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?

Saturday, November 25, 2017

1957: The Bridge on the River Kwai

Screenplay by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson (originally credited to Pierre Boulle, as both screenplay writers were blacklisted at the time)
Adapted from the novel The Bridge over the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle

During World War II, British POWs are forced to build a Japanese railway from Burma to Singapore. Colonel Nicholson is a proud, rule-following Englishman who has been brought to a prison camp with his men following orders to surrender. After a lengthy battle with the camp's warden, Colonel Saito, about whether officers should be forced to work alongside their men, Nicholson sets out to build the best bridge possible as a demonstration of British skill. Meanwhile, a specialized team of Allied soldiers is sent to blow up the bridge.

This is another relatively short novel adapted into a long movie, but it's significantly better than the previous year's winner. The added length helps the film give a better feel for how much time has passed than the book did. Most of the prison camp scenes are very faithful to the book. Even when details are changed, such as the exact methods of torture Saito uses to try to break Nicholson, those parts are still very much in the spirit of the original story.

On the other hand, the demolition team is completely different, particularly the character of Shears. In the book, he's a British major from Force 316 who is basically in charge of the mission and is often referred to as Number One. In the film, he's from the American navy, and is actually in the prison camp when Nicholson arrives. Movie Shears manages to escape from the camp, after which he reluctantly joins Force 316 to help them find the bridge, after it's revealed that he's been impersonating an officer. So in the book, he's very focused on finding and destroying the bridge, whereas in the movie he's cynical and sarcastic and always trying to find a way out of returning to the prison camp he managed to escape from. This completely changes the dynamic of the team. I think both versions work fine, but I'd be interested to know what prompted this change. Did they just really want William Holden to have a big role in this movie, and he couldn't or wouldn't do a convincing British accent? Who knows? The other characters in the team are also changed, though not as drastically. Joyce is basically the same inexperienced but eager young soldier, although in the film he's Canadian instead of British. Also, the film adds a scene when he's faced with killing a Japanese soldier and can't do it, which takes the place of the part in the book after the river's gone down and he realizes he's probably going to have to kill someone and is trying to psych himself up for it. This additional scene in the film also results in the third team member, Warden, being shot in the foot, which gives him an excuse for remaining farther away from the bridge. In the film, that was just always the plan. Also the film adds a fourth member of the team who dies during the parachute drop, which did not happen in the book.

Perhaps the most significant change, however, is the ending. I feel like most people have probably seen this movie (if you haven't you should), but skip the rest of this paragraph if you don't want any 60-year-old spoilers. Fascinatingly, the climax is almost exactly the same except for one thing. Nicholson leads Saito to Joyce, who was waiting for the train to arrive before blowing up the bridge. Joyce kills Saito, then Nicholson yells for help and starts strangling Joyce. All of that happens in both versions. But the famous moment in the movie when Nicholson looks around, cries, "What have I done?" and then stumbles toward the detonator, and falls dramatically on top of it, demolishing his bridge as he dies? Yeah, that doesn't happen in the book. Warden had put some extra explosives on the track, so the train ends up going down, but the bridge remains intact with minimal damage. Book Nicholson dies without ever experiencing that change of heart. Personally, I prefer the movie version, although the book's is probably more consistent with Nicholson's character. I like to think that he still had some humanity inside that cold, mechanical exterior, even if that wasn't what the author of the book intended.

After the previous winner, I have to mention how refreshing it was to see actual Japanese actors cast in the role of Japanese characters. The book actually seemed more racist than the movie, repeatedly referring to the Japanese as stupid and inept and just generally inferior to Westerners. There is some of this in the movie, but the film version gives more of the impression that they're trying to prove how competent British soldiers were, rather than how incompetent the Japanese soldiers were. One change along these lines that I liked was the film had Saito fire the Japanese engineer on his own, whereas in the book he only did because Nicholson told him to. On the other hand, the book emphasizes that most of the well-qualified Japanese engineers were engaged elsewhere during the war, while the film kind of implies that the clueless guy at the camp was the best they had to offer. So it's a trade-off. Still, Sessue Hayakawa's performance as Saito is one of the highlights of the film, and letting an actor of color shine like that, even in the role of a villain, was extremely rare in 1950s Hollywood, so yay progress.

After this, one of my favorite Best Picture Winners, I have to go back to another of my least favorite Best Picture Winners, Gigi, based on the novella by Colette.

Friday, November 24, 2017

1956: Around the World in 80 Days

Screenplay by John Farrow, S. J. Perelman, and James Poe
Adapted from the novel Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

A prim and proper English gentleman named Phileas Fogg makes a wager that he can circumnavigate the globe in exactly 80 days, and immediately sets off with his new valet, Passepartout, to prove it. Unbeknownst to him, Fogg is pursued by a detective named Fix, who is convinced that Fogg robbed the Bank of England and is using this trip as an excuse to flee the country.

This might be the worst adaptation to have won this award so far. Not that the novel is the best book I've ever read, but it is far and away superior to the film. There are so many problems with the movie I hardly know where to start. It completely ruins the character of Passepartout. In the book he's a loyal, well-meaning but slightly clueless Frenchman. The movie turns him into a woman-chaser of ambiguous nationality. I guess he's Spanish, since he speaks Spanish, but sometimes he calls Fogg "Monsieur", so it's like, was he supposed to still be French with a Spanish accent? Speaking of which, the movie adds this whole section where the travelers take a hot air balloon in France, trying to get to Marseilles, but they end up in Spain where they have to waste an entire day fighting bulls. This scene is way too long, entirely unnecessary, somehow doesn't seem to put them behind schedule, and is not even remotely close to anything that happens in the book.

The Spanish detour is probably the most extreme example, but similar unnecessary additions occur throughout the film. Instead of Passepartout merely wandering into an Indian temple with his shoes on, he has to be chased in there after trying to bullfight a sacred cow (what is it with this movie and bullfighting?). Later they enter an American saloon for no reason and stay there way too long. Generally, when novels are adapted into screenplays, more scenes are cut than added. Obviously, some bits were cut in order to make way for these additions, but not nearly as many as necessary, resulting in a 3-hour long film adapted from a novel that's just over 300 pages. Compare that to one of the best adaptations, Gone with the Wind: that novel is over three times as long as this one, but the movie is only one and a third times as long. Not to mention that cutting out those few minor scenes from the book gives the movie possibly the worst pacing ever. The book doesn't have the best pacing, but at least it carefully tracks how long it takes to get to each milestone and how long they stay there and whether they've gained or lost time. In the film, one has no idea how much time is passing, which is odd since the 80-day deadline is crucial to the plot.

Even if it had been a decent adaptation, which I cannot stress enough that it wasn't, it would not have aged well, and not just because it's now laughable to think that it would take anywhere near that long to go around the world. The original book is quite racist, and uses a lot of problematic terms like "savages" to describe the native peoples in the lands the travelers cross. One might think that since the film was made over 80 years after the book was written, they might have found some way to make it less blatantly racist while still remaining faithful to the time in which it takes place. Unfortunately, this was the 1950s, and if anything, the movie is more racist than the book. I mean, the vast majority of the "native peoples" were very clearly white actors in makeup. I get that they wanted to put fun cameos of famous actors around the world, but this doesn't really work when all the famous actors are white. Shirley MacLaine is supposed to be Indian? Peter Lorre is supposed to be Chinese? I know this was 60 years ago, but still. They could have at least gotten actual people of color to play the extras, and I think maybe there were a couple, but for the most part, sadly no. This would be cringe-worthy enough if it was a good movie otherwise, but the fact that it's cringingly racist and a badly-paced, boring mess means I cannot recommend against it enough.

That being said, I feel that in fairness I must point out that this movie does have some of the best ending credits I've ever seen, brilliantly designed by the legendary Saul Bass. So if, you know, you ever end up having to watch it for a self-imposed Oscar project, you at least have that to look forward to. Personally, I'm going to make sure that, if I continue tackling different categories, I never pick another one that this movie won. I've had to watch it twice now; that is more than enough.

Up next: Best Picture Winner The Bridge on the River Kwai, based on the novel The Bridge over the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle. I'm not sure why they changed the preposition, but if that's the most unnecessary change it will be leaps and bounds ahead of this adaptation.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

1955: Marty

Screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky
Adapted from the teleplay Marty by Paddy Chayefsky

Marty is a bachelor in his mid-30s. All his siblings are married, and people, especially his mother, are constantly pestering him to follow suit. To get them off his back, he grudgingly goes to a dance hall one night, where he meets a young woman named Clara who has just been horribly rejected by a blind date. Marty and Clara hit it off, but as soon as his friends and family find out, they realize that they actually want Marty to stay single.

This is an unusual adapted screenplay winner, since rather than being adapted from something in print form, this movie was based on something else that was filmed. The original was a 51-minute teleplay that was broadcast live on "The Philco Television Playhouse" on May 24, 1953; the adaptation came out two years later and was about 40 minutes longer. Since they were written by the same person, it should come as no surprise that the two versions are very similar. Most of the scenes in the original were adapted word-for-word into the movie. Even the cast is similar: Marty's mother, Aunt Catherine, and best friend Angie are played by the same three actors in both versions.

The changes that were made pretty much all improved the story. The TV version goes straight from Marty and Clara meeting at the dance hall to them at Marty's house, which is kind of abrupt. The audience hardly gets to see them interact at all, and finds out very little about Clara, before he tries to kiss her. In the movie, they go for a walk and to a restaurant together, and we see them get to know each other first. This makes the audience believe in their relationship more, which makes for a much more intriguing story. The remake also has time to further develop some of the secondary characters, particularly Marty's cousin and his wife, who are only in one scene of the original but come back multiple times in the adaptation. These and other additions significantly improve the pacing. The feature film may be almost twice as long as the teleplay, but it certainly doesn't feel like it. It's a fairly simple story, so it didn't need to be too long, but it definitely benefited from that extra 40 minutes that changing the format allowed.

I don't mean to imply that the original version is bad; it's still a sweet, well-told story. But the movie is definitely better. Rather than an original versus a remake, this felt more like comparing an earlier draft with the final draft of the same script. One would hope and expect that a draft written two years later by the same person would be an improvement on the original, and in this case, one would not be disappointed.

Coming up next: yet another Best Picture winner, Around the World in 80 Days, based on the novel by Jules Verne

Friday, October 27, 2017

1954: The Country Girl

Screenplay by George Seaton
Adapted from the play The Country Girl by Clifford Odets

Frank Elgin, an aging, washed-up, alcoholic actor is offered the lead in a new play. The director, Bernie Dodd, who is also a fan, is determined to help Frank make a major comeback. Frank's long-suffering wife, Georgie, also desperately wants to help her husband, but Frank turns Bernie against her in order to avoid taking responsibility for his own problems, which leads to many unnecessary arguments.

This is a significantly more faithful adaptation than most previous winners of this award. Many of the lines in the movie are taken directly from the play, and most of the changes are still consistent with the original characters and story. One change that amused me is originally, Frank starred in a dramatic play, whereas in the adaptation it's a musical comedy. I assume this has to do with the casting of Bing Crosby in the film - was he ever in a movie in which he didn't sing?

There are a few aspects of the story that are mentioned briefly in the play that the movie greatly expands on. Perhaps the most notable example is the play mentions that Frank and Georgie had a daughter who died, but never explains exactly what happened or expands on the impact that had on their marriage. In the movie, however, they had a son, and the circumstances surrounding his death are shown in a flashback. Frank blames himself for what happened, and uses this to justify his excessive drinking and his shirking of all potential responsibility. This is slightly implied in the play, but the movie makes it a focal point of the story. For the most part it works well, although it becomes a little overly dramatic in spots. A couple similar changes also make the movie somewhat more dramatic than the play, and it's a little over-the-top, but not too much. Otherwise, apart from the additional settings that almost always appear when a story is adapted from stage to screen, the film is very similar to the play.

I never would have even considered Grace Kelly for the role of Georgie, but she gives a remarkably un-Grace-Kelly-ish performance that is just right for the character and deservedly won her an Oscar. Bing Crosby and William Holden are also perfect for their parts (once they added some songs for Bing). It's a flawlessly-cast, faithful adaptation with changes that further enhance the original characters; what more could one ask of an adaptation?

Next up: Best Picture Winner Marty, which was based on a made-for-TV movie, so this is the first time I'll be watching rather than reading the source material

Sunday, October 22, 2017

1953: From Here to Eternity

Screenplay by Daniel Taradash
Adapted from the novel From Here to Eternity by James Jones

This is the story of soldiers stationed in Hawaii in 1941. It mostly, although not exclusively, focuses on two in particular: Private Prewitt and First Sergeant Warden. Prewitt, aka Prew, was in the bugle corps until a disagreement caused him to be transferred and demoted. He was also once an accomplished boxer, until he accidentally blinded his friend when they were sparring. His new commanding officer, Captain Holmes, wants Prew on his boxing team, and instructs his noncoms to make his life as difficult as possible until he agrees to join. Warden doesn't think much of Prew, but he also doesn't think much of the way Holmes runs his company, so he does what he can to help Prew out, when he's not too busy falling in love with Mrs. Holmes. And of course, we all know what happened in Hawaii at the end of 1941.

I feel like this was an unnecessarily long book. There were too many characters who were described in too much detail, given how unimportant they were to the story. Also, pretty much all of the characters had very long philosophical internal monologues that could easily have been cut, or at least shortened. I enjoyed the parts when we had glimpses into what each character in a conversation was really thinking, but I could have done without the paragraphs of minor characters pondering, and the pages of major characters pondering, without coming to any conclusions. The story was intriguing, but I didn't need all the philosophy.

That being said, I think that made it relatively straightforward to turn an 800-page novel into a 2-hour movie. Once they cut all the unnecessary philosophy and some of the less important minor characters (not to mention all of the explicit, vulgar, and violent content that was definitely not allowed in the Hollywood of the 1950s), it must not have seemed nearly as daunting. In many cases, minor characters from the novel were combined into one slightly juicier minor character in the film. For instance, Bloom, who ends up killing himself in the book, is not in the film, but some of the things he does are important enough to be taken over by "Fatso" Judson and Ike Galovitch. In other cases, minor characters remained but in a significantly reduced form. Maylon Stark is quite important in the book. He's a cook who joins the company soon after Prew, and Warden finagles him into the head cook position because he's much more competent than their previous head cook. Stark also becomes pretty good friends with Prew, and even introduces him to "Lorene" - a prostitute crucial enough to the plot that they couldn't eliminate her from the movie, although her scenes are so cleaned up that modern audiences might not understand that that's what she's supposed to be. Stark also fights with Warden because he used to date Captain Holmes's wife and she treated him terribly (the details and reasons are significantly different in the book and the movie, I think mostly because of production codes). In the film, his only scene is one in which he briefly warns Warden about her. Most of the rest of his role is either taken over by Prew's friend Maggio or eliminated entirely. It's kind of a shame because book Stark is an interesting character, but I can see why they reduced his role. The one minor character change that I'm really irritated about is the squad leader. In the book, he's a Native American named Corporal Choate; in the film, he's a white man named Corporal Buckley. I mean, I guess it's better that he was changed to a white man than portrayed by a white man in offensive makeup, but only slightly.

Most of the changes that did not involve reducing minor characters, philosophical monologues, or sexual content seem to have been made to show the Army itself in a much better light. In the book, Holmes is promoted and no one really cares what he did to Prew; in the movie, he's dishonorably discharged because of it. The book also has a whole section in which Prew is in the stockade, where all the prisoners are constantly beaten, nearly starved, and otherwise abused. Maggio escapes by pretending to be insane; a different man is beaten to death after complying when another prisoner begs him to break his arm. In the film, Prew never goes to the stockade at all. The film does include someone being beaten to death by "Fatso" Judson, but it's Maggio, and it's implied that this is because of a fight they had earlier, which was actually with Bloom in the book. The film implies that this is an exceptional situation, whereas the book makes it seem more like an everyday occurrence in the stockade.

While this clearly isn't the most faithful of adaptations, it's still a very good adaptation. Everything ties together very well despite many eliminations. When you watch the movie, it doesn't feel like you're missing pieces of the story. Often, I'm annoyed with changes between page and screen, but I think for the most part the right decisions were made in this case. If the book was adapted into a movie today, it would probably be a lot different, and rated NC-17. It was remade into a mini-series in 1979, with the tagline "The whole story. The story Hollywood couldn't tell in 1953!" I imagine that's a much more faithful adaptation of the book, both because of its 6-hour length and because it was made 26 years later. Given the time constraint and the period in which it was made, this film is probably about as faithful of an adaptation as it could have been, and personally given the choice I'd much rather rewatch it than reread the book.

Coming up next: The Country Girl, which I blogged about before because Grace Kelly won Best Actress, based on the play by Clifford Odets

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

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.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

1942: Mrs. Miniver

Screenplay by George Froeschel, James Hilton, Claudine West, and Arthur Wimperis
Adapted from the Mrs. Miniver newspaper columns by Jan Struther

Mrs. Miniver is a fairly typical British housewife and mother in the late 1930s, but her life is interrupted by the beginning of World War II.

This is the third time I've blogged about this movie, as it won Best Picture and Greer Garson won Best Actress for playing the title role. However, I was not at all familiar with the original story, so I was intrigued to learn it had been based on newspaper columns. These columns were compiled into a book that was apparently very popular in the U.S., to the extent that it has been credited with contributing to America's decision to enter the war. The movie, too, apparently contributed to the war effort, although apart from character names and similar underlying themes, the two really have very little in common.

The columns are a series of vignettes from Mrs. Miniver's life. They're mostly very introspective, and while well-written and thought-provoking, there's not a lot of action. Indeterminate periods of time pass between consecutive stories, and they don't necessarily have much to do with each other. Despite their rich characters and profound ideas, they don't really provide the necessary ingredients for a compelling film. Furthermore, when Jan Struther started writing them, the war hadn't started yet, and it wasn't clear whether one would, and if so, whether England would be involved. The unrest is mentioned, certainly, but it's not the main focus for most of the stories.

By the time the film was made, however, the war was well on its way, and so necessarily became the main focus of the story. The film made the oldest Miniver child, Vin, significantly older so that he could join the air force (and get married). Beyond the war and the Minivers, the movie's story also focuses on several secondary characters who were not present in the column. The newspaper version of Mrs. Miniver had several other people in her life, but most of them were only mentioned in one or two stories, whereas the film's characters feature throughout; again, tying everything together in a way the original stories do not. The movie also made the Minivers somewhat less wealthy than they were implied to be in the columns, perhaps to make them more relatable to a predominantly middle class American audience. Hence the movie shows fewer servants, no frivolous vacations, and worries about spending too much money that were certainly never expressed in the original.

It's not clear whether the columns continued after the book was published. If so, that could explain where the screenwriters got some of their material. Either way, I enjoyed both the book and the film, despite their many discrepancies. Each version works for its given medium, so I wouldn't call one better than the other. Though the stories are very different, they both share the same core: a woman and her family enduring through a rapidly changing world.

Next up, another Best Picture Winner: Casablanca, based on the play Everybody Comes to Rick's by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison

Sunday, June 18, 2017

1941: Here Comes Mr. Jordan

Screenplay by Sidney Buchman and Seton I. Miller
Adapted from the play Heaven Can Wait by Harry Segall

Prizefighter Joe "The Flying Pug" Pendleton's soul is prematurely taken from his body when a messenger from heaven sees his plane about to crash and thinks there's no way he can survive. By the time the messenger's boss, Mr. Jordan, realizes that Joe is actually supposed to live for several more decades, his body has been cremated, so they must find a different body for him to inhabit.

This was a pretty faithful adaptation, apart from a few minor changes. I'm not sure why they felt the need to come up with a different title for the movie, since they're pretty much exactly the same story. Max the manager changes his last name from Levene to Corkle, and Mrs. Ames the housekeeper is replaced by Sisk the butler, but neither of these changes really affects the plot. A few scenes are added to the film that were only talked about in the play, like the plane crash and a few boxing matches, as is almost always the case when a play is adapted for the screen. The biggest changes have to do with the person whose body Joe inhabits for most of the story: Farnsworth, whose first name is Jonathan in the play and Bruce in the movie.

In both versions, the reason Joe agrees to become Farnsworth is to help Bette Logan, a young woman whose father is in jail because of a financial scheme Farnsworth orchestrated and then pinned on him. In the play, Farnsworth's plan before he died was to agree to get Mr. Logan out of jail if Bette went away with him for the weekend. Apparently that was too scandalous for the movie; in the adaptation, Farnsworth has no intention of helping her at all. Either way, Joe as Farnsworth gets her father out of jail, no questions asked. Then he decides to get Farnsworth's body "in the pink" (which is his favorite phrase) so he can be a boxer again, until Mr. Jordan tells him he can't be Farnsworth anymore. In the play, this is because Farnsworth's soul is protesting that he hates prizefighting and doesn't want to be remembered this way. In the movie, however, we never hear from Farnsworth in the afterlife; Mr. Jordan merely states that it's time for Joe to find a different body, and we're just supposed to take his word for it. This is probably the most significant change, and I'm not sure why it was necessary. Possibly the screenwriters didn't want a villain like Farnsworth to dictate what the hero did in his body. Or maybe they just wanted to shorten that part to accommodate the extra scenes they added. Regardless, the reason Joe needs to leave doesn't really alter the outcome, so on the whole, the movie is very consistent with the play.

Having watched the 1978 film Heaven Can Wait (which is significantly different from the play and original film, although still unquestionably the same story) many times, I noted that many of the changes from the play to Here Comes Mr. Jordan carried through to the remake. In the later film, the trainer's name is Max Corkle and there's a butler named Sisk instead of a housekeeper, and when Joe has to leave Farnsworth (whose first name is Leo in that version) it's just because Mr. Jordan says "it's time," not because Farnsworth had any say. So that was interesting.

Coming up next: Best Picture and Best Actress winner Mrs. Miniver, based on newspaper columns by Jan Struther, which have conveniently been compiled into a book.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

1940: The Philadelphia Story

Screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart
Adapted from the play The Philadelphia Story by Philip Barry

Socialite Tracy Lord is about to get married for the second time when she is beset upon by a horde of unwelcome visitors, including a reporter, a photographer, her estranged father, and her ex-husband.

This was an odd experience for me because this is my most-watched movie since I started keeping track, but I had never read the play until now. I was expecting it to be kind of like Pygmalion, with the play almost identical to the film, especially since I knew that Katharine Hepburn had originated the character on Broadway and was instrumental in bringing the story to the screen. However, while the basic story and many of the lines are the same, I was astonished at how many significant changes were made in the adaptation. Due to my unquestionable bias, I think most of the changes were made for the better, but I'm sure a devotee of the play would disagree.

When I encounter other people who have seen this movie and tell them it's my favorite, oftentimes I hear the same complaint: there's too much talking, and hardly any action. While I can't disagree, after reading the play I noticed a lot more action in the film, or, if not action, at least a lot more scene changes. The play is set entirely in the Lords' house - granted, in several different rooms, but essentially it's all in one place. Compare that with the film, which, while mainly set at their house, also has scenes at a magazine office, a library, and other people's houses. The film also explores parts of the Lords' house not seen in the play, like the stables and the pool. It's not surprising from a practical standpoint that the play would have so few settings compared to the movie, but I still found it intriguing how the story was altered to accommodate these extra locations. For instance, in both versions there's a big party at Uncle Willie's house the night before the wedding. In the play, we only hear characters discussing the party afterwards, whereas in the film, we see some of what happens at the party, which flows better into what happens later. Speaking of which, the swimming pool has an important role in both versions after this party, but in the film this is foreshadowed by setting an earlier scene at the pool, which was set elsewhere in the play.

The change of settings, while interesting, was kind of to be expected. The change that really surprised me was the omission from the film of a character who figures prominently in the play: Alexander "Sandy" Lord, Tracy's brother. In both versions, Tracy has a brother named Junius, who is mentioned but never makes an appearance. In the play, her other brother Sandy is the one responsible for bringing the reporter and photographer to the house to keep their publisher from running a scandalous story about Mr. Lord. Then later Sandy comes up with the idea to write a scandalous story about the publisher so no one has to write a story about either Tracy's wedding or their father. How could a character who facilitates such crucial aspects of the plot be completely eliminated from the story, you ask? Simple: the film gives these tasks to C.K. Dexter Haven, Tracy's ex-husband. Personally, I think this was a stroke of genius, no offense to Sandy, or Philip Barry. The thing is, the play ends essentially the same way as the movie, but I feel like that ending makes way more sense if Dexter was trying to help Tracy from the beginning. We don't see Dexter very much in the play, and he's kind of under-developed. Similarly, while Sandy does a lot in the play, we don't get a very good sense of who he is either. But blending them into one character creates a new, multi-dimensional, realistic person who greatly enhances the story. I don't know how Donald Ogden Stewart came up with the rather bizarre idea of combining the brother and the ex-husband, but it works remarkably well.

Beyond this, there are a few other minor changes. Some of the lines are exactly the same, but the lines around them are different, slightly altering their meaning, which I found fascinating. Also, the play has several PG-rated swear words that were replaced with G-rated swear words in the film, which I assume was just to comply with the Hays code. Otherwise, the story and most of the characters are fairly consistent, and the inconsistencies mainly serve to make the movie stronger; thus this is the epitome of a well-adapted screenplay. But really, given how much I love this film, how could I think otherwise?

Another interesting tidbit: In 1956, The Philadelphia Story was remade into a musical called High Society, and while that version has many significant differences from the original story (it's not even set in Philadelphia, for one thing), I did notice that several lines from the play that were cut from the 1940 version made their way into the 1956 version. But there's no Sandy in the musical either.

Next up: Here Comes Mr. Jordan, based on the play Heaven Can Wait by Harry Segall. I haven't seen or read either of those, but I have seen the 1978 remake, so I'm excited to see how the original compares.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

1939: Gone with the Wind



Screenplay by Sidney Howard
Adapted from the novel Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

This Civil War/Reconstruction-era story is centered around Scarlett O'Hara, who grew up on a plantation in Georgia. Despite having all the young men in the area wrapped around her finger, Scarlett has eyes only for Ashley Wilkes, who seems to feel the same way about her but nevertheless marries his cousin Melanie, as their family expects. Resourceful and determined, Scarlett makes it through the war and reconstruction better than most of her neighbors, but even though she marries three different men and makes a small fortune for herself, she never stops longing for Ashley. Consequently, she stubbornly refuses to see what is plain to the rest of the world: she is clearly much better suited for her third husband, the roguish, practical Rhett Butler, than the honorable, daydreaming Ashley Wilkes.

This is exactly what I was talking about in my intro post when I said, "a great adaptation should capture the spirit of the original story without feeling confined by it." Given that the novel is 1,037 pages long, it's amazing to me how faithful the film is to the original story. Almost all of the major plot points remain, and the novel and the film unquestionably have the same heart. I think a lot of credit belongs to the acting, particularly Vivien Leigh's incredible Oscar-winning performance as Scarlett, which I blogged about here. In a one-second glance, Leigh conveys multi-paragraph descriptions of Scarlett's thoughts and feelings. Of course, this only goes so far, so it was still necessary to make a few cuts. In my opinion, they made the right ones.

In general, I think the changes can be divided into two categories. The first is changes to minor characters. The novel goes into significant detail about all the O'Haras' neighbors and several Atlanta families and how the war and reconstruction affected them. The film includes some of these, but often multiple characters were combined into one, and some were eliminated altogether. To be honest, I got most of them mixed up when I was reading the book, so this is no significant loss. There are enough minor county people and townspeople to further the main characters' stories and convey the widespread affects of historical events without bogging down the story too much, so the film unquestionably succeeded there. Slightly more controversial is the elimination of Scarlett's first two children. Scarlett doesn't really pay very much attention to them, so they're not crucial to the story, but there are a couple of plot points that aren't quite the same without them. In the book, Scarlett has a son before helping Melanie give birth, which means two things: Scarlett actually had some knowledge of childbirth to help her in the book, unlike in the movie in which she literally has no clue what she's doing; and there was much more urgency for Scarlett to leave Atlanta in the book, with her own child's safety to think about, which explains not only Melanie's intense gratitude that Scarlett doesn't abandon her, but also how much weight a promise to Ashley carries with Scarlett. The movie is slightly lacking without these, but it still pretty much works. Scarlett's second child really only matters in the book when she's pregnant with her, which is when she's building up her mills (in the book she has two mills, in the movie only one, but that's immaterial). In both versions, the town is scandalized that a woman, particularly one with a husband to support her, is working outside the home. In the book the scandal is heightened by the fact that she is appearing in public while obviously pregnant, which was not done at the time. This pregnancy is also what convinces Ashley to help her at the mill and is another example of Rhett going out of his way to be nice to her, but the movie is fine without this. The final minor character change is the elimination of two ragged ex-soldiers who help Scarlett after the war: one at Tara and the other in Atlanta. The movie does a good job of modifying the plot so that their characters become unnecessary, but they do have a couple of lines that were just too good to not include, and the film gives those to other characters. Interestingly, most of these lines are given to Mammy, whose shrewdness is very similar to theirs, so it works remarkably well. Mammy also absorbs the purpose of a couple of other slave characters from the book who didn't make it into the movie, so she's more important in the film than in the novel, which is definitely not a bad thing because she's one of the best characters.

The second category of changes are those that make the movie a lot cleaner than the book. Several conversations in the novel, particularly between Rhett and Scarlett, are fairly sexually explicit, if not by today's standards, at least by 1939 Hollywood's standards; thus they were unsurprisingly removed or modified. The film actually has more sexual content than one might expect for that time, but significantly less than the book. I think the biggest impact this has on the story is in the movie Rhett tells Scarlett that he loves her several times early on, so it seems kind of odd that Scarlett doesn't think that he loves her. By contrast, in the book, he doesn't say he loves her until towards the end, but he repeatedly says that he "wants" her. I guess that's what film Scarlett infers when he says "love," but it's interesting to me that they felt the need to change the word anyway. There are a few other instances of sexual content being toned down or eliminated, but the most significant cleaning up the movie does is in regards to racism. People who have only seen the film without reading the book might be surprised to know that the movie is drastically less racist than the book, since the movie is plenty racist. I think any story about the American Civil War from the perspective of the South has to be inherently racist to some degree, but it's fascinating the way the filmmakers toned it down. For instance, the book uses the N-word many times, although most of the more proper characters discourage its use, but the film doesn't use it at all. The KKK features prominently in the book, and it's portrayed as the only method of law and order protecting the women of Atlanta; the movie never mentions it by name, although it had to kind of keep it to explain how Scarlett's second husband died, but it makes that sound like a one-time raid on Shantytown rather than an organized group. The book goes on and on about how bad freedom was for the slaves who were dependent on their owners; the movie shows a couple shots of loafing black men on the streets of Atlanta, but that's about it. Overall, the movie is a lot more focused on the main characters' stories than the turmoil of the South as its society was overthrown, so it stands to reason that it would eliminate some of the long passages glorifying the South's traditions. In this way, it seems like the film had enough racism to satisfy racists, while cutting back enough to satisfy non-racist fans of the story, thereby satisfying everyone, which could partly explain the film's immense success. But that's pure speculation on my part.

At the core of both the novel and the film is a story about different types of people and how they react when their world is turned upside-down. Margaret Mitchell created a rich story full of complex and realistic characters that had the potential to transfer perfectly from the page to the screen if placed in the proper hands, and luckily, that's precisely what happened.

Stay tuned for my very favorite movie of all time, The Philadelphia Story, based on the play by Philip Barry.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

1938: Pygmalion

Screenplay by Ian Dalrymple, Cecil Lewis, W.P. Lipscomb, and George Bernard Shaw
Adapted from the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

A professor of phonetics, Henry Higgins, claims that he can pass a common flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, off as a duchess in a few months by teaching her to speak properly, and then proceeds to prove it.

This is the first time that a screenplay that won this award was written by the author of the original material, although Shaw apparently had help re-writing it for the screen. Unsurprisingly, this is definitely the most faithful adaptation so far. The vast majority of the lines are word-for-word the same, although naturally a few lines are eliminated, and a couple of scenes are added. The film shows more of Higgins teaching Eliza to talk between her arrival at his house and their outing to his mother's than the play, which barely shows any. The play also jumps straight from the fiasco at Henry's mother's house, where Eliza drops a shocking b-bomb (that is, she uses the word "bloody"), to the Embassy ball; the film adds more teaching in between. While I'm sure Shaw had some profound dramatic reason for not showing this in the play, it's helpful to see more of Eliza's journey to appreciate how hard both she and Henry work to make her presentable. These scenes are completely consistent with the play, and one could easily imagine them happening off stage. Overall, despite these changes, the movie follows the play extremely closely throughout, up until the very end, which is suddenly, startlingly different.

Spoiler alert: here's how they end. Towards the end in both versions, everyone is once again at Henry's mother's house, including Eliza's father, who has just announced his forthcoming wedding. Everyone except Henry plans to attend. Henry is upset because Eliza has asserted that she's not going back to his house to keep track of his stuff and bring him his slippers like she had been doing. No, she intends to leave him and marry Freddy, a silly young man who has fallen in love with her. The play ends with Eliza and Mrs. Higgins leaving to attend Mr. Doolittle's wedding, and Henry laughing about the thought of her marrying Freddy. There is also a rather long epilogue to the play in which Shaw explains that Eliza does in fact marry Freddy and open up a flower shop with him. In the movie, however, Eliza is going to go to her father's wedding, but then Freddy shows up in a car and they drive away together. Henry storms home and starts throwing things, accidentally turning on the first record he made of Eliza's voice. He turns it off, but then she says the next line, and he looks over to see her standing there, and says, "Where the devil are my slippers?" Even though I was kind of expecting this, it still made me angry that she would go back to him after he'd treated her so abominably. Even though Freddy's kind of a doofus, I still found it refreshing for her to end up with him in the play.

Reading this play and watching this film was utterly fascinating for me, since I had done neither before this project. I knew that the musical My Fair Lady, the film version of which won Best Picture in 1964, was based on this story, but I had no idea how closely. Reading the play, I was astonished at how much of the dialogue was exactly the same as the musical. But even more fascinating was that almost everything the movie added that wasn't in the play ended up in My Fair Lady, like "The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain." And then of course the film ends exactly the way the musical does (hence I was kind of expecting it). Pygmalion is so similar to My Fair Lady that, though I knew it wasn't a musical, I still kept feeling like we were about to hear the songs in the score, and having to remind myself that they hadn't been written yet. If you've seen My Fair Lady, imagine removing the songs and replacing the Ascot part with a scene at Henry's mother's house, and that's Pygmalion. Nevertheless, it's fun to see how the story evolved slightly from play to film to musical, and I'm very glad this project gave me an appreciation of that progression.

Coming up next is the epic, 4-hour long, Best Picture-winning, Best Actress-winning Gone with the Wind! The novel by Margaret Mitchell is over 1,000 pages, so it will probably take me a while to get through it, but I'm sure it will be an easier read than Zola and His Time, so that's something.

Monday, April 17, 2017

1937: The Life of Emile Zola

Screenplay by Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg, and Norman Reilly Raine
Adapted from the book Zola and his Time by Matthew Josephson

Emile Zola was a French author and activist who took France - and much of the rest of the world - by storm in the second half of the 19th century, first by the controversial novels he published, and later by his defense of a wrongfully imprisoned army captain.

Back in 2010 when I watched this movie for my Best Picture blog, I noted that the title was misleading, since the movie glossed over most of Zola's life and focused mainly on the Dreyfus Affair. At the time, I asserted, "But it shouldn't have been done any other way." I am here to tell you now, after having slogged through the 521 pages of Zola and His Time, that I don't think I've ever written a more accurate sentence. Perhaps if I were more familiar with Zola's works, I would have appreciated reading all the dry, specific details of how he came up with each idea, how each book was received, and what Matthew Josephson personally thought of each one, but as it was, I found most of it interminably dull. I don't think that a book has ever literally put me to sleep before, but this one did. The book was split into four parts, and not until the last one, beginning about 400 pages in, was the Dreyfus Affair touched upon. And that's when the story actually gets interesting. It therefore stands to reason that this is the main focus of the film. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the screenplay was adapted from Zola and His Time Book Four: "Crusade", since so little of the first three parts makes its way into the film, and that which does is drastically changed.

The book makes much of Zola's instrumental role in the beginning of the so-called Naturalist movement, which claimed that everything could be explained by science. He was particularly fascinated by reproduction, which featured prominently in his works, explaining why they were so controversial. He spent most of his life writing a 20 volume series about one family through the generations. While each book had its own theme and specific focus, the family tree is what held them all together. This is completely ignored in the movie, which doesn't even mention naturalism once (production codes, perhaps?). The film makes it seem as if each of his works was a crusade of its own, with the sole purpose of exposing some deep injustice. The book makes it clear that, at least at the start, Zola's purpose was to observe the world and report his findings, not necessarily to inflame the masses, although that's what kept happening. The film focuses mostly on his volume about the army, and ties it into the Dreyfus Affair; the book gives that volume no more emphasis than the others.

While the book gives a dry, textbook-like account of a man's life, the film tells the dramatic story of a gross miscarriage of justice that is (spoiler alert) eventually overturned. As that is by far the most fascinating aspect - by which I mean the only fascinating aspect - of the book, it was not only appropriate, but absolutely necessary, to adapt it this way. Though far from the most riveting film ever made, it's also far from the most boring, which I consider an immense achievement after reading that book. This is one of those rare cases when the movie is actually significantly better than the book it's adapted from.

In fairness, though, I must point out the one aspect that the book did better: the issue of antisemitism. Captain Dreyfus was a Jewish officer at a time when the Catholic church was struggling to regain power in France. An easy way to regain power is to unite people over a common enemy, and non-Catholics, particularly Jews, were a convenient target. This is pretty much the only reason Dreyfus was suspected and convicted of a crime he had nothing to do with. The film very briefly shows a ledger with Dreyfus's name next to "Religion: Jew", and right afterwards someone comments, "How did he get to be an officer?" but that's the only time this is mentioned. The book goes into great detail explaining the feeling of the country at the time and Zola's disgust with antisemitism. As usual, it was a bit more than necessary, but it helped explain both why Zola was ultimately persuaded to speak out and why most of the country was so vehemently against both him and Dreyfus. This also contributes to the drama and the fighting for justice theme that the movie clings to, so at first it seems a little odd that the film would downplay this so much. But here's the thing: the book was published in 1928; the movie was made in 1937. The book still talks about "the World War" as if humanity had learned its lesson, as if nothing like that could ever happen again. But by the time the movie was made, there was a lot of unrest in Europe, much of which was centered around antisemitism. I'm far from a history expert, but it seems to me that Hollywood didn't want to alienate anyone by being openly anti-antisemitic, since the U.S. was trying to stay out of another war at that point. So the movie focuses on the miscarriage of justice aspect while avoiding as much as possible the bigotry aspect. But at least they didn't eliminate it completely. And ten years later the Best Picture Winner was entirely devoted to condemning antisemitism, even though it still avoided mentioning the Holocaust that had just happened, so...progress?

Whew. I really hope there aren't too many more books like this that inspired Best Adapted Screenplay winners, or I may never get through this project. Next up is Pygmalion, based on the play by George Bernard Shaw, which I'm assuming is a much faster read than this was.