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.

Monday, March 6, 2017

1935: The Informer

Screenplay by Dudley Nichols
Adapted from the novel The Informer by Liam O'Flaherty

When penniless, dim-witted Gypo Nolan is approached by his best friend, Frankie McPhillip, who has been in hiding because there's a price on his head, Gypo betrays him for cash without pausing to think about the consequences. But informers are dangerous to the Revolutionary Organization, to which Gypo and Frankie once belonged, and its leaders are determined to discover and exterminate the culprit.

I don't know a whole lot about the Irish Civil War, so I'm not sure I fully understood the context of this story. Even so, it was very stressful, both to read and to watch. I couldn't condone Gypo's actions, but also couldn't help feeling sorry for him. I kept trying to tell him to stop spending his money so obviously, to lay low so no one would suspect him, but he didn't listen to me in either the book or the movie. Consequently, this is definitely not one of my favorite movies (or books), but as far as adapted screenplays go, it's pretty good.

The story is essentially the same in both versions, with a few notable changes, almost all of which served to make the major characters more likable in the film. The movie starts with Gypo's girlfriend, Katie, berating him for having no money and wishing for £20, which would be enough to take them to America. As it happens, £20 is exactly the price the police are offering for information regarding Frankie's whereabouts. In the book, however, he has no such plan for the funds, never mentions going to America, and doesn't even seem to really care about Katie all that much. After Gypo's meeting with Frankie in the book, all he can think about is how he has no money for a bed for the night, and somehow convinces himself that the only way to get it is by informing, which is blatantly not true. The movie makes his betrayal more understandable; there's no way he'd be able to get £20 any other way, and since this was an American-made movie, of course he'd want to come to America, right? But in the book, he doesn't need anywhere near £20, and the narrator mentions several alternative ways he could have gotten enough for a bed, but for some reason, they don't occur to Gypo. This is just one of several instances when the movie tweaks situations and motives to make not only Gypo, but also Frankie, Katie, and Dan (the leader of the Organization) more relatable and comprehensible. Most of the characters in the book are pretty despicable, which I think was part of the point of the story, but I can certainly understand the temptation to make them a little better for the film.

Otherwise, it's a pretty faithful adaptation. A lot of the dialogue is taken directly from the novel. There are several introspective passages in the book that put us inside the heads of various characters, and I thought the movie did a good job of showing Gypo's thoughts in particular, especially when he's making the decision at the beginning. The wanted poster that he initially tears down keeps following him, and he starts seeing it everywhere, and this visual and the actor's reactions are more than enough to capture pages of Gypo wrestling with himself. Later, when he's on his spending spree, the movie introduces a man who follows him around and encourages him. This character is not in the novel, and he has no name in the movie, so part of me thought he wasn't actually real, since pretty much everything he said or did was something Gypo thought in the book. But other characters interacted with him, so I guess he was supposed to actually be there, and not a figment of Gypo's drunken imagination, which would have been interesting. Regardless, this character helps bring Gypo's thoughts to life the way the narrator does in the book, which works quite well. Overall, I was quite impressed with how the movie dealt with scenes that I didn't think would lend themselves to film, so if for no other reason, that's why it deserved this award.

The winner of 1936 was the final original screenplay that didn't get its own separate category, so that will be the last year I'll skip. Next on this blog will be 1937's Best Picture Winner, The Life of Emile Zola, based on the book Zola and His Time by Matthew Josephson.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

1934: It Happened One Night

Screenplay by Robert Riskin
Adapted from the short story "Night Bus" by Samuel Hopkins Adams

An heiress runs away from Florida toward the aviator she's in love with (of whom her father disapproves) in New York. She meets a man on the bus whom she initially despises, and who doesn't think much better of her, but through their adventures and misadventures they ultimately fall for each other.

I'm not sure why Robert Riskin, or whoever was in charge of this decision, felt the need to change the title from "Night Bus" to It Happened One Night, especially since it actually happens over the course of several nights, but that's only one of several random details changed in this adaptation. The heiress Elspeth Andrews for some reason became Ellen Andrews. Mr. Shapley, who recognized her on the bus, changed his first name from Horace to Oscar. But the man she falls in love with is Peter Warne in both versions. Instead of living on potatoes, the film gives them carrots instead. None of these changes really makes a big difference in the grand scheme of the story; I'm just confused about why the filmmakers thought they were necessary.

There were other changes, however, that I totally understand. The stakes are much higher for both the main characters in the movie than in the short story, in several ways. In the original story, Peter is an unemployed jack-of-all-trades looking for a job. He doesn't know who Elspeth is until she tells him, and then he isn't all that interested. He just helps her out because he feels bad for her. Movie Peter, however, is a recently-fired reporter who knows exactly who Ellen is, and wants to stick with her all the way to New York so he can have an exclusive story to shove in his former boss's face. Elspeth is intending to elope with King, the flyer, whereas Ellen has already married him, but was whisked away by her father before the marriage was consummated. This adds an additional complication at the end because Peter and Ellen have to wait for her marriage to be annulled, which isn't an issue in "Night Bus." In the short story, they always have a little money left, and Peter even has an extra $10 socked away, but in the movie they run out of cash entirely, which leads to more problems. Hollywood has always loved drama, and higher stakes lead to greater drama, thus these changes make sense. Sometimes movies go over-the-top with the drama, but I don't think that applies in this case, and I kind of like the added tension here.

The difference between adapting a novel into a feature film and adapting a short story into a feature film is in the former, cuts almost always have to be made, whereas in the latter, additions almost always need to be made. So I wasn't surprised to find several conversations and scenes added for the movie. What did surprise me was that some of the film's best moments were not actually in "Night Bus" at all, including the iconic hitchhiking scene. Granted, they do hitchhike in the short story, and the outcome is essentially the same, but the process is glossed over. In It Happened One Night, Peter tries to show off his hitchhiking skills, but no one stops until Ellen steps up to the side of the road and shows off her leg, proving that, as she puts it, "the limb is mightier than the thumb."

The hitchhiking example is consistent with most of the other additions in that it makes her a lot sassier, and him a lot cockier, than they were in the short story. Far from turning Peter and Elspeth/Ellen into caricatures, which could easily have happened, these changes actually do a great job of adding dimension to the characters and making them seem more realistic. The premise and the plot of "Night Bus" are intriguing, but I couldn't quite see the characters as actual people. It Happened One Night brings them to life with Oscar-winning performances by Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert and plenty of additional dialogue that there just wasn't room for in the short story. Although "short" is a relative term, as the story is about 60 pages long. Anyway, my point is, the movie fleshed out the characters and story to make them more dramatic, entertaining, and believable, which I think is exactly what an adapted screenplay should do. Maybe I'm biased because I've seen the movie so many times, but apart from the unnecessary name changes I thought the story was adapted very well.

The following year's winner was The Informer, based on the novel by Liam O'Flaherty. Apparently screenwriter Dudley Nichols initially declined the Oscar, but then accepted it a few years later, for some reason. For the purposes of this blog, I don't care whether Oscars are accepted; as long as they're awarded, I'm counting them. So that will be coming up next.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

1932/1933: Little Women

Screenplay by Victor Heerman and Sarah Y. Mason
Adapted from the novel Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

The four March girls - Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy - and their neighbor Laurie learn all about love, loss, and life in this Civil War era coming-of-age story.

Overall, I think the first half of the story was adapted quite well. Granted, all the actresses were way too old to be playing the sisters at the beginning - 23-year-old Joan Bennett playing 12-year-old Amy was definitely a stretch - but I think it was better than changing actresses halfway through, and they all portrayed the individualized sisters from the book very well. While some of the details of the story were changed or simplified, for the most part the film still captures the essence of the book. My main objection to the first half of the film is that neither Laurie's character nor his relationship with the girls was developed nearly as well as it could have been, which led to several issues in the second half. Warning: 149-year-old spoilers ahead

In my opinion, this movie totally botched the Laurie storyline in the second half. I was okay with some of the cuts; the whole thing about Jo thinking Beth was in love with him was kind of weird and unnecessary, but it did give a good excuse for Jo to leave. In the movie she leaves after turning Laurie down, whereas in the book he doesn't declare his love until after she comes back, but these are relatively minor changes that still could have worked. The problem is the film doesn't show enough of Laurie's perspective after Jo rejects him. In the book, he pines and mopes around Europe until he meets up with Amy, who's basically like, "Dude, get over yourself, you can't just give up on life because Jo's not in love with you." And then he gets all mad and hurt and criticizes her for saying she's going to marry this random Fred guy (who was completely cut out of the movie) for money even though she doesn't love him, and storms off. But eventually they both realize the other is right and Laurie starts living wholeheartedly again and Amy turns down Fred, so when they meet up again they're already pretty far along the path of falling in love. Personally, I really enjoyed seeing this unfold in the book, so I was extremely disappointed that it was entirely eliminated from the movie. In the film, Jo gets upset about ruining her friendship with Laurie by refusing to marry him, but we don't actually see Laurie acting all that upset. It's mentioned that Laurie and Amy met up in Europe, we see Laurie comfort Amy after Beth's death, and the next thing you know, they're married. I understand that it's a long, complicated story and things needed to be simplified, but this felt entirely too rushed. Similarly, Jo's relationship with Bhaer turned romantic far more quickly in the movie than in the book, but that bothered me less than the Amy/Laurie thing.

It seems like this movie was intended to be a vehicle for Katharine Hepburn, who was a promising new star at the time, but would soon come to be known as "box office poison." Legend has it that she was actually a bit of a tomboy in real life, so the part of Jo must have seemed perfect for her. This is yet another example of the first half of the film outdoing the second half: Hepburn does a great job of capturing the young Jo's exuberance and creativity and spunk, but sinks into melodrama when her character grows up. The way she looks at Bhaer in all of their scenes together is utterly ridiculous, especially since book Jo doesn't think of him romantically until much later. Even so, I found this performance as a whole immeasurably superior to her performance in Morning Glory, for which she won the 1932/1933 Best Actress Oscar. If she had to win an Oscar that year, it should probably have been for Little Women instead, but of course nobody asked me.

Despite my paragraph-long rant about how it could have been adapted better, I think this was a worthy adapted screenplay attempt. It's difficult to turn dense novels into 2-hour feature films, and I've definitely seen worse. I wasn't sorry for an excuse to finally read this book, since I've been meaning to for a while, especially after seeing Louisa May Alcott hilariously portrayed in Edgar Allan Poe's Murder Mystery Dinner Party. There are several other film versions of Little Women, and now I'm curious about how they handled the Amy/Laurie thing, so I'll probably watch some of them soon too. But as far as this project goes, next on the itinerary is It Happened One Night - which also won both Best Actress and Best Picture, so I've blogged about it twice already, but oh well - based on the story "Night Bus" by Samuel Hopkins Adams.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

1931/1932: Bad Girl

Screenplay by Edwin J. Burke
Adapted from the novel Bad Girl by Viña Delmar (and also on the play that was based on the novel, which I didn't read)

Eddie and Dot fall in love and are essentially forced to get married after spending the night together. Despite this rocky start, their marriage is fairly happy for a while, but their lack of communication skills threatens to ruin their relationship, and possibly their lives, when Dot becomes pregnant with a baby that each thinks the other doesn't want.

This is the first winner of this award that I hadn't seen before. As I was reading the book, I kept thinking, How in the world did they make this into a movie? A significant portion of the book is characters' thoughts contrasted with their actions, and I was afraid the movie was going to mostly consist of voice-overs of internal monologues, which would have ruined the mood. Instead, the film added conversations between one of the leads and a secondary character when the other lead wasn't there, which effectively conveyed the communication breakdown without the cheesiness of narrated thoughts.

There were also several other changes, and they almost all served to make the film more entertaining, less thought-provoking, and/or more dramatic than the book. For instance, the character of Dot is far wittier in the movie than she is in the book. The novel portrays her as rather naïve, overly trusting, and unsure what's going on; in the film she seems more worldly, and always has a good comeback, which is definitely more fun to watch than if they'd kept her the same. Another major change is the way Dot deals with finding out she's pregnant. In both versions, she and Eddie each think the other doesn't want it and are afraid that Dot might die in childbirth, but in the book Dot goes to the extreme of almost having an illegal abortion. She consults some of her friends, whose roles were either eliminated or greatly reduced in the film, who tell her it's a good idea, and she even meets with a really sketchy doctor who agrees to do it, until her friend Edna - the only character with any sense in the book, although she's kind of annoying in the movie - wisely points out that it's much safer for Dot to have the baby with the help of a competent doctor than to have the kind of abortion that was available in the 1920s. All of that was cut from the movie.

The movie gives Dot a doctor she doesn't like and has Eddie work nights, and even do some boxing, to save up to give her a better doctor; in the book she has a great doctor who was recommended by Edna that they save up for together. The book doesn't have anything about Eddie trying to start his own shop and then using all his savings to buy furniture for a new surprise apartment for Dot instead, like he does in the movie. They do get a new apartment in the book, but it's Dot's idea, and all the furniture comes for free from Edna. I think this particular change was meant to further highlight how their best intentions come back to bite them when they don't communicate properly: Dot's afraid to tell Eddie she's pregnant, but he knows she's unhappy about something, so he spends all their money to make her happy, when they really should be saving their money for the baby. It works well in the film; it's just different from the book.

Overall, the tone of the film is much lighter and less philosophical than the book, which is fairly typical. Fittingly, the movie has a much more explicitly happy ending. Both versions end with Eddie not caring that the baby is drooling on him, but in the movie, right before that, they have a moment when they're both like, "Oh, I thought you didn't want the baby," which doesn't happen in the book. It's a minor thing, but the movie implies that the couple's communication skills are improving, whereas the audience gets no such encouragement from the book. The story was definitely Hollywood-ized when it was made into a movie, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Some of the changes were a bit disappointing - I would have been interested to see them tackle the abortion issue in the film - but not too surprising given the era.

I didn't bother tracking down the play, since I thought reading the novel would be sufficient, but now I'm kind of curious if it was more like the book or the movie. So I may have to find out someday. But first I'm going to read and watch Little Women, which is probably going to take a while, so I'm not sure when you'll hear from me again, but it will happen eventually.

Monday, January 30, 2017

1930/1931: Cimarron

Screenplay by Howard Estabrook
Adapted from the novel Cimarron by Edna Ferber

Sick of living with his in-laws in Wichita, Yancey Cravat moves to Oklahoma in the land rush of 1889 with his wife Sabra, young son Cimarron, and black servant Isaiah. Yancey quickly makes a name for himself as the editor of the town newspaper, in which he defends Native American rights and expresses other controversial opinions. But his wanderlust gets the best of him, and he often takes off for years at a time without a word to his family, which now includes daughter Donna, leaving Sabra to raise the children and keep the paper going on her own.

I found it fascinating, not to mention painful, to read and watch this story, with its blatant racism and sexism, in 2017, knowing that while we may have gotten more politically correct, we definitely haven't come as far as we should have by now. Most of the racism, particularly against Native Americans, is condemned, at least by Yancey. Sabra hates them for most of the story and only comes around towards the end. This is particularly uncomfortable since, at least in the book, it's told from Sabra's perspective. The movie skips over a lot of the parts that happened when Yancey wasn't there, which makes them seem more like dual protagonists, but in the book Sabra is unquestionably the main character, though I didn't really get the impression that the author was condoning her xenophobic opinions, at least when it was directed against the Native Americans. Racism in other forms - against African-Americans, Mexicans, and Jewish people - was presented and neither condoned nor condemned, which was realistic but uncomfortable.

One thing that I noticed and found especially interesting, if unsurprising, was that a lot of the racism was cut out or toned down in the movie. There are several Native American characters in the book who feature quite prominently; the only one who made it into the movie was Ruby Big Elk, who marries Cimarron Cravat. In the book, her parents visit Yancey and Sabra to tell them that the marriage has taken place and invite them to a ceremony; in the movie, Cim's just like "I'm marrying Ruby" - at which the viewers are almost like "Who?" since she's barely been in the movie up to that point - and Sabra says, "No you're not" and he retorts, "Dad says it's okay" and that's that. There are a few Native Americans in the background of other scenes, and a couple of them speak briefly, but Ruby's the only one who gets both a name and a speaking part. And this was 1931, so it almost goes without saying that they're mostly - possibly exclusively - played by white people in makeup.

Apart from having way fewer Native Americans and fewer scenes of Sabra on her own, the movie is fairly consistent with the book apart from two major changes. One is the character of Jesse Rickey, the printer at the newspaper. In the book he's described as an alcoholic who is good at his job when he's sober. In the movie he doesn't drink excessively but has a stammer that other characters make fun of until they get to know and love him. That was kind of unnecessary. The second change is quite complex and involves both the killing of the outlaw The Kid and the death of the servant Isaiah. In the book, the killing of The Kid happens when Sabra is on her way home from a visit to her parents, so it's only described after the fact, whereas in the movie, she's there watching it happen. In the movie, Isaiah is shot and killed in the crossfire. That's a lot cleaner than the book's version of his death, which comes several years after The Kid's. While Yancey is away, Sabra hires a Native American teenager to help her with the housework. In the movie it's implied that Ruby Big Elk was the first and only. In the book the first was Arita Red Feather, who ends up having Isaiah's baby, for which crime her tribe executes both of them. So the film eliminates both the unwed teen pregnancy and the gruesome method of their executions, which results in even less representation by cutting out yet another Native character and significantly reducing the screen time of the one African-American character.

To be honest, though, I wasn't really surprised that they cut out the whole Isaiah/Arita thing. On the contrary, I was a bit surprised that the movie didn't take out more of the sexual aspects until I remembered that this was still pre-Code. One of the major scenes in both the book and the film are when Yancey returns after five years away and immediately defends a prostitute whom Sabra has been trying to run out of town. In the book this happens before he goes to war, and in the movie he's already gone to war, but other than that, the scene is pretty consistent in both versions. The film does neglect to mention that the old rich man whom Donna sets her sights on is married to someone else when she starts seeing him. Apparently divorce was considered more scandalous than prostitution in 1931.

Overall, the best aspect of the adaptation is the spot-on casting of Sabra and Yancey. Irene Dunne perfectly captures both Sabra's innocence at the beginning and the way she grows and matures while generally standing by her convictions. Richard Dix acts exactly as Yancey is described. Several times the book mentions the way he lowers his head like a buffalo about to charge, and he does that in the movie, but it's subtle. When I watched it the first time, I would never have described him as doing that, but after reading the book I definitely noticed it. I think it would have been very easy to overdo this and make it look silly, but the way Dix does it looks perfectly natural. So even though the plot and the themes were slightly off, at least the movie got the main characters right.

The next winner of this award was Bad Girl, based on the novel by Viña Delmar, which I just finished reading today, so I should be blogging about that pretty soon.