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.