboration with the writer to invent and refine their story and image conceptions. The scripting process may even suggest a whole new unity of narrative emphasis and meaning, or at least may encourage a director to see further possibilities for cinematic forms of storytelling. How a critical analyst interprets the information provided by a late script draft can therefore make all the difference not only in assigning specific authorship to the quantity and degree of intended source alterations but also to recognizing how the initial screenplay conception may have been altered by performative and technical factors in the production and postproduction stages. A critic's familiarity with a late script can enhance awareness of where the subsequent production soared beyond its original scripted intent, became waylaid, or simply changed direction.
The scholarly study of the screenplay in Hollywood studio cinema has already helped shed light on some well-known examples of scriptwriting confusion. For instance, a famous controversy has surrounded what transpired in the writing of the original script for Citizen Kane. Although not technically an adaptation, since the life of William Randolph Hearst had not been published in a biography used directly in the writing of the screenplay, the film nevertheless played fast and loose with the life story of a living person (and the producers had to negotiate screenplay changes because of it, owing to the threat of a lawsuit). Long a matter of contention among film critics over screenplay authorship between Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles, the puzzle seems largely now to be laid to rest. As Tom Stempel writes in Framework:
While Mankiewicz had the energy and the early enthusiasm to whip out a lengthy first draft (the two written on his own at 250 and then at 325 pages that provide the basic structure for the eventual film), he did not necessarily have the dedication to do the fine-tuning any script required. Welles, on the other hand, did not necessarily have the patience to do all the creative work required on a first draft, but was brilliant as an editor/rewrite man. As a screenwriting collaboration, they were well matched.
Another factor that is obvious in this historic if nonsimultaneous "collaboration" is the assumption during the writing by both Mankiewicz and Welles that Orson would play the main role. It may be assumed that Welles's script editing in particular was oriented not only to story conflation but to the fine-tuning of the dialogue that he and his colleagues among the Mercury Theatre cast would deliver.
Specific challenges for adaptive writers and filmmakers usually include ways to visualize the fiction narrator's exposition, metaphors, and interior character observations and their thought processes, all of which help to convey story tone as well as character psychology. The determination of filmic equivalents for some or all of these fictional devices is part of the craft and art of the adaptation process. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the constant screenwriter on the Ismael Merchant and James Ivory producer-director team, wrote several publicly successful and close adaptations of heritage literature (particularly by Henry James and E. M. Forster). She has observed that she sometimes changes and also typically cuts even the dialogue in novels down to about one-fourth, noting that "dialogue in a novel is always full of artifice" and is therefore often unwieldy in the mouths of actors on the screen. The exchange or alteration of certain literary for filmic devices in adaptation is thus a given, and the screenwriter and director must make choices in this regard either to enhance cinematic drama or to address unforeseen production issues.
These issuees frequently involve casting and performance, which can change a screenplay in all three stages of production. Casting actors, of course, is not determined by the screenwriter unless the writer also happens to have a producer or director role in the film. American cinema offers numerous examples of adapted scripts that have been written and produced with certain performers in mind. It is also true that best-sellers have been written with a movie version and a film star in mind, as in the case of John Grisham's novel The Pelican Brief. The author projected Julia Roberts for the lead role in the inevitable film adaptation, and the screen rights were also purchased before the novel was actually written. Furthermore, of course, the attachment of "bankable" stars to a production after the adapted script is completed can push certain roles in certain directions on the set to the point that character and story directions are significantly changed.
Adaptations also typically have more limited options in the casting of lead characters because of the expectations of audiences relative to the given character profiles in the source text. Close matching can bring success, as attested to by the definitive performances of leads Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs (1991, Jonathan Demme), who miror the physiognomy of their characters and convincingly project their traits just as described in the novel. Certain actors may have the look of a fictional character but lack the affect, while others may not look the part detailed in the source but may nevertheless succeed in capturing the inner life of the character in the film role. An example of the latter is the full-figured version of Renee Zellweger as Ruby in Cold Mountain (2003, Anthony Minghella), who was critically praised for her energetic portrayal of this supporting role. The character Ruby, however, is described in Charles Frazier's novel as "broad-nosed," "frail chested," and "corded through the neck and arms." Another example is that of Denzel Washington, whom writer-director Carl Franklin brought in for the role of detective Easy Rawlins in his adaptation of Devil in a Blue Dress (1995). The lead actor felt that his characterization of Rawlins should be more active and skilled than in the novel or in Franklin's initial screenplay, and the director agreed and made adjustments to script and film. Whether an actor's performance is attuned to the adapted script or the script is adjusted to the actor depends finally on the director's intent in relation to the source text.
Adaptive screenplays and films face the inevitable question of their specific orientation to their source, and there is no simple answer about what is appropriate that could possibly satisfy all readers and audiences. In critical approaches, the direct matching of the content of a literary source with its film version may serve useful descriptive goals concerning transmediation, but it has also long encouraged an evaluative form of "fidelity criticism" that has necessarily privileged the original literary work, particularly literary classics, to the detriment of the cinematic "derivation." The versatility of the visual and sound palette available to screenwriters and filmmakers, however, can provide a wealth of alternative ways to convey the intricacies of the source text, and therefore disobliges a simplistic comparative cataloging across the two media. In this line of thought, critical writing on film adaptation has frequently suggested that the screenplay and film should mainly seek to capture "the essence" of the source text through audiovisual "equivalents." Because exact iconic images of fiction in film are impossible (owing to the variations of each fiction reader's particular imagination) and in any case are likely to fail dramatically (owing to film's need to establish its own "live" scenic rhythms as opposed to literary ones), it is essential to locate the goal that any particular adaptation sets for itself. To this end, the screenplay can reveal the transformational decisions that account for a change in medium, as well as the initial story and dialogue alterations that point to the conceptual goal of the film adaptation.
The issue of authorial intent, therefore, must be a part of any discussion of fidelity in adaptation. One way that critics and theorists of adaptation have repeatedly addressed this issue of allegiance has been to assign labels to what is usually presented as three levels of a film's distance from its source. Most of these labels, which have been used over the years, offer some variation on the following terminology:
- A literal or close reading (such as the Ishmael Merchant-James Ivory adaptation of Howard's End, with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala as writer);
- A general correspondence (such as Anthony Minghella's highly sensitive screenwriter-director "reading" of Michael Ondaatje's poetic and lengthy novel The English Patient); or
- A distant referencing (as in the Coen brothers' tacit borrowing from Homer's The Odyssey for O Brother, Where Art Thou?).
Although such descriptive categories can be used to help readers and viewers appreciate the film adaptation's intention and its right to go its own way, any preoccupation with fidelity to the literary original and its presumed superiority also tends to constrain the discussion of each film's immersion in its own particular cultural and historical moment. Part of the comedic point in the Coen brothers' Depression-era comedy (released in 2000) is that mundane and narrow-minded facts of life surrounding antiheroes in the twentieth century can unsettle the gravity of ancient heroic epics such as The Odyssey. In contrast, serious costume dramas, including Howard's End and The English Patient, can succeed in speaking to the present through the sheer realistic credibility of the characters and issues represented in their particular historical circumstances.
All three recent adaptations—Howard's End, The English Patient, and O Brother—were critically and commercially successful films despite differing degrees of closeness to and different relationship with their literary source. Interestingly, all three also show an extremely tight association between writer and director in each project's conception (especially in the case of Minghella, who assumed both roles). Each writer was closely allied with each director's intention and in addition had a thorough grounding in film tradition. The Coen brothers took their title, historical moment, and tone for their film from writer-director Preston Sturges's Sullivan's Travels (1942), in which the line "O brother, where art thou?" occurs. Certainly, the quality and success of many adapted films have been rooted in a strong writer-director team approach, such as that between Martin Ritt and Irving Ravetch/Harriett Frank, Jr., or Alfred Hitchcock and John Michael Hayes. The recognition of the potential power of cinema is also observable among those who have a particularly strong personal devotion to rendering a literary source. Some examples are actress Emma Thompson's script for Sense and Sensibility (1995, Ang Lee) and Christopher Hampton's screenplay rendition of his already adapted stage version of Dangerous Liaisons (1988, Stephen Frears) from the period novel by Choderlos de Laclos. Furthermore, because all of the adaptations mentioned above were well received by critics and audiences, very few negative criticisms regarding lack of fidelity to source resulted. On the contrary, a renewed appreciation of, or at least attention to, the source material was the typical consequence. The film adaptation's tendency to create or reenergize public interest in the literary source, and through this renewed interest to spark a wider discussion of the aesthetic force and cultural meanings of the page and screen texts and their temporal contexts, reinforces the intermedial as well as historiographic dimensions of adaptation study.
Classical Hollywood and the Adapted Screenplay
The major studios of classical Hollywood had story departments with a stable of writers who were usually assigned to adaptation projects according to their genre experience. Robert Wise observed, "In my time, all the major studios had story departments to cover all the established and upcoming books. They provided directors with all the information they needed, like synopses." Studio directors didn't have to actually read their sources for adaptation, especially in the rush to produce the many films demanded by the studios' exhibitors prior to 1948. Furthermore, the formulation of and final say on a script seldom began and ended with the story department, which answered to the studio head or to the production manager in the studio system. As independent-minded director Frank Capra wrote in a letter to the New York Times in 1939, "about six producers today pass upon ninety percent of the scripts and cut and edit about ninety percent of the pictures."
Thomas Schatz points out that David Selznick, while at MGM with Irving Thalberg, closely oversaw and proved the viability of filming classics as major productions in the 1930s, and he successfully produced several while there. Even in cases where a studio sought out a specific writing talent to adapt a literary work, studios continued to rule the process. At Columbia, noted screenwriter Budd Schulberg explained why he did not write the final script used to adapt his own 1947 novel, The Harder They Fall.
I had a fight with Harry Cohn about that, not the first or last. I had done the book on my farm in Bucks County, and I had also done the screen adaptation there. He insisted that if I did the screenplay, I must do it at the studio. . . . I really had left Hollywood because I couldn't stand that routine. It just did not fit my method of work. I said I would do the screenplay at the farm and then come out for conferences. . . . One thing I couldn't stand about that system was that there was a secretarial Pool that typed up the pages, about four or five a day, as you wrote. They would send those pages right up to the front office. The writer could not look at the work and turn it in when it was ready. The front office was more or less looking over your shoulder every step of the way. That's counterproductive to any real creativity. I refused to work under that system, so I didn't get to do the script.
Schulberg had a reputation for doing extensive and intensive hands-on research for his screenplays because he felt compelled by the sociopolitical realities of the American experience. His realist scenario for On the Waterfront (1954) was based partly on Malcolm Johnson's Pulitzer prize-winning articles on crime on the New York waterfront, but also on months of Schulberg's own research, which included attending longshoremen union meetings and anti-crime commission hearings. He also insisted that the film's director, Elia Kazan, and actor Marlon Brando join him in spending extended time on the docks with the longshoremen before shooting started. It was as if Schulberg were preparing a nonfiction exposé on the subject while simultaneously building a script. All of this explains why his Academy Award for On the Waterfront was in the category of Story and Screenplay rather than Original Screenplay. In his study of screenplay documents, Tom Stempel further discovered that the film's legendary taxicab scene, reputed to have been improvised by Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger, appeared in an early Schulberg draft, "closer to its final form in the film than almost any other scene." Stempel also observes the irony related to this Schulberg and Kazan film: "the best screenplay to come out of the HUAC investigations was written by a screenwriter [and a director] who had testified." Schulberg's leftist ideological bent, in any case, did not make him an easy fit with Hollywood's producer-driven and studio image-driven system of the time.