How To Turn Complicated Books Into Movies

Sep 5, 2013
Originally published on September 4, 2013 3:24 pm

Later this month, James Franco’s film adaptation of William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” will have a limited release in American cities.

The book is famously complicated, featuring 15 points of view, internal monologues and semi-literate narrators, so adapting the novel to the screen is an ambitious undertaking.

Screenwriters have long been adapting material that wouldn’t seem to play well on the screen with varying levels of success.

Cami DeLavigne is a screenwriter who co-wrote the critically acclaimed film “Blue Valentine” in 2010.

DeLavigne says the best screenwriters bring their own interpretation to the source material.

“The screenwriter’s job is making the invisible, visible,” DeLavigne told Here & Now. “A novel is not structured like a movie, so you have to give yourself liberty to make changes for stuff that really fits the cinema rather than fits the words on the page.”

DeLavigne admires screenwriters like Charlie Kaufman and Stanley Kubrick because they bring new and personal takes to the source material they adapt for film.

“These are two writers who are able to bring their personalities to the movies, and that is why I love them so much,” she said.

DeLavigne says that Kaufman’s “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” and Kubrick’s “Lolita,”  are particularly good adaptations.


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JAMES FRANCO: (As Darl Bundren) She's going to die, Jewel. Our mother. Addie Bundren's going to die.

HOBSON: That's from the trailer to James Franco's new film, "As I Lay Dying," coming out in theaters later this month. It's based on William Faulkner's notoriously complicated novel of the same name. The novel includes 15 different points of view and is written using internal monologues. So turning it into a film - not easy. How does a screenwriter even begin? Cami DeLavigne would know. She is a screenwriter who co-wrote the critically acclaimed film "Blue Valentine" and she's here in the studio. Thanks for coming by.

CAMI DELAVIGNE: Thank you so much for having me.

HOBSON: So Cami, when you first look at a story, how do you know if it's going to be adaptable or not?

DELAVIGNE: I think it all depends on if you have a strong interpretation of it. If it reads to you emotionally, if it's something that you could see cinematically, if you can kind of break down the characters into something that's like, more visual rather than all in a character's head, I think that that kind of naturally lends itself towards being made into a movie. If it sings to you, then one could be drawn to adapt something that is seemingly unadaptable.

HOBSON: And as a screenwriter, do you feel that you have a license to make changes as necessary, to make it a little easier to adapt?

DELAVIGNE: Absolutely. The screenwriter's job is, you know, making the invisible visible. A novel is not structured like a movie, so you have to give yourself liberty to really make changes for stuff that fits the cinema rather than fits the words on the page.

HOBSON: Well, I know we have some examples that I want to get to. But first of all, just help me understand - 15 different points of view in "As I Lay Dying." How in the world would you tackle something like that?

DELAVIGNE: Well, I'm not pursuing my Ph.D. in English from Yale, like James Franco, so I think he probably has a lot of insight - and a lot more intellect - to be able to grapple that total conundrum. But I do know that he's using like, split screen. So I think it's just going to be a real cinematic experiment.

HOBSON: Maybe that's what he was thinking about that night that he hosted the Oscars.

DELAVIGNE: Maybe that what - I'm sure that's entirely what he was thinking about.

HOBSON: Maybe that's what was distracting him. (Laughing) All right. Well, let's get to some of the movies that you think did a good job of this. We'll start with "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," which was written by Charlie Kaufman. It was based on the memoir of Chuck Barris, TV producer of "The Dating Game" and "The Gong Show," who was - also had claimed to moonlight as a CIA assassin. Let's listen to a scene from that.


GEORGE CLOONEY: (As Jim Byrd) As long as the mole's alive, you're a dead man.

SAM ROCKWELL: (As Chuck Barris) How do I know it's not you?

CLOONEY: (As Jim) You're a fairly bright guy, Chuck. You'll figure it out.

HOBSON: That was Sam Rockwell as Chuck Barris; George Clooney as Jim Byrd, a CIA agent who recruits Barris. Why do you think, Cami, that this adaptation works?

DELAVIGNE: For one thing, Kaufman and Clooney really took liberties with the book. The book is a really kind of fun ramble-fest, and you're kind of reading a guy's ego on the page. And it's a super, super fun read. But what they did, and what Charlie Kaufman is so good at, is making that male character who's disappointed in himself. And so it became this kind of very theatrical - also, really entertaining movie about sort of paranoia and disappointment. It became a lot more rich, to me. They really brought another layer to it that was very moving, for me.

HOBSON: Because you always hear people say - even when they see a movie that they love - oh, well, the book was better, though.

DELAVIGNE: Oh, sure. People say that all the time. But I think Kaufman is particularly so good at bringing to the movie kind of his experience of reading the book, which is just so inspiring, for me, as a screenwriter; to say that oh, you know what? That is kind of valid; that what I felt reading this book, or the alarm signals that went off in my head - the scenes that read for me, I can bring that to the cinema and let people kind of see my interpretation.

HOBSON: Well, let's get to a film that you say failed, and it's kind of a surprising choice because it was a really popular film - and book, by the way - "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," adapted by Steve Zaillian, and directed by David Fincher. It's based on the - of course, very popular Swedish novel. So in this scene from the movie - let's take a listen - Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara are hot on the trail of a disappearance.


DANIEL CRAIG: (As Mikael Blomkvist) What are you doing?

ROONEY MARA: (As Lisbeth Salander) Reading your notes.

CRAIG: (As Mikael) They're encrypted.

MARA: (As Lisbeth) Please. Have some coffee.

CRAIG: (As Mikael) OK. Then we're going to have a very serious conversation about what's yours, and what's mine.

MARA: (As Lisbeth) It's amazing what you figured out with the buried photos.

CRAIG: (As Mikael) Thank you.

MARA: (As Lisbeth) It's too bad you don't have hers.

HOBSON: So Cami DeLavigne, what didn't work in that film?

DELAVIGNE: Ah, it's so hard to say the word "failed" because it's like David Fincher. It's like - these are like, the superstars of Hollywood. For me, they basically just filmed the book and didn't bring that interpretation, or didn't bring those liberties; and it was actually, too accurate to the book.

HOBSON: So let's do one more adaptation that you think works - this one; we'll end on a positive note. It's from a long time ago; "Lolita," directed by Stanley Kubrick. It's based on the novel by Nabokov. And Nabokov and Kubrick wrote the screenplay. Set the scene up that we're going to be listening to.

DELAVIGNE: Oh, OK. So we're going to be listening to Peter Sellers talk to James Mason about Lolita. In fact, the sort of brilliance of this adaptation, for me, is the fact that - well, Peter Sellers is absolutely amazing, and a total genius comic actor in this. But he kind of takes the lead, almost, as the protagonist. So we're going to hear Peter Sellers as Clare Quilty.

HOBSON: Let's take a listen to that.


PETER SELLERS: (As Clare Quilty) May I say one other thing to you? It's really on my mind. I've been thinking about it quite a lot. I noticed when you was checking in, you had a lovely - pretty, little girl with you. She was really lovely. As a matter of fact, she wasn't so little, come to think of it. She was fairly tall. What I mean is, taller than little, you know what I mean? But she was really lovely. I wish I had a lovely, pretty, tall - lovely, little girl like that. I mean...

JAMES MASON: (As Professor Humbert Humbert) That little - that is my daughter.

SELLERS: (As Clare) Your daughter? Gee, isn't it great to have a lovely, tall, pretty, little, small daughter like that? It's really wonderful.

HOBSON: So what makes this novel difficult to adapt, and what makes this a good adaptation, do you think?

DELAVIGNE: OK. So what makes "Lolita" difficult is that there is this really obvious choice that you can make in adapting it. It has this really strong narration. It's Humbert talking about his whole life and his - and this problem that he's always had, of his love of girls age 9 to 14. I feel like in the hands of any other filmmaker, they would have taken that narration and just kind of strung it out in a very - sort of simple way. But what they did is, they turned this sort of gothic tale of like, lust and loneliness into - it's a very dark slapstick.

HOBSON: So you can't just leave the story alone. You have to bring something, you have to add something to it, to really be a successful adaptation.

DELAVIGNE: In my opinion. I mean, I'm a huge fan of auteur films. I love to see the director's personality on the screen. And so Kaufman and Kubrick, these are two writers that were able to bring their personality to the movies, and that is why I love them so much.

HOBSON: And you're working on an adapted screenplay right now.

DELAVIGNE: I'm going to be starting that soon, yeah.

HOBSON: And you think it's - you've got the idea in your head. You know how you're going to make it happen?

DELAVIGNE: I have an idea, and ask me in six months if it works. But it's also a memoir. So I think with "Lolita" and "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" - "Lolita" is written as a memoir. So these books are people who are being brutally honest. And so as a reader, you always have that sort of perspective of how honest are they being, or do I really trust what they're saying? And you get to like, read between the lines. It's all about reading between the lines. And so this is a memoir that I've read between the lines, and I think I have something interesting.

HOBSON: Cami DeLavigne is a screenwriter, talking to us about how complicated books can - or cannot - be made into great films. She recently co-wrote the screenplay for the critically acclaimed film "Blue Valentine." Cami, thanks so much for coming by.

DELAVIGNE: It was a pleasure being here. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.