Monday, February 12, 2018

1964: Becket

Screenplay by Edward Anhalt
Adapted from the play Becket by Jean Anouilh

King Henry II of England is tired of constant power battles with the Church. When the Archbishop of Canterbury dies, the king stumbles upon what he thinks is a perfect solution: nominate his best friend Thomas Becket as a replacement. Henry assumes Becket will remain loyal to his king first and church second, but Becket takes his new position much more seriously than his old friend anticipated.

My experience with this one is kind of the opposite of the previous year's Best Adapted Screenplay winner, Tom Jones. In that case, I had seen the movie before, but reading the book helped me appreciate the movie much more the second time. In this case, I had never seen the movie, but watching it helped me appreciate the story a lot more than I had while reading the play. I didn't really understand the play when I read it. Many significant events occurred offstage between scenes and were only vaguely referred to afterward, so I kept feeling like I had missed a scene. Most of these were added to the film, so the story made a lot more sense. I realize that the screen is more conducive to scene changes than the stage, but I still feel like the play could have shown a little more than it did. Perhaps the intended audience of the play was already familiar with its historical context, but I must confess to know relatively little about the state of England and France in the mid-12th century. The movie filled in the gaps, clarifying what the characters were referring to later, which I greatly appreciated.

Apart from these additions, the movie and the play are quite similar. Most of the lines from the play made it into the film with few alterations. A couple of the cruder lines were eliminated, but otherwise the script was fairly consistent, as far as it went. The film added so much that it's probably a good half hour longer than the play, but overall the characters and themes remain true to the original, with some added clarity. I wish I had more to say about this adaptation, but there's not much to be said. The movie was basically just a longer and more comprehensible version of the play.

One side note that I found interesting: Peter O'Toole played King Henry II in this movie, and went on to portray the same monarch a few years later in The Lion in Winter, which won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar of 1968. So I'll be watching O'Toole's Henry II again relatively soon. But in the immediate future my focus will be on 1965's winner, Doctor Zhivago, based on the novel by Boris Pasternak.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

1963: Tom Jones

Screenplay by John Osborne
Adapted from the novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding

The title character is discovered as an infant in the bed of one Squire Allworthy, who raises the foundling as his own son (which he isn't). When Tom grows up, he falls in love with Sophie Western, the daughter of a neighboring squire, but the situation of his birth makes it impossible that her family will approve of their relationship. Squire Western wants Sophie to marry Squire Allworthy's nephew, Blifil, whom she despises, so she runs away. Meanwhile, Blifil convinces his uncle that Tom is a scoundrel who has taken advantage of Allworthy's kindness, and in light of this falsified evidence, Allworthy disowns Tom. Thus, Sophie and Tom set off on separate but intersecting journeys.

Re-reading my post about this movie on my Best Picture blog, I don't think I really did it justice. The story is actually pretty good; I certainly found it a lot more interesting the second time. The book is WAY too long, but I think after reading it, I appreciated the movie more. Considering the novel is about 950 pages long and the movie is just over 2 hours, the story remains surprisingly consistent. Obviously the movie had to cut out quite a bit, and knowing about those eliminated sections probably helped me follow the story better this time. For the most part, I think the filmmakers did a good job deciding what to cut and what to keep, but having to cut so much makes it harder to develop all of the characters enough for the audience to understand their motivations.

For example, the character of Mrs. Miller is much more important in the novel than in the film. She is a landlady who knows Squire Allworthy, and Tom ends up staying at her house once he gets to London. In the book there's this whole thing about Tom helping her relatives without knowing who they were, and then later her daughter gets pregnant and Tom helps convince the father to marry her. This explains why she tries so hard to persuade Allworthy to reconsider his position regarding Tom. None of that is in the movie, so it seems like she's just praising him out of the blue. The character of Partridge, who was suspected of being Tom's father and later becomes his servant, is likewise much reduced in the film, while he's almost obnoxiously important in the book. I wouldn't have minded seeing a little less of him, but I think they went too far, so that there was hardly any point of including him at all.

Character development notwithstanding, most of the cuts actually improved the story. Fielding spends a lot of the novel making political and philosophical statements and arguments, and while I don't necessarily see that as a bad thing in fiction in general, the way he does it in Tom Jones often detracts from the story. Apparently he felt very strongly about puppet shows, so there's this whole section with a puppet show that doesn't really have anything to do with anything, and therefore was most appropriately not in the film. Much of the journey to London is fairly repetitious in the book; Tom and Sophie keep just missing each other over and over again. Many of these encounters are combined into one in the film, and I feel like the audience still gets the gist of it.

I don't want to give the impression that I hated the book. It wasn't bad, and I actually enjoyed it more than I anticipated. And like I said earlier, reading it helped me appreciate the movie more. But my main objection to the book was that it was too long and rambling, and the movie, for the most part, did a terrific job of remedying this. Therefore, I agree with the 1963 Academy that this adapted screenplay was Oscar-worthy, even if I didn't think it deserved Best Picture when I watched it seven years ago.

Next, I will get a brief respite from long novels in the form of the play Becket by Jean Anouilh, which inspired a film of the same name.

Monday, January 8, 2018

1962: To Kill a Mockingbird

Screenplay by Horton Foote
Adapted from the novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Jean Louise "Scout" Finch is growing up in small-town Alabama during the Great Depression. Her happiest days are spent in the summer with her brother Jem and friend Dill, playing and speculating about their mysterious and reclusive neighbor, Arthur "Boo" Radley. Then Scout's life is turned upside-down when her father, an attorney named Atticus, is appointed to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman.

This is one of those cases in which both the movie and the book are fantastic, but they're also quite different. Overall, the story and its messages are fairly consistent, but many of the details were changed. The book has a lot of minor characters whom the film eliminates, combines, or makes even less important. For example, Scout and Jem meet up with Dill when he comes to stay with their neighbor, who is his aunt, for the summer. In the book, two of their neighbors are Miss Stephanie and Miss Rachel, and Rachel is Dill's aunt. In the movie, these two are combined into one character: Dill's Aunt Stephanie. Another character, Mrs. Dubose, is very important in a section of the novel that is completely eliminated from the film, although she at least makes an appearance in the movie, unlike Atticus's sister, Aunt Alexandra, who is absent entirely.

Most of the changes, including some of the character eliminations, have to do with the length of time the story spans. Both versions begin in the summer and end on Halloween, but in the book this is the Halloween two years later, whereas in the movie, it's only one year later. In this way, it makes sense that a lot happens in the book that is cut out of the film, since the book has a whole extra year to account for. While the novel does include some wonderful scenes that I would have liked to see in the film, I completely understand why the filmmakers decided to condense the story. The movie introduces the trial much earlier than the book does, and thus shifts more of the focus of the story to that aspect. There's an added scene in which Scout, Jem, and Dill sneak into the courthouse to try to see where Boo Radley was allegedly locked up at one point, and unintentionally witness the indictment. The book doesn't even mention Tom Robinson until much later, although his trial does dominate the second half.

In short, while the book spends a lot of time establishing what everyday life in that town is like, the movie skips right to the more dramatic parts of the story. I think to some extent the extra background information in the book adds to the tragedy because we get to know more of the people involved better, but the movie includes enough that it doesn't suffer too much from the missing secondary character development. Some of the sections of the book, while riveting on the page, would probably have been fairly boring in the film. For the most part, I think the right choices were made regarding what to keep, what to eliminate, and what to alter.

Well, it's been a year since I started this project, and I've gotten through 31. I'm hoping to get through even more this coming year, but that might be unrealistic, especially given that the next winner is adapted from an 18th century novel that is over 900 pages long. But if I ever get through it, I'll be blogging about Tom Jones, based on the novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

1961: Judgment at Nuremberg

Screenplay by Abby Mann
Adapted from the teleplay Judgment at Nuremberg by Abby Mann

Four men are accused of crimes against humanity for their involvement in the judiciary of Nazi Germany. A tribunal of three American judges must determine to what degree these German judges and prosecutors were responsible for the actions carried out by others under their orders, given that they were merely upholding the law of the land. Meanwhile, the political tide is shifting, and Americans are becoming less concerned with punishing Nazis and more concerned with fighting Communists, creating pressure on the judges to be lenient, despite condemning evidence.

Though the subject matter is obviously very different, this adaptation reminded me a lot of Marty, the only previous Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar winner that was based on a teleplay. In both cases, the teleplay and screenplay were written by the same person, and in both cases the movie was about twice as long as the TV version. Like Marty, Judgment at Nuremberg also had several cast members playing the same role in both versions: Maximilian Schell played the defense attorney in both, although his character's name was different, and two of the Nazis on trial were played by the same actor in both. Almost all of the lines from the teleplay were in the feature film, so most of the changes were additions, with a few notable exceptions.

The TV version begins with footage from earlier Nuremberg trials, with narration explaining what had happened and that people were getting tired of them. This is not shown in the feature film, but the audience gets a clear picture of what's been happening from added dialogue between the characters. Similarly, when the head judge is looking around Nuremberg, in the TV version there is footage of Hitler and the Nazis gathered where he's looking, whereas in the movie we hear the remembered Nazis without seeing them. The historical footage is quite powerful in the original, but I feel like not seeing any early on gives the footage of the Holocaust survivors more power later in the movie.

There were only two other major changes I noticed that weren't additions. In the original version, Chief Judge Haywood is married, and his wife appears briefly, whereas in the movie he's a widower. I assume this was changed to facilitate the addition of Mrs. Bertholt, whose husband was executed as a result of an earlier trial. Haywood spends a lot of time with her in the movie, and even though no romance ensues, this would have been a little weird if he was married. Her friendship provides yet another temptation for Haywood to be lenient with the men on trial, which adds to the tension of the story. The second change comes toward the end, so to avoid spoiling too much I'll just say that the tribunal is slightly harsher on the defendants in the feature film than in the original version. It's not actually that different, and it doesn't end up mattering very much, but I found it rather fascinating that Movie Haywood has even more pressures to be lenient than TV Haywood, and yet ends up being less so.

I thought the TV version was very well done, but I also thought many of the movie's additions greatly enhanced the story, like the German servants who tremblingly protest that they had no idea what was going on, and a couple of added scenes of the defendants interacting outside the courtroom. The main defendant, Ernst Janning, doesn't say or do much for most of the TV movie, which definitely contributes to the shock factor of his outburst toward the defense attorney, but I also liked how we got to know him just slightly more in the feature film before that scene. Overall, both versions tell the story very well, and make powerful statements about humanity and society, so I would highly recommend both of them. The TV version can be found on YouTube, complete with the added bonus of the original commercials from 1959.

Coming up next is another politically charged courtroom drama, albeit a very different one: To Kill a Mockingbird, based on the novel by Harper Lee


Saturday, December 30, 2017

1960: Elmer Gantry

Screenplay by Richard Brooks
Adapted from the novel Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis

The title character is an ambitious and hypocritical preacher who rises to fame and power with a golden tongue, saving souls in public while ruining lives in private.

I am utterly fascinated by this adaptation. I can practically hear the screenwriter's pitch: "Yes, I know the story seems like a blatant, satirical attack on Christianity in America, and obviously no one wants that, but what if in the movie...we were only attacking revivals?" Even if Richard Brooks never actually said that, that's pretty much what it boils down to. In both versions, Elmer was studying to be a minister when he was kicked out of school, but in the book it was after he was ordained. In both versions, Elmer serves as an evangelist with Sharon Falconer, but, though she leaves his life in the same way, what he does next is completely different. The book shows him rising through the ranks of the Methodist church; the movie just ends there with him giving up evangelism. Book Elmer serves many churches; film Elmer only serves Sharon Falconer's revivals. Though Sharon does have a significant impact on Elmer's life in the book, they're only together for a relatively brief period of time, whereas she's in most of the movie. The film also adds several lines of characters wondering why people need revivals when they can just go to church; in other words, it distances churches from people like Elmer Gantry. Granted, the film does show a bit of hypocrisy on the part of other, more traditional ministers, but this is very slight compared to the book.

Then there's the character of Jim Lefferts. In the book, he's Elmer's college friend, a self-proclaimed atheist who walks out of his life when Elmer decides to pursue a career in ministry. In the movie, he's a skeptic reporter who follows Elmer and Sharon around, and at first tries to make them look bad, but later becomes more of an ally. The Jim of the movie never says he's an atheist, and interestingly, loses an argument with Elmer because he can't decide whether or not he believes that Jesus was divine. In both versions, Jim is one of the least hypocritical characters, but in the book he's firmly anti-Christianity, whereas in the movie, while he isn't exactly a Christian, he isn't exactly not a Christian either. The film is careful not to portray atheism in too positive of a light. Elmer even has a line when he's criticizing Jim in which he accuses him of blindly following several atheistic writers, and he includes Sinclair Lewis. I couldn't quite decide if this was a joking or serious attempt to distance the film from the original material, but I enjoyed it either way.

While most of the significant changes seem to serve the purpose of becoming more palatable to a Christian audience, the film also makes several fascinating changes to the way women and sex are portrayed. In both versions, Elmer is a major womanizer. The first time this really gets him into trouble is when he is still a student preacher and falls for a deacon's daughter named Lulu. In the book, they have a thing for a while, but then he gets annoyed with her, and she really wants him to marry her (she even tries to convince him she's pregnant at one point). Someone sees them together, which kind of forces Elmer to propose, but he manages to push her towards this other guy and arrange it so that people find them together and she ends up having to marry him instead. Then, much later, when Elmer is married to somebody else whom he doesn't even like (who doesn't exist in the movie), Lulu comes back into his life, and they have an affair for a while until he gets tired of her and meets someone else. Unfortunately for him, that someone else is setting him up so she can blackmail him later. In the movie, on the other hand, Elmer is kicked out of school for being caught having sex with Lulu in the church (in the book he was kicked out for an unrelated reason). Instead of being forced to marry someone else, movie Lulu becomes a prostitute, who comes back into Elmer's life when he's trying to eliminate vice from the city (which is also something that happens in the book, but Lulu is not involved). Then Lulu is the one who tries to blackmail him, but she has a change of heart when she realizes she's still in love with him. For the most part, I don't really object to these changes to Lulu's character; I think they work pretty well in the movie. In the novel Lulu is portrayed as weak and whiny, so I like that she's more empowered in the film.

On the other hand, I kind of hate some of the changes made to Sharon's character. As I mentioned earlier, she's not actually in very much of the book, but she has a huge impact on Elmer's life, mainly because she's the only woman he ever respects, with the possible exception of his mother. She insists that he stop smoking and drinking, which in the book he does for the rest of his life; in the movie he only sort of gives them up. Novel Sharon makes it clear that she appreciates Elmer's talents, but remains in charge; film Sharon basically puts him in charge and frequently talks about how much she needs him. In the book, Elmer intends to seduce her, but ends up being seduced himself. In the movie, he talks her into sleeping with him. I actually said, "Ew, no" out loud multiple times during that scene, mostly because in the book she's so clearly the dominant personality in their relationship, and the movie makes her seem like a naive little girl being guided by a strong man of the world. Of all the myriad changes that clearly intentionally altered the tone of the story, that's the one I most objected to. Overall, Sharon's character was fairly consistent, but the movie makes her significantly weaker for no good reason.

I don't mean to imply that this isn't a good movie because it is. I just have trouble believing that it was truly the best adapted screenplay of that year. I think Sinclair Lewis would have considered the filmmakers cowardly for shying away from some of his more biting satire, and for dis-empowering his strongest female character. However, given the controversial nature of the story and that this was 1960, I'm almost surprised that the adaptation wasn't even less faithful.

Next up: Judgment at Nuremberg, the second movie adapted from a teleplay to win this award.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

1959: Room at the Top

Screenplay by Neil Paterson
Adapted from the novel Room at the Top by John Braine

Ambitious, young Joe Lampton moves from his small, poor hometown to a more affluent place, where he hopes to rise to a higher class. It looks like his dreams might come true when he meets beautiful Susan Brown, the 19-year-old daughter of an extremely wealthy business owner. True, she has a boyfriend, but Joe sees that as only a minor setback. Then Joe falls for older, sexy, married Alice Aisgill, which becomes more of a major setback.

I was not looking forward to revisiting this story, since when I watched it before during my Best Actress project, I did not particularly enjoy the film. After reading the book and re-watching the movie, I must say that I think the book is significantly better, which is odd because on the whole it's a relatively faithful adaptation. However, some of the seemingly minor changes end up altering the characters and story in surprisingly drastic ways, at least in my interpretation.

One of the biggest differences is in the way the story is told. The book is written in first person, from the perspective of Joe Lampton ten years later. The story depicts a crucial turning point in his life, and several times throughout the book he remarks on the way he could have done things differently. He sounds as though he's ultimately happy with the decisions he made and where he ended up in life, but with a touch of nostalgia, and even perhaps a hint of regret. The film, on the other hand, gives us nothing from future Joe: no scenes of his later life, no voice-over narration, nothing. The film adds a scene at the end that was merely implied in the book, but it gives a more bleak picture of his future than the book does. I think the story greatly benefits from reflections made by a Joe who has distanced himself from its events. The first time I watched the movie I couldn't fathom how Joe could live with himself; the book makes that a lot clearer.

Partly because of the narration, the book version of Joe is significantly more understandable and likable than the film version. It helps that he's justifying his own actions, but there's also something else that may seem small but makes all the difference: in the book he loves Susan; in the movie he doesn't. Of course, in both versions it's clear he loves Alice more, but even in that they differ because the movie makes his preference more about sex than love. Skip the rest of this paragraph if you don't want spoilers. Basically, in both versions, Joe has a passionate affair with Alice, which starts as a friends with benefits arrangement, but turns into love. They get to the point where, after a beautiful vacation together, Alice is about to ask her husband for a divorce, when Joe changes his mind and marries Susan instead. This decision is influenced by the fact that Susan is pregnant with his child, after they slept together once. Here's the difference: in the book, Joe only sleeps with Susan after he's determined that he's not going to marry Alice. At first he stops seeing Susan for awhile, then has his vacation with Alice, and then his friend is like, "Dude, you don't want to marry someone who cheats on her husband, oh and btw she had an affair with that guy Susan was dating, and probably lots of other people." So he decides to go back to Susan, and only after that is their relationship consummated. True, he could have handled the situation better (he doesn't officially break up with Alice right away), but it's understandable. Compare that to the movie, in which he sleeps with Susan before his vacation with Alice. And then, I mean, it's not super explicit, but he's basically like, "Wow, she's terrible at sex compared to Alice," and that's when he sets up the vacation. And then he decides he wants to be rich so he's going to marry Susan instead, especially once he finds out she's pregnant. To me, this makes him way more of a jerk in the movie than in the book.

Naturally there are several other changes. Joe has a close friend named Charles, who in the book is from his hometown and mainly shows up in flashbacks, but in the movie is a new friend from the new town. The movie adds a whole section about Susan's father trying to get Joe a job back in his hometown so he'll leave Susan alone; in the book he doesn't put in that much effort to thwart Joe. But none of these other changes bothered me as much as switching the order of his affairs to make him more of a jerk. Maybe the movie was trying to show that cold ambition can't make you happy? Or maybe the screen writer got a different picture of Joe from the novel than I did? Either way, I'm kind of glad I read the book, since it gave me an entirely different perspective on the story.

Whew, the 1950s sure took me a long time to get through! The 1960s will begin with Elmer Gantry, based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis, so stay tuned.

Monday, November 27, 2017

1958: Gigi

Screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner
Adapted from the novella Gigi by Colette

Gigi is being trained by her grandmother and great-aunt to become a courtesan. She is friends with a notorious playboy named Gaston who is falling in love with her. Though Gigi likes Gaston very much, she's not convinced that she wants to become his mistress.

As I mentioned seven years ago when I blogged about this movie before, I find this story incredibly disturbing. I particularly objected to the character of Gaston's uncle, who sings, "Thank heaven for little girls, for little girls are more objectified by old men every day," or something like that. So I was not unhappy that this character does not appear in the novella at all. It's briefly mentioned that Gigi's grandmother had a thing with one of Gaston's older relatives, and I guess Alan Jay Lerner decided to run with that. I do enjoy the song between the uncle and the grandmother, but otherwise, I could have done without that addition. It almost felt like Lerner didn't think there were enough male characters in the original story, so he needed to add a creepy old guy. Either that or he just wanted to make the movie more disturbing than the book.

However, to be fair there are some ways in which the original story is more disturbing than the film. I guess you can tell that Gigi is supposed to be pretty young in the movie, but I don't think they ever say her exact age. Leslie Caron was in her late 20s when she played her, so the age difference between her and Gaston is not nearly as striking as in the original story, in which she's 15 and he's in his early 30s. Because of this, and its lack of songs, I feel like it's more readily apparent that the book is supposed to be disturbing. The movie probably is, too, but it almost feels like it's trying to brush over the darker themes with lighthearted musical numbers, which doesn't really work for me. Maybe that's the point, but I don't really like it.

Apart from the songs, the added uncle, and the ambiguity of Gigi's age, the movie is actually surprisingly similar to the book. Most of the novella is included in the film, apart from a few of the more raunchy lines of dialogue that Hollywood still wasn't ready for yet. Of course, the novella is not very long, so several scenes were added for the movie. When the original story begins, Gaston has just split up with his latest girlfriend, whereas that doesn't happen until around the middle of the film. Seeing this play out instead of just hearing about it after the fact definitely adds to the story, so I think that was a wise change. The book ends much more quickly than the movie, pretty much going straight from "I'd rather be miserable with you than without you" to Gaston's proposal. The movie adds this whole thing where they go out together and he takes her back and she gets all upset, and then he proposes, and it's like, why do you want to marry him? He just treated you terribly! So that addition was kind of unnecessary. But on the whole, as far as adaptations go, this one actually isn't that bad. I just still don't think this movie deserved nine Oscars. Sorry.

Next up: Room at the Top, based on the novel by John Braine, for which Simone Signoret won Best Actress, and about which I wrote a little over two years ago, "I will not be re-visiting this movie any time soon." Great. Why am I doing this again?