Sunday, September 17, 2017

1952: The Bad and the Beautiful

Screenplay by Charles Schnee
Adapted from the story "Tribute to a Badman", aka "Memorial to a Bad Man", by George Bradshaw

Three people in the entertainment field reflect on why they despise a certain big-time producer. In spite of themselves, they begin to realize that much of their success is due, at least in part, to the horrible things he did to them.

This is definitely one of the less faithful adaptations to win this award. The theme of corruption in the entertainment industry and the question of the ends justifying the means are consistent, but otherwise the short story and the film are completely different. All of the names were changed, of course. The original story deals with Broadway people who came to Hollywood but intend to return to Broadway; the film deals only with Hollywood. In the story, the producer they all hate has died. On his death bed, he gave a letter to a fourth person who doesn't hate him quite as much, pointing out how much he helped them by pushing them away, and asking them to create a new stage show in his honor. In the film, he is not dead, but is no longer successful, and wants to jump-start his career by producing a new film that the people who hate him all work on. This creates some added conflict in the movie because not only are they supposed to comply with his wishes, but they also have to work directly with him again; whereas the short story people only have to face his memory, not the actual man. The way the producer wronged each of them is completely different, and in many ways seems significantly worse in the film, though perhaps that's merely because we actually see it play out in the film. In the story, people are telling abbreviated versions of their stories several years after the fact, which doesn't quite have the same impact as seeing the whole thing unfold on screen.

So despite the fact that in some ways the film seems like a completely different story from the original, I actually feel like this was a pretty good adaptation. It clearly drew inspiration from the short story without feeling confined by it, and the changes worked. The original story is interesting, but it's essentially just four people sitting in a room and talking, which would make for a pretty boring movie, so obviously it needed to be changed and expanded to become an engaging feature film. I think the filmmakers succeeded.

This story was originally published in the February 1951 issue of The Ladies' Home Journal, which I was able to order a copy of online, and I have to say that reading it in its original form was worth it for the old advertisements alone. It was originally published under the title "Memorial to a Bad Man," but I've seen it called "Tribute to a Badman" in other places, though I'm not quite sure why. But this one was much more fun to read than the previous year's winner.

Next up: Best Picture Winner From Here to Eternity, based on the novel by James Jones

Saturday, September 16, 2017

1951: A Place in the Sun

Screenplay by Harry Brown and Michael Wilson
Adapted from the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser and the play An American Tragedy by Patrick Kearney

A young man with a poor background moves to a new town to work in his rich uncle's factory. Ignored by his relatives who refuse to associate with him socially, he becomes lonely, which leads to a romantic involvement with another lower-class factory worker. When the high society people, including one beautiful woman in particular, start to pay attention to him, he starts neglecting his first girlfriend, preparing to eventually break up with her. Unfortunately, things don't quite work out.

Full disclosure: I did not read the play, so I can only compare the novel and the film. I'm a little curious as to how the play compares, but I'm so sick of this story that I couldn't bring myself to read it. Maybe someday. I think this is my second least favorite book I've read for this project so far (the interminable Emile Zola biography is still the low point). It's not necessarily a bad book; I just didn't like it. Honestly, I think I liked the movie better, although it still isn't my favorite.

In addition to changing the title, the film also gives all the main characters different names. Clyde Griffiths becomes George Eastman, and his rich uncle goes from owning a shirt collar factory to a bathing suit factory. The poor factory girl changes from Roberta Alden to Alice Tripp, and the high society girl changes from Sondra Finchley to Angela Vickers. I've noticed several adaptations so far in which the names where changed, and I still don't really understand why filmmakers do that. It seems to occur more in adaptations that are less faithful overall, so maybe the names are changed to warn devotees of the original stories not to expect the films to follow them too closely? I don't know. Regardless, this film departs significantly from the novel, but as far as I could tell most of the changes served one or more of the following purposes: to reduce the length, to make the protagonist more sympathetic, and/or to give Elizabeth Taylor a bigger role.

The novel is 856 pages and the film is just over 2 hours, so obviously things had to be cut. The entire first section of the book, when Clyde is a youth in Kansas City, is completely eliminated from the film. George mentions some of his background, which is fairly consistent with Clyde's background except that George's father is dead, and there's no mention of the terrible accident that caused Clyde, if not George, to leave Kansas City in the first place. The movie also cuts a lot of the filler parts of the book, which makes sense, but also makes it seem like everything happens much faster than it did in the book. There are a few lines that indicate that time has passed, but it's hard to tell how much. Overall, the cutting for time works, but it does eliminate a lot of the foreshadowing that the novel employs, which is unfortunate because the foreshadowing was one of the few things I liked about the book.

I don't want to spoil too much in case anyone's planning on reading or watching this at some point (again, it's not bad, I just didn't enjoy it), but I will say that Clyde/George gets accused of a serious crime. The thing about it is he was planning on committing this crime, and then changes his mind at the last second, but then it happens by accident anyway. This is true in both versions, but he is much more sympathetic in the movie. Clyde spends a lot more time planning it out and covering his tracks afterwards, and then, at the advice of his lawyers, lies at the trial to say he never planned it in the first place. George, however, barely has time to plan much of anything, and tells the truth at the trial. Also, Clyde seemed to have more of a way out without committing this crime than George did. The reader is clearly supposed to sympathize with Clyde, and in a way I kind of did by the end, but mostly I was like, "It's your own fault, you jerk." I felt a little bit like that toward George as well, but definitely less so, which I think is part of the reason I liked the movie better.

Finally, there's the character of the high society girl. She's not actually in very much of the book, so when I heard that Elizabeth Taylor was playing her I was a bit confused, since I don't generally think of her playing such small roles. So I was not incredibly surprised that her character was significantly more important in the film. Angela and George's romance is much more developed and committed than Clyde and Sondra's, which again makes George more sympathetic than Clyde. Sondra pretty much disappears from the book after Clyde is arrested, whereas we see some of Angela's reactions to the trial. Not that Sondra isn't sympathetic, since it's clear that none of what happens is her fault, but one can't help liking Angela more.

I don't mean to imply that the film completely whitewashes the story. It still touches on many of the dark issues portrayed in the book, if significantly less explicitly (not surprising for 1951 Hollywood). But I'm kind of curious how I would have reacted to the film if I'd watched it without having read the book. I couldn't feel too bad for George because I hated Clyde so much, but maybe if I hadn't known how he acted in the book, I might have liked him in the film. Who knows? Mostly I'm just very glad to be through this so I can move forward with this project.

Fortunately, the next winner was based on a short story, so I'll have a brief respite before the next long novel. So stay tuned for The Bad and the Beautiful, based on the story "Tribute to a Badman" by George Bradshaw.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

1950: All About Eve

Screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Adapted from the short story "The Wisdom of Eve" by Mary Orr

An aging Broadway star takes a seemingly naive and devoted young fan under her wing, but everything is not as it seems.

This Best Picture Winner set the record for most Oscar nominations with 14, which was tied in 1997 and again in 2016, but has still never been surpassed. It is one of the most highly acclaimed films in Hollywood history, yet the short story upon which it is based is all but unknown. Mary Orr wasn't even given screen credit for the original story. The only way I was able to read it was in an anthology called Adaptations: From Short Story to Big Screen by Stephanie Harrison, where it is stuck in a section entitled "Five All-But-Lost Stories." This seems strangely appropriate for a story about a young actress trying to push an established star out of the way. But I don't want to judge Mankiewicz too harshly for this because he really did a tremendous job of fleshing out and expanding a short story into a long but riveting feature film.

As is often the case, many of the characters' names were changed between page and screen. Margola Cranston became Margo Channing, her husband Clement Howell became her boyfriend Bill Simpson, and her maid Alice became her maid Sadie. Eve Harrington and Lloyd Richards kept their names. Addison DeWitt, who features prominently in the film (brought to life by a delightfully diabolical Oscar-winning performance from George Sanders), is not in the original story at all. Most of the witty dialogue the film is famous for was not in the original (no "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night" in the short story). But perhaps the most striking alteration is the change of perspective.

Both versions start with a successful Eve on her way to Hollywood and then go back in time, but where and how they go back is significantly different. The short story is told in first person, from a character who isn't named, though she's identified as Mrs. Lloyd Richards, so we know she's the equivalent of Karen in the movie. The short story's flashback begins with the narrator seeing Eve and having no idea who she is until Margola tells her most of the story. When Mrs. Richards jumps in, Eve has had her moment in the spotlight, but been pushed aside, and now is begging Margola to help her again. With good reason, Margola refuses, but Mrs. Richards convinces her husband the playwright to put Eve in his new show, and she becomes an even greater success and manages to break up the Richardses' marriage in the process. The movie's flashback, however, starts with Karen introducing Eve to Margo, so both Karen and the audience see Eve's scheming and manipulation as it's playing out, rather than being told about it after the fact. There is quite a bit of off-screen narration, and some of it is from Karen, but Addison and Margo also contribute. Eve does try to break up Karen and Lloyd's marriage in the movie, but does not succeed because of Addison. Karen does help Eve, but it's when she's on her way up, before Karen knows her true nature, not when she seems to be on her way down as in the original story. Eve's star is never shown to fade in the film, but it is promised to do so with the beautiful, profound, and highly disturbing Phoebe-in-the-infinite-mirrors scene, which I won't elaborate on because if you've seen the movie you know what I'm talking about, and if you haven't you need to. Anyway, my point is the original story is intriguing, but I think the film tells it better than the short story does.

Up next: A Place in the Sun, based on the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, which is over 850 pages long, so you probably won't see me for a while. But I'm sure I'll be back someday.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

1949: A Letter to Three Wives

Screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Adapted from the novel Letter to Five Wives by John Klempner

A group of friends gathers, expecting its not-very-secretly despised final member. Instead of her presence, they receive a letter indicating that she is running away with one of their husbands, not specifying which one. The remaining women spend the entire day reflecting on their marriages and wondering.

This is a difficult adaptation to evaluate because the book and the movie are so incredibly different, yet both are, if not good, certainly well done. I didn't particularly like the story, and resented many of its implications about women, but it was intriguing and very well-executed in both versions, despite their many differences. The five wives in the book are Deborah, Gerry, Lora May, Martha, and Rita. Gerry and Martha are eliminated from the movie entirely, and the other three are altered so much that they're barely recognizable. In both versions, Rita's a writer, Lora May married her boss, and Deborah doesn't understand what her husband ever saw in her, but most of the details of their lives are completely different. The husband thief's name changes from Addie Joss to Addie Ross, and though I don't want to spoil anything I feel I have to mention that she steals a different woman's husband in the movie than she does in the book. In both versions, Addie is constantly mentioned, but we don't really see her. However, parts of the movie are narrated by Addie, which I thought was a very interesting choice by the filmmakers, and one that worked surprisingly well.

Both the book and the movie switch back and forth between the present and past as the wives reflect, but even the way they do that is different. The book's flashbacks focus on one small incident at a time, so each wife has several flashback sections, with those of other wives in between. The movie gives each wife one big flashback section that tells her entire story. I don't think one way is better than the other: the way the book does it increases the suspense, but the movie's way is definitely less confusing; I kept getting the characters in the book mixed up at first. But by the end of the book I felt like I knew all the wives, whereas in the movie by the time the third wife's flashback was finished, I'd almost forgotten about the first. If they had tried to do one big flashback at a time with five, the movie would have been ridiculously long and no one would remember the first one by the end. The film's flashback format definitely works better for fewer characters.

In general, the changes are such that the reduction from five to three wives is almost completely seamless. If one didn't know that there were originally five, I doubt one would suspect that anybody was missing (sorry Gerry and Martha). There is one part of the film when Rita is talking to Lora May and says something like, "You're just as scared as the rest of us," which seemed a little strange because you don't usually say "the rest of us" when you're talking about yourself and one other person, but that was the only remnant of the two eliminated wives that I noticed. Maybe it was there intentionally to pay tribute to them. Or maybe I'm thinking way too hard about this. Not that that's something I'd ever do.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz also directed this film, and won the Best Director Oscar for it as well. The following year he also won both Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, becoming the first person to win a second adapted screenplay Oscar. This was, of course, for the Best Picture winning (and depending on whom you ask, possibly should have been Best Actress winning) All About Eve, based on the short story "The Wisdom of Eve" by Mary Orr.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

1948: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Screenplay by John Huston
Adapted from the novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre by B. Traven

Two young, down-and-out Americans join up with an old, experienced prospector to mine for gold in Mexico and discover that it's a far more difficult and complicated job than they had anticipated.

I had seen this movie before, but literally the only thing I remembered about it was the famous line about "stinking badges". Unlike the movie Casablanca, which originated most of its iconic lines, the stinking badges part was, in fact, taken from the book, although the language in the rest of the sentence was toned down a bit in the movie. In fact, apart from a couple notable exceptions, my overall impression is that the movie was very consistent with the book, except that it eliminated most of the swearing. But this was 1948, so that shouldn't surprise anyone.

The book is quite good, but I think most of the changes the film made actually enhanced the story. There are several characters in the book who are described in great detail and then disappear after about a chapter, and the film combines some of them, which results in stronger characters and ties everything together nicely. A couple of Curtin's important moments are given to Dobbs in the film, which I initially thought was because Dobbs is played by Humphrey Bogart and they wanted to feature him more, but after watching further I realized a later character change wouldn't have made sense if they hadn't substituted Dobbs for Curtin earlier. The film eliminates several sections of the book, but none of them were essential to the story. And the parts of the story that didn't change were pretty much flawlessly transitioned to the screen: in particular, Walter Huston acts exactly as Howard is described in the book, and the way the other two become gradually more and more disillusioned and less and less sane is portrayed beautifully, and much more concisely, on screen. I'm tempted to say that the movie is actually better than the book, which was no mean feat, so I salute screenwriter John Huston, who also directed and had a cameo in the film.

The one change I objected to was regarding the man who unexpectedly joins the trio at their camp. For some reason, the film changed his name from Lacaud to Cody and added a rather unnecessary backstory. Also, spoiler alert, in the movie he gets killed by bandits, whereas in the book he lives.  I guess they did this so Curtin has something to do at the end (go to comfort Cody's widow), but it kind of felt like they just wanted to increase the violence, which certainly was not needed. But otherwise, it's an extraordinary adaptation, and one of the most well-deserved winners of this Oscar so far.

The next winner was A Letter to Three Wives, based on the novel Letter to Five Wives by John Klempner, so stay tuned to find out what happened to two of the wives.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

1947: Miracle on 34th Street

Screenplay by George Seaton
Adapted from a story by Valentine Davis

After a painful divorce, Doris Walker wants to do everything in her power to keep her daughter, Susan, from facing the same bitter disappointment by teaching her not to believe in things that aren't real, including fairy tales, games of make-believe, and especially Santa Claus. Naturally, when the nice old man Doris has hired to play Santa Claus at Macy's, Kris Kringle, claims to actually be Santa Claus, Doris thinks he is insane, but he has been so successful at spreading the Christmas spirit that even Susan begins to believe in him, and Doris herself may be forced to face the fact that some things are worth believing in even when common sense says otherwise.

This is a rather unorthodox Best Adapted Screenplay winner in that the book and the film were released around the same time. Valentine Davis came up with the story, then George Seaton wrote and directed the film, and only then did Davis put in into book form. Consequently, the book was influenced by the screenplay, which makes it seem rather odd that it was eligible for this award in the first place. But I guess since the screenwriter didn't come up with the story himself, it couldn't be considered an original screenplay, so it kind of makes sense to put it in this category. I wasn't sure if I should skip it like I did with Going My Way, since the screenplay wasn't based on a published work, but since this story was published in book form eventually, I decided to read it.

Once I found out that the book was written after the screenplay, I was expecting them to be pretty much exactly the same, but that wasn't actually the case. Granted, they are very similar, but the book shows more from Kris Kringle's perspective, whereas the movie makes him a little more mysterious. The book starts with Kris being kicked out of the retirement home he lives in because of his so-called delusion, and he stays with his zookeeper friend (who is amazed by Kris's rapport with reindeer) until he moves in with Fred (Doris's neighbor who later becomes Kris's lawyer). The movie also starts with Kris, but it just shows him walking up to the parade as it's lining up, without giving the audience any backstory until much later. Incidentally, the zookeeper friend doesn't exist in the movie, and Kris doesn't have to move out of the retirement home; he just moves in with Fred to be closer to work.

In the book, Kris is directly responsible for Fred and Doris becoming more than friends, whereas in the movie, he encourages Fred, but plays a much less active matchmaking role. In addition, the circumstances under which Kris ends up on trial in each version are similar, but the details of how they came about are considerably different. But apart from these and a few other minor discrepancies, the story, including most of the dialogue, is essentially the same. Somehow, the movie ended up significantly less cheesy than the book, which isn't saying much, but is still a desirable achievement.

Side note: 8-year-old Natalie Wood is adorable and talented and utterly convincing and probably should have at least been nominated for Best Supporting Actress, but nobody asked me.

Next up: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, based on the novel by B. Traven

Sunday, July 16, 2017

1946: The Best Years of Our Lives

Screenplay by Robert Sherwood
Adapted from the novel Glory for Me by MacKinlay Kantor

This is the story of Al, Fred, and Homer, three men returning home from World War II to the same town, and their struggle to return to normalcy after the horrors of war.

This movie won Best Picture, and I'd watched it several times before, so I was curious to see how the book compared. I was surprised to find that it was written in blank verse, since, though I think this is a very good movie, I would never have described it as "poetic". Overall, I wasn't a huge fan of the verse style of the book. It worked really well in a few sections, but mostly I thought it was awkward and borderline cheesy. But it still managed to tell a story compelling enough to turn into a movie, albeit with several significant alterations.

One of the biggest differences is the way Homer was wounded. In the book, Homer has spasticity on his left side, which causes difficulty walking, speaking clearly, and using his left arm. The effects are counteracted by alcohol, so he begins drinking heavily upon his return, and begins spiraling downward until he eventually tries to kill himself. In the movie, Homer lost both his hands, so he uses hooks, and has no trouble walking or speaking. I believe this change was mostly due to the fact that Harold Russell actually lost his hands, and the producers saw him in a war documentary and wanted him to play the role of Homer. The movie also eliminates Homer's alcoholism and attempted suicide, but its portrayal of the struggles of a wounded veteran and his loved ones are otherwise fairly consistent with the book's. In general, I've been finding that the adapted films are significantly less dark than their original counterparts, so seeing many of the darker aspects of Homer's story eliminated or modified wasn't really surprising.

Similarly, Al and Fred each had dark moments in the book that were omitted from the movie. Book Al loses his job after yelling at a customer; movie Al has trouble adjusting to his civilian job but still works there at the end. Both versions of Fred lose their job, but book Fred becomes so desperate for money that he almost robs a bank, whereas movie Fred does no such thing. However, there is one significant instance in which this pattern is reversed, and the movie is actually darker - or at least more scandalous - than the book. In both versions, Fred got married only a few days before going overseas to someone he barely knew, and they end up separating after he finds another man in their apartment with her. In the book, this happens as soon as Fred returns home, so his wife isn't very important at all, but in the movie, they don't separate until towards the end. Again in both versions Fred falls for Al's daughter, Peggy, but in the book he's already left his wife before anything happens between them, whereas in the movie they kind of start having a thing while he's still living with his wife. Peggy even announces her determination to break up Fred's marriage to her parents, which leads to a fight between Al and Fred that never happened in the book. I'm not entirely sure why this change was made. Perhaps making this storyline more dramatic was meant to make up for toning down some of the other drama. Or maybe they just wanted an excuse to flesh out the character of Fred's wife. Who knows?

Coming up next: Miracle on 34th Street, based on a story by Valentine Davis