Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Novelist-Screenwriter versus Auteur Desire: The Player

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Novelist-Screenwriter versus Auteur Desire: The Player

Article excerpt

WHEN A NOVEL IS TRANSFORMED INTO A fil m, the script adaptation is usually written by someone other than the novelist and then typically directed by a third party. But what of the less common situation, where a novelist also writes the screenplay adaptation of his or her own work and what that task can involve? Novelists who adapt their work to film are in a double bind because they are trying to be true to two radically different media. They may hone in too close to their source and perhaps com- promise cinematic drama or find themselves guilty of tampering with whatever qualities may have been appreciated in the novel. One con- temporary novelist, Richard Price, had this com- mon complaint about scripting his own work:

Screenwriting has nothing to do with the virtues of being a novelist, nothing to do with writing style. Screenplays are all about mo- mentum. When you tear it [the novel] apart and structure something from the ground up, you have to cut out material you have an emotional connection to. It's material that makes the book memorable, but is harmful to a screenplay. It's like a dentist doing a root canal on himself in a mirror.1 (qtd. in Quart and Auster)

In cases of self-adaptation such as this, many of the typical questions of a film's fidelity to its source become more complicated, since with- out the novelist's adapted script for compari- son with the finished film, it is more difficult to claim that "this is not what the novelist wrote" or "meant" or "would have wanted." Once a script adaptation is completed, of course, it must be circulated for financial support and the eventual attachment of a director. This is the circumstance that Michael Tolkin found himself in after scripting his popular Hollywood novel The Player (1988), which eventually led to the hiring of Robert Altman to direct. Usually, as in this case, the screenwriter and director will consult on the screenplay, which may or may not result in something close to an intended shooting script, since consultation between a writer and director on the screenplay does not necessarily mean collaborative agreement. The screenplay coming out of consultation may or may not become the definitive document for what the director actually does in casting and in the extended production and postproduction processes that follow.

With the two questions in mind of how to adapt one's own novel into a script and what can transpire in the transformation of said script into a finished film, I investigated avail- able material on both writer Michael Tolkin and director Robert Altman relevant to The Player as novel, screenplay, and film. I also conducted a two-hour personal interview with Tolkin regarding his writing history and this adaptation project in particular. (The various dates of all the cited interviews given by Tolkin and Altman from 1992 to 2009 should also be noted here, given that their memory of events and impressions of their work sometimes show slight changes in personal and cultural perspective over time.) Michael Tolkin was not in the position of so many novelists who are unfamiliar with the demands of screenwriting, since he was already an avid reader and pro- duced scriptwriter for television and film, and he clearly knew the subject matter of his novel from the inside. Tolkin's experience with the Hollywood television and film industry began with his family's move to Hollywood from New York City when he was seven, since he was the son of a successful writer for television, Mel Tolkin, one of the original writers for Your Show of Shows and Sid Caesar:

I was around sound stages, cameras, and ca- bles since I was a little kid. Eventually (after college in Vermont and a few years of free- lance journalism in New York), I worked as a writer on a television series based on Animal House [Delta House]. I got a very quick three- month immersion in film and television pro- duction, the studios, the networks, and the battle going on between the networks and the studios. …

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