Saturday, July 14, 2018

1982: Missing

Screenplay by Costa-Gavras and Donald E. Stewart
Adapted from the book The Execution of Charles Horman: An American Sacrifice (aka Missing) by Thomas Hauser

In the aftermath of the Chilean military coup of 1973, American Charles Horman disappears. Several neighbors claim to have seen him arrested by soldiers. His wife and friend enlist the help of people at the American Embassy and Consulate, who are remarkably, even suspiciously, unhelpful. After weeks of little progress, Charles's father travels to Chile to aid in the search. Before long, Ed Horman begins to share his daughter-in-law's growing suspicions that the American government had a lot to do not only with the coup, but also with Charles's disappearance.

I'm glad I read the book before seeing the movie, because I'm not sure I would have fully understood all the implications of the story by just watching it. The book gives a lot of historical background of the events leading up to the coup, whereas the movie focuses mostly on Charles Horman's story. I understand why they made the movie this way, as I think it would have been difficult to show a lot of the other information presented in the book, but as someone extremely unfamiliar with Chilean history or politics, I found the additional context quite helpful. Overall, though, I thought the film did a pretty good job of conveying the political and social turmoil without going into all the specifics. It presents a few examples of the kinds of things that were going on through the eyes of the main characters, rather than deviating from their story as the book does, which I think worked well.

The change that kind of annoyed me, although I can still see why they did it, was the added conflict between Charles's wife and father. His wife is completely different, even down to her name (it was Joyce in the book and Beth in the film). She's significantly more blunt and sassy in the movie. In both versions, she's upset and determined to find her husband, but in the book she's not quite as angry and anti-establishment as she's portrayed onscreen. Charles's father is named Ed in both versions, but he's a lot meaner to Charles's wife in the movie. The book mentions that Charles and Ed didn't always get along or agree, but their relationship was in a pretty good place when Charles disappeared. In the book, Ed makes it clear that he didn't think much of his son's life choices, and is very rude to Beth about it. I don't remember book Ed ever being deliberately mean to Joyce, but film Ed makes it clear to Beth that he thinks she and Charles brought this on themselves, at least initially. He repeatedly calls her out for being "paranoid" when she expresses suspicion of the Ambassador and Consul, which is something else I don't remember from the book. Of course, I get why the screenwriters added this, since the tension between Beth and Ed makes for a more interesting, dramatic story, and their eventual reconciliation offsets some of the tragedy of what they eventually learn. I was just kind of annoyed because it seems a little insulting to imply that Charles's loved ones spent more time fighting with each other than trying to find him. I noticed that the film also changed the names of most of the American officials they encountered in Chile, which I assumed was because they're portrayed in a fairly uncomplimentary light. I thought maybe Charles's wife's name was changed to protect her privacy, but it could also be partly because they changed her character so much, and not for the better, that they wanted to emphasize that it wasn't really her.

We may never know the full story of what happened to Charles Horman. Most of the evidence remains classified for "national security reasons". This, along with everything his father and wife went through to find out where he was, seems to support the tragic theory that his execution was ordered, or at least approved, by the American government because he "knew too much" about America's involvement in the Chilean coup. The one consolation is that this story is allowed to be told. I don't think enough people have heard this story, but the fact that in the U.S. people are allowed to publish books and make movies accusing their own government of war crimes is, in my opinion, one of the best things about this country. If only we would stop supporting and even bringing about governments in other countries who arrest, torture, and kill people for owning the "wrong" books (which is what happened in Chile), that would be great.

Up next: Terms of Endearment, which will be the 25th film on both this and my Best Picture blog, the 10th to win both Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress, and the 5th to make it on all three of my Oscar blogs.

Friday, July 6, 2018

1981: On Golden Pond

Screenplay by Ernest Thompson
Adapted from the play On Golden Pond by Ernest Thompson

Norman and Ethel Thayer plan to spend another quiet, uneventful season at their summer home on Golden Pond, until their estranged daughter, Chelsea, turns up with a new boyfriend and asks them to watch his 13-year-old son for a month. Grumpy, prickly 80-year-old Norman forms a surprising bond with the young boy, who helps him regain an appreciation for what he has in life.

Act One of the play is almost exactly the same as the movie. A few lines here and there were slightly changed, eliminated, or added, and there were a couple more scene changes, but overall, from the beginning until Chelsea and Bill leave for Europe, the adaptation is quite consistent. I did note that probably the most famous line in the movie, when Ethel calls Norman her "knight in shining armor," wasn't actually in the play, but the lines leading up to it were. However, Act Two was changed significantly for the screen. Given that the playwright wrote the screenplay, I was rather surprised by just how different the two versions ended up. Granted, several of the lines from the second half of the play do make their way into the film, and the general message is the same, but the film made some major additions that I think greatly enhanced the story.

The character of the boy, Billy, is much better developed in the movie. He doesn't really do that much in the play after he's left with the Thayers, but in the film he pouts for a while and makes it clear that he doesn't want to be there. Eventually, however, Norman starts growing on him just as he starts growing on Norman. The movie adds a whole storyline about a giant trout that Norman has been trying to catch for years. Billy gets really into helping Norman look for this fish, and it contributes significantly to the development of their relationship. It's such a big part of the film that, since I had seen it before, I could hardly believe that nothing about this was even mentioned in the play. I guess it helped that they could actually film on the water, whereas in the play they could only talk about fishing after the fact, so the movie lent itself to more happening on their fishing trips. Still, this addition, and others that similarly contributed to the Billy/Norman relationship, definitely improved the story.

I'm not saying that the play was bad, but the movie was unquestionably better. It kind of reminded me of 1955's winner, Marty, in that the adaptation felt like a later draft of the original script. In this screenplay, Ernest Thompson strengthened the main weakness of his play: namely, Billy was underdeveloped as a character and underutilized in the story. And the result was definitely Oscar-worthy.

Coming up next: Missing, based on a book by Thomas Hauser that was originally called The Execution of Charles Horman: An American Sacrifice, but the title was later changed to Missing.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

1980: Ordinary People

Screenplay by Alvin Sargent
Adapted from the novel Ordinary People by Judith Guest

The Jarretts were once a relatively ordinary, if privileged, family, but not anymore. First, the older son drowned in a boating accident. Then, racked with guilt, surviving son Conrad attempted to take his own life. Now, Conrad has returned from the mental hospital and is back in school, trying to pretend everything is okay and that he isn't depressed anymore so his father doesn't have to worry about him. But Calvin Jarrett does worry about his son, and tries everything he can think of to relieve his pain. His wife Beth, on the other hand, tries to pretend that nothing has happened, but treats her son with cold civility. With the help of a psychiatrist, Conrad begins to emerge from his haze of suppressed feelings and remember what it feels like to be a person again.

I think this adaptation is probably one of the best to win this award. The characters are completely consistent with the novel's descriptions. Several details of the story were altered, but none of the changes ruined the tone or the big picture. The novel switches back and forth between Calvin and Conrad's perspectives more than the film, which is mostly focused on Conrad, but the film's audience is never in any doubt about how Calvin feels or what his role in the family is. Pretty much the only real changes that made significant differences have to do with Conrad's relationship with Jeannine, which progresses a lot further in the book than in the movie, but the story is really about Conrad's family rather than his love life, so I feel like the decision to sacrifice some of the romance to focus more on the family drama was a wise one.

One wouldn't think that the book would lend itself to a movie very well, since so much of it consists of descriptions of characters' thoughts, but this movie does a brilliant job of showing and telling these thoughts to the audience. Conrad has more conversations with his psychiatrist in the movie than the book, but most of the added ones are about things that Conrad thought and did in the book when he was alone. In this way, the extra therapy sessions weren't really additions so much as a different way of conveying the same information that was better suited to the medium of film. Most adaptations do this to a certain extent, but rarely is it done this well.

This doesn't really have anything to do with the adapted screenplay, but I have to add that the acting in this movie is incredible. As good as the script is, so much of it is about people fighting for control over their emotions that the acting is crucial to whether it works or not. And everybody nailed it. Seriously. I would have given all four of the main actors Oscars. As it was, only Timothy Hutton won, which, if only one of them could have, was the right decision, although how anybody could call his role "supporting" I don't understand. I guess it was just because he was so young. Anyway, there's not a lot of action in this movie, but it's one of the most genuine, raw stories about pain and depression I've ever seen, and certainly one of the best film adaptations of a book I've read.

Next up: On Golden Pond, for which Katharine Hepburn won her fourth and final Best Actress Oscar, based on the play by Ernest Thompson

Sunday, June 17, 2018

1979: Kramer vs. Kramer

Screenplay by Robert Benton
Adapted from the novel Kramer versus Kramer by Avery Corman

Ted Kramer is quite satisfied with his life. He has a decent job that he's good at, he lives in a nice apartment in New York City with his beautiful wife, Joanna, who stays home to run the house and care for their young son, Billy. But one day Ted comes home to discover that Joanna, extraordinarily unhappy with her life, has packed and is leaving both him and Billy. It takes major effort, but eventually, Ted begins to adjust to his new role as a single father. But not long after Ted and Billy have finally gotten used to life without her, Joanna returns to sue for custody.

This is one of those adaptations in which the premise and the main characters are basically the same, but most of the details are different. The novel starts further back than the film, giving the background of how Ted and Joanna met, the early years of their marriage, Billy's birth, and Joanna's growing frustrations with being a stay-at-home mother. All of this is merely implied or briefly alluded to in the movie, which begins with the day Joanna packs. Initially, I thought this made Joanna more sympathetic in the book, since readers get a better understanding of why she leaves. But when Joanna comes back in the book she seems very cold, and even though she's grown a little bit, she's still incredibly self-centered. In the movie she seems more warm and genuine in her reasons for returning. Part of this might be Meryl Streep's incredible gift for making even the most despicable characters somehow sympathetic, but in addition to that, the things she says and does at the very end were drastically different, and made her seem like a much better person in the movie than the book. I don't want to spoil too much, but suffice it to say that while Joanna essentially makes the same decision in both versions, her motivation is significantly different. In the book, she is still clearly thinking of herself first, whereas in the movie she's thinking of what's best for Billy.

One change that might seem minor but had a major impact is the movie made Billy two years older than he was in the book. That doesn't sound like much, but in the book Billy was still in pre-school when his mother abandoned him, whereas in the movie he was in first grade. In the book, Billy is young enough that, while he clearly misses his mother, he accepts her absence as just the way things are. Movie Billy is enough older than book Billy that not only is he more disturbed by her abandonment, but he also believes he has something to do with it, which does not really occur to book Billy. This age change also means that Billy is already in school all day every weekday in the movie, whereas he's not in the book, so book Ted hires a housekeeper, which film Ted doesn't ever have a need for.

In addition to the housekeeper, the book shows a lot of other adults in Ted's life, like his parents, brother, in-laws, friends, and women he dates, who are eliminated from the film. The movie pretty much only keeps Ted's boss, one girlfriend (because Billy encountering a naked stranger on his way to the bathroom and asking if she liked fried chicken was apparently too priceless to cut out), and a neighbor friend who is a single mother (although her name and specific circumstances are changed). By getting rid of a bunch of extra characters, the movie has more time to focus on Ted and Billy themselves and less on what everyone thinks of them, which I feel was a good decision, especially since Billy was a little older. Most of the major events of the book made their way into the film, albeit with slightly different details, but the minor incidents were changed to accommodate this shift in focus. In the same vein, Ted loses his job right before the custody hearing in both versions (and manages to quickly get a new one for significantly less pay), but in the book it's because the company he's working for has been bought out and everyone's being laid off, which also happened earlier with a different company he worked for. The book makes it clear that losing his job was not even remotely his fault, which makes it completely unfair that they use it against him at the hearing. In the movie, he has the same job until just before the hearing, and now he's being let go because his work has been suffering while he's preoccupied with Billy. Overall, Billy is a more important character in the movie than the book, and I think the story is told more effectively that way. The book is good, but the film is better, so this Oscar was thoroughly deserved.

This Best Picture Winner will be followed by another Best Picture Winner: Ordinary People, based on the novel by Judith Guest.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

1978: Midnight Express

Screenplay by Oliver Stone
Adapted from the book Midnight Express by Billy Hayes, with William Hoffer

College dropout Billy Hayes is traveling the world trying to find himself. Instead, he finds some very inexpensive hashish in Turkey, so he decides to smuggle a couple kilograms back to New York, where he knows he'll be able to make a significant profit. Unfortunately, Turkish airport security has just been heightened due to terrorist threats, and the Turkish justice system is extremely harsh on drug smugglers.

This is a true story, and the book is written in first person by the guy it happened to, but the movie is only vaguely recognizable as the same story. The beginning, when he's arrested and first goes to prison, is admittedly very similar, although many of those details are changed, and there are a few later episodes that happen in both versions, but as the story progresses, the two stories diverge significantly. Most of the characters have their names changed, and a lot of the characters in the film are amalgams of several people from the book. I wonder if there are more restrictions on portraying actual people on film than in books, since it seems like similar character changes have happened with other true stories, especially regarding people who are not being shown in the most positive light. But while the character changes in Midnight Express were notable, they were far from the most significant differences.

Movies frequently make things more dramatic than the books they're based on, and that certainly happened here. In the book, Billy effectively conveys how much he suffered - from being in prison, from torture, and from uncertainty about his changing sentence - while at the same time describing coping mechanisms he developed to remain relatively sane through it all. In the movie, by contrast, he goes berserk and bites someone's tongue out, ending up in a ward for the criminally insane, which I guess is in the same prison because one of the same guards is there. In the book he does spend some time in an insane asylum, but it's at a different facility and happens way earlier, and he's just there temporarily for observation. The guards in the book conclude he's not insane and send him back to prison. Also, not to spoil too much, but the circumstances of Billy's escape are completely different in the two versions. The book gives the impression that he could possibly have gotten by without escaping, whereas in the movie his situation was so much worse that if he hadn't escaped he clearly would have died in jail. However, unexpectedly, the movie cuts out probably the most intense part of the book, since after he escapes from prison he still has to get out of Turkey with very little money and no passport. The movie just ends with him walking out of prison and words across the screen saying he crossed into Greece on this date and made it back to New York a couple weeks later; the book actually takes us through how he did that.

Despite their many differences, both the book and the movie have the same very clear message: Whatever you do, don't try to smuggle drugs out of Turkey.

After 3 films in a row I hadn't blogged about before, I'm heading for another string of repeats, beginning with Best Picture winner Kramer vs. Kramer, based on the novel by Avery Corman.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

1977: Julia

Screenplay by Alvin Sargent
Adapted from the book Pentimento by Lillian Hellman

Playwright Lillian Hellman undertakes a risky mission in Nazi Germany at the behest of her childhood friend Julia.

This is an unusual adaptation because the book recounts several unrelated stories from Lillian Hellman's past, while the movie only focuses on one. So it's not really an adaptation of the book; it's an adaptation of the chapter called "Julia". Apparently there is some question about whether the Julia story actually happened, and if it did, whether it truly happened to Lillian Hellman, but it is nevertheless an intriguing story that makes for a fascinating movie.

Apart from a few minor alterations, the film is very consistent with the book, both in the story itself and in the way it's told. Both the book and the movie jump around in time a little bit, to introduce minor characters as they become relevant. The film's voice-overs from a more mature Lillian looking back on these events reflect how she narrates the book. The cast is flawless, perfectly bringing to life the characters described on the page. The "Julia" chapter was definitely my favorite part of the book (the rest of it was kind of irritating, to be honest), but I think the movie was even better. It was sometimes difficult for me to imagine people reacting to events the way they were described in the book, and not only did the film portray these reactions; it made them seem perfectly natural, not remotely over-the-top or forced as they easily could have been.

In short, I'm not sure how I feel about this book, but I thought the movie was extremely well done. I had never watched it before, and now I'm kind of angry that I had to watch Annie Hall the last two times I blogged about 1977 winners, since this movie was also nominated for Best Picture and Best Actress, and in my opinion deserved them both way more. One piece of trivia that I find interesting and probably no one else will is that Lillian Hellman was nominated for this award for her 1941 adaptation of her own play, The Little Foxes. That movie was nominated for nine Oscars without winning any, setting a shutout record that was not broken until 1977's The Turning Point lost out on all 11 of its nominations, the same year that an adaptation of Lillian Hellman's memoir won multiple Oscars. Coincidence, or bizarre conspiracy? Another random piece of trivia is that Julia was the film debut of some actress called Meryl Streep, who has since managed to accrue an unprecedented 21 acting Oscar nominations, and counting.

Stay tuned for Midnight Express based on the book by Billy Hayes and William Hoffer.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

1976: All the President's Men

Screenplay by William Goldman
Adapted from the book All the President's Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

When five men are caught breaking into Democratic National headquarters at Watergate, the Washington Post assigns Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward to cover the story. The two notice fairly early on that there seems to be more to this than meets the eye, especially since everyone they try to interview is extremely reluctant to talk to them, but they have no idea what they're about to uncover.

This book was originally published two months before Nixon resigned, and the movie came out two years later, so the intended audience presumably knew a lot more about Watergate than I do, as someone who was not born at the time. However, as both point out, the American public in general didn't have a lot of interest in the story while it was unfolding, so much is explained, and apart from not being very familiar with many of the people mentioned, I didn't feel like I was missing too much. Since the book was written by the actual reporters who uncovered the story, I'm assuming it was fairly accurate, if slightly biased. The movie was a relatively faithful adaptation, though it did cut out some details. For the most part, this didn't detract from the story, but I think the end suffered. The book effectively portrays the noose tightening around members of the White House staff until they are ultimately brought to trial, while the movie skips straight from, "Oops, we aimed too high and our whole investigation is set back" to "Now they're all going to jail". I would have liked to see a little more in between there. It kind of seemed like the filmmakers thought the movie was getting too long and they needed to end it.

On the other hand, I really liked how the movie shifted focus slightly away from Bernstein and Woodward toward the events themselves. The reporters are still very much the main characters, but the book starts with them finding out about the break-in, whereas the movie starts by showing the break-in itself. I appreciated the way the film added actual footage throughout, reminding the audience that yes, this truly happened. Otherwise, apart from skipping through the denouement and omitting some of the interviews and other small details, the movie is very similar to the book, and I think overall it was a good adaptation.

I have to say that it was kind of weird to read and watch this now. I often found myself wondering what the big deal was, since many of the illicit activities that Watergate exposed seem very slight compared to what the current administration is being investigated for. Also, Nixon's men were constantly accusing the Washington Post of inventing stories to make them look bad, and while they didn't exactly use the term "fake news," that was essentially what they meant. I suppose before long we're going to get some award-winning books and movies about whatever this is, and then in 40 years some young person is going to read and watch them and wonder what the big deal is compared to what's going on then. And now I'm sad.

Anyway, next up is Julia, based on the book Pentimento by Lillian Hellman

P.S. I recently updated my Best Actress and Best Picture blogs with last year's winners, so check those out if you want.