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

Saturday, July 8, 2017

1945: The Lost Weekend

Screenplay by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder
Adapted from the novel The Lost Weekend by Charles R. Jackson

Don Birnam is supposed to go away with his brother for a nice, long weekend in the country, but he worms his way out of it and instead spends the whole weekend on an alcoholic binge.

While the book is written in third person, it mostly consists of Don's thoughts, memories, and delusions. It would be inaccurate to claim that nothing happens in the book, because there are various episodes of action between the introspective passages, but nothing particularly special happens in the book. It's implied that Don has had many weekends like this in the past, and that he plans to have more like it in the future. Nothing is gained, and all that is lost is a few more days to add to the long list of days Don Birnam has lost to alcohol. The film, as usual, makes the stakes much higher, and provides a much more satisfying ending. The character of Helen, Don's sort-of girlfriend, is much more developed and significantly different. Book Helen is already pretty much done with Don, but she still takes care of him when he's drunk because she feels bad for him and still loves him in spite of herself. Movie Helen is just getting to the point where she's done with Don, but she plans to cut him out of her life altogether, until she realizes that he's about to kill himself. In the book, by the time Don becomes suicidal he has literally no energy left, so he can't do anything about it, but in the film he actually goes far enough to get a gun and write a note before Helen convinces him that he could write a great novel if he stops drinking long enough. It's up to the audience to decide whether to believe that he'll actually stop drinking, but at least the film presents that as his intention. The book, on the other hand, ends with Don hiding bottles around the house, then sitting back to wait for his brother to return, satisfied that he made it through this particular weekend, wondering why people make such a big deal out of his binges. There are other differences between the two versions, but it mostly boils down to this: in the book, Don drinks a lot more and learns a lot less than he does in the movie.

When I wrote about this movie on my Best Picture blog almost seven years ago (has it really been that long?) I talked about how impressed I was at its departure from the typical Hollywood portrayal of alcohol and alcoholics. This is definitely a valid observation, but the book makes the movie seem remarkably tame, idealistic, and even glamorous by comparison. The book is so extremely dark and gritty - not to mention rather risque - that I don't think anyone would have wanted to see a direct adaptation on screen, especially in 1945. The screenwriters - who were also the producer and director - did a remarkable job of making something that was barely readable (because the story was so painful, not because it was poorly-written by any means) actually watchable, managing to clean up the story and tie it together without going as far as sugarcoating it, so I feel that they thoroughly earned this Oscar.

Next up is yet another Best Picture winner, The Best Years of Our Lives, based on the novel Glory for Me by MacKinlay Kantor, after which there will thankfully be three non-Best Picture winners in a row. Nothing against Best Picture winners, but it will be nice to have a little more variety.

Friday, June 30, 2017

1943: Casablanca

Screenplay by Philip G. Epstein, Julius J. Epstein, and Howard Koch
Adapted from the play Everybody Comes to Rick's by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison

Rick owns an American cafe in Casablanca, which is a major stopping point for European refugees on their way to America during World War II. He pretty much keeps to himself, successfully avoiding both love and war-time politics until a woman from his past suddenly shows up with well-known anti-Nazi Victor Laszlo.

I'm noticing some definite trends when plays are adapted to movies, and this is no exception. The most obvious one is location changes. Everybody Comes to Rick's takes place entirely in one section of the cafe. While Casablanca is mostly set at Rick's, we see many different areas within the cafe, and characters leave it not infrequently, and then, of course, there's the Paris flashback, which is shown in the movie but only discussed in the play. Some of the characters tend to change names in adaptations from stage to screen: in this case, Victor Laszlo's wife is Lois in the play and Ilsa in the film, and the prefect of police is Luis Rinaldo in the play and Louis Renault in the film. This latter name change is an example of another trend I've found, not just in play adaptations, but in most adaptations, at least in early Hollywood: most character changes are to make the characters more likable. Hence, the prefect is changed from an evil Italian (remember, this was made during the war) to a more sympathetic Frenchman. Granted, he's still a pretty despicable character in the film, but less explicitly so than in the play - the stage was evidently less censored than the screen - and he does come around eventually, in what could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, which definitely does not happen in the play.

Speaking of which, I couldn't help but note that most of Casablanca's other famous lines did not appear in Everybody Comes to Rick's either. There's no "Here's looking at you, kid," or "We'll always have Paris" or "Round up the usual suspects". The only really iconic line that I noticed in both was "Play it, Sam". She's even talking about "As Time Goes By" in both versions, and she doesn't say the word "again" in either. But considering that Casablanca is so well-known for its quotable lines, I was expecting at least a few more in the play. The part when the dialogue is most similar in both versions is the beginning when Rick is talking to Ugarte, and people don't tend to quote that too often.

I've read that the filmmakers weren't sure how the movie was going to end until the day they shot it. I don't know if that's true or not, but having heard that I was expecting the end of the play to be very different. In many ways, it was, especially for Rick and Luis/Louis, but Victor and Lois/Ilsa get essentially the same ending in both versions, which was somewhat surprising. But the characters themselves were so different that even the aspects of the ending that are the same have a completely different effect. It isn't only the prefect of police who is changed to become more likable in the movie: the details of Rick and Lois/Ilsa's affair in Paris are significantly altered - in the play, he was married and she was with some other random guy and they broke up because they were caught, whereas in the movie he was single and she was married to Victor but thought he was dead and they broke up because Ilsa never showed up on the train they were supposed to take together - and Victor seems a little more noble in the movie - he's in Casablanca because he escaped from a concentration camp, instead of running off with all the money he made from his anti-Nazi newspaper. I guess the film implies that Victor has money because he offers it to Rick, but in the play that's the reason the Germans are after him, which is not mentioned in the movie. It's not that the characters in the movie aren't flawed, but they're significantly less so than their original counterparts, which is something I've noticed in almost all of the adapted screenplay winners so far. I'm wondering if this is a trend that has continued to this day, or if it's more of an old Hollywood thing. Only time will tell.

When I started this project, I didn't realize how many Best Picture winners also won Best Adapted Screenplay, including this one. I was hoping that they were mainly movies I hadn't seen before, so I could read the original material without being biased by my opinion of the movie. To my surprise, however, I'm finding that I greatly enjoy reading the original material of films that I've seen many times, like Casablanca, because it's fun to immediately recognize what was changed and what was kept the same while reading. And then I get to re-watch the movie with a completely different perspective from the one I'm used to. It may be taking much longer than my previous Oscar blog projects, but so far it's been worth it. We'll see if I still feel that way by the time I get caught up.

Okay, I know I said that 1936 was going to be the last year I was going to skip, but it turns out I lied. The 1944 Best Adapted Screenplay winner was Going My Way, which also won Best Picture, but it was based on a story by Leo McCarey, the director. So since it wasn't actually based on a published work, I'm going to skip to 1945's winner, The Lost Weekend (yet another Best Picture Winner), based on the novel of the same name by Charles R. Jackson.