Common wisdom tells us that the book is always better than the film. A movie based on a true story can never give us all of the layered complexity of real life.
But the object of adaptation is never just a faithful retelling. It’s instead a selective re-imagining of the tale, which brings into sharp focus essential truths about the characters and their world. It chooses not every chapter or speech, but just those elements that can distill the story’s special power and importance.
To pull off a skillful adaptation, you must be equal parts alchemist and seer, able to translate the often unwieldy bulk of the original story—hundreds of fiction pages, decades of a life—into a breathing and transformative tale on the screen.
In tackling Slumdog Millionaire, the adaptation of Vikas Swarup’s novel, originally titled, Q&A, screenwriter Simon Beaufoy confronted both inherent gifts and liabilities. The novel, an unlikely tale of a young man who emerges from the most wretched slums of Mumbai to win a fortune on a game show, is a dense, evocative, rambling account that in many ways works against adaptation to the screen.
In the novel, the main character, Ram (Jamal in the film), is abandoned as a baby and initially raised by a benevolent priest. Though a series of dire events punctuate his journey to adulthood, he also has many experiences that make him more worldly than his origins would have predicted; for example, he becomes the servant and confidant to a famous film actress.
Some of the most horrific sequences in the film originate in the book, such as the beggar pimp’s plot to blind Jamal and Salim. But the novel is also filled with long descriptions and many isolated events that don’t translate readily to a focused dramatic trajectory.
Several potential heroines appear at different points in the book—an adolescent girl Jamal saves from her abusive father and a beautiful prostitute whom he eventually liberates. But the novel contains no single love interest to anchor the main character’s progress to adulthood.
To adapt Slumdog Millionaire, Beaufoy had to distill a dense, wandering collection of anecdotes into a focused, suspenseful narrative. He had to invent his main character’s central motivation; for a young man long accustomed to erratic twists of fortune, the promise of money was not enough. Beaufoy needed a dramatic foil—a supporting character who could represent the perilous diversion that the hero’s life might have taken, there but for fortune. He had to choose among the novel’s many villains, a few whose actions would best show off Ram’s emerging heroism: his boldness, raw courage, and willingness to risk everything.
In the end, Beaufoy created a motivation in Jamal’s love interest, Latika, a character he invented, inspired by a combination of the characters of the abused daughter and the prostitute. Jamal’s childhood friend in the film, Latika has a capacity for joy in the most desperate circumstances that Jamal treasures like a talisman, drawing him to repeatedly seek her out and endeavor to hold onto her. Finally, his persistence and the beneficence of fate give him a way to unite them for good—which represents a turn of fortune that far surpasses his earnings on the game show.
To establish a dramatic foil, Beaufoy translated the innocent best friend from the novel into the more complex character of Salim, a big brother who both loved Jamal and was hardened by experience to grab power and control at all costs. Salim’s descent makes Jamal’s eventual triumph all the more satisfying.
And in search of villains—especially, the slum boss from Ram’s childhood and the beggar pimp—Beaufoy chose fulcrums against which Jamal has to leverage everything in order to forge his future as a powerful, independent adult.
In Frost/Nixon, veteran screenwriter Peter Morgan’s adaptation underwent a more subtle transformation from the original. Morgan wrote both the original stage play and the screenplay from the real-life pair-up of British talk-show host David Frost, who hoped for a scoop, and the disgraced ex-President, who aspired to resurrection.
In opening up the play for the screen, Morgan excised some dialogue, including some of Nixon’s reflective backstory, and added a nervous sweep to the action. We see Frost, glittering with anxious energy, unsuccessfully trolling for sponsors to an event that was costing him a fortune, all the while pressing forward to seal the deal. Nixon paces like a bull in an arena, gravely wounded but still seething with power. We speed among airports, TV studios, sleek hotel rooms, and the private recesses of Nixon’s San Clemente home, yielding the flavor of lives both privileged and detached.
But a subtle shift in story, from stage play to screen version, also alters its essence. In the play, as in the screenplay, Frost is portrayed as a slick operator who is over his head in challenging Nixon. As the interviews wear on, he improves on his game—cutting short Nixon’s strategic rambling, and lobbing a few pointed questions.
In the final act, however, the film diverges from the play on a key point. On the eve of the final interviews, after Frost receives a drunken phone call from Nixon, he recognizes that the ex-President is playing the game for keeps. Maintaining a vaunted position in the world has been Nixon’s lifelong quest. In the play as in the book, perhaps the call also stirs Frost’s own insecurities.
But in the play, the surprise gift of a new and damning segment of the Watergate tapes is a lucky one—the product of journalist Jim Reston’s tireless research. In the film, Morgan the screenwriter completed Frost’s dramatic arc—his journey to embrace the dead seriousness of his task and to, in effect, assume his own role in history—by making him the one to order the search for the segment of tape, leaving no stone unturned. At the same time, the film depicts Frost himself spending the same night in exhaustive preparation for the final round. That round, in drama as in real life, yields Nixon’s apology to the American people.
Waltz With Bashir, writer/director Ari Folman’s animated documentary feature, represents a particularly ambitious form of adaptation—one that goes after larger meaning, while leaving literal representation of true events far behind.
Folman’s process of making the film was a personal journey to recall repressed memories, both his and those of his fellow soldiers in the Israeli Army during the 1982 Lebanon War, when they shot flares to light a path for Lebanese forces to massacre civilians in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps.
But the main focus of Folman’s adaptation is neither historical documentation nor political commentary. He seeks to express the core of the war experience itself: the banal horror and psychological detachment that war promotes.
His choice to animate the work creates both another level of removal—from the photographic depiction to line drawings—and a bearable way to lead the viewer to experiences so sorrowful as to be indescribable. The animated versions of half-lucid memories, dreams, and surreal images that Waltz With Bashir brings to life carry a particular power that a more traditional rendering of the story might not.
Waltz With Bashir represents adaptation at its most magical and transformative: the story thrown out of order, half-remembered, even generalized to represent war in other places and times—but also, absolutely true to its core of shock, pain, and finally, self-awakening.
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