Book to film

Tricks to turning pages into frames

As far as Lana Wachowski is concerned, there is no such thing as an unfilmable book. “Why would you want to build a barrier to an artist’s investigation or interpretation of someone else’s work?” asks the co-screenwriter (with brother Andy and Tom Tykwer) of “Cloud Atlas,” based on the stylistically complex David Mitchell novel. “A mentality that [something] is unfilmable seems antithetical to the project of art.”

Wachowski is not the only screenwriter who feels this way. Filmmakers have been tackling difficult books for years — think of “Ulysses,” “Moby-Dick” and “Love in the Time of Cholera” — with varying degrees of success. And this fall, the hard-to-adapt sweepstakes gets even more interesting, with several challenging books making their way to the screen.

Tricks to turning pages into frames
Anna Karenina’

(opens Nov. 16)

The Life of Pi’

(opens Nov. 21)

Cogan’s Trade,’ filmed as ‘Killing Them Softly’

(opens Nov. 30)

On the Road’

(opens Dec. 21)

Cloud Atlas’

Adaptation problem: A complex narrative featuring multiple stories ranging from the 19th century to the far future, with each episode cut off in the middle as the narrative moves into the future, then picked up again as it moves back into the past.

Solution: Look for connections between the stories, cast actors in multiple roles, film as a mosaic, cutting from one story to the next, rather than starting a story, stopping it and starting another.

"Starting a story 90 minutes into the movie wasn't feasible," says Andy Wachowski. "So Lana had this idea based on a line [in one of the segments], 'My extensive experience as an editor has led to a disdain for flashback and flash forwards.' She wrote the first 10 pages in this mosaic form, and read it to us."

"The breakthrough was the process of locking ourselves in a house, and picking every scene and situation we loved in the book, writing them on index cards, then realizing the longer we stared at this puzzle, new connections opened up," Tykwer says. "We discovered characters had secret connections between the stories, and we decided, Why not have them played by the same actor?"

More: Review: 'Cloud Atlas' tumbles to Earth | On Location: Makeup and hair star in 'Cloud Atlas' | How 'Cloud Atlas' is (a little) like 'The Dark Knight'

Anna Karenina’

Adaptation problem: Putting a new spin on a work that has already been filmed more than a dozen times.

Solution: Mix theatricality and realism. Anna's story will be set inside a theater, as if it were a stage play, while the story of Levin, the country landowner, will take place outside theatrical confines.

"I started out by saying I want a film about Anna Karenina and I want it as faithful as possible," says director Joe Wright. "But I have become frustrated with the constraints of realism, and I felt through stylization I could get through to the essence of the characters. One of the exciting challenges was to not touch the screenplay [by Tom Stoppard] and treat it as the text of a play, and to find ways of representing what [Stoppard] had written within the limitations of the theater. And I find that limitations can actually liberate you.

"I am interested in film grammar and the language of the novel form. I found it interesting this idea that autobiographic form could exist in a cinematic reality [Levin's story], contrasted with Anna's artificial reality."

Wright says Stoppard is a writer who really needs to know what he's doing before going forward. "There were meetings where we discussed how to do it," Wright says, "the importance of Levin, the fact the story was a meditation on love in all its many forms. If it was about love, it was in the film; if not, it wasn't."

More: Keira Knightley returns to period films with 'Anna Karenina' | 'Anna Karenina' review: Joe Wright's artifice overshadows actors | A young Swedish actress takes charge of her career

The Life of Pi’

Adaptation problem: An episodic work combining spiritualism and magic realism, much of it told through the thoughts of a young boy as he travels on a sea voyage with a tiger as his only companion.

Solution: Find the balance between different tones; add dialogue where necessary.

"The material was very episodic and spent a lot of time in the mind of a young boy as he came of age learning about religion, seeing how people around him viewed the world," says screenwriter David Magee. "And the second act is on the water with Pi and the Bengal tiger. In an early incarnation, we [Magee and director Ang Lee] tried to write the entire second act without any dialogue. Eventually we knew we would have to have him talk to the tiger at some point, but we didn't want it to be expository but about his emotional connection to the tiger. And we had Pi writing in his journal little thoughts of the day, and you're hearing that in voice-over.

"Finding the balance between the two stories so you are forcing the audience to come up with their own conclusion about things is very tricky. We did our best to solve that, and I could play with that forever."

More: Ang Lee takes leap of faith, film technology in 'Life of Pi' | James Cameron: 'Life of Pi' 'breaks the paradigm' of 3-D movies | AFI Fest: Tobey Maguire among those who didn't survive in 'Life of Pi'

Cogan’s Trade,’ filmed as ‘Killing Them Softly’

Adaptation problem: A crime novel told almost entirely in dialogue, with long digressions, which needs to be shaped into a standard plot format.

Solution: Stay dialogue heavy, but don't ignore plot.

"Conventional wisdom says you shouldn't make a movie that's all dialogue," says writer-director Andrew Dominik, "which is kind of what this film is. The thing about [author George V.] Higgins is he is interested in people, and he has these huge chunks of dialogue with the plot tucked in the corner. That's what attracted me about it, and the challenge was to see if you could make a movie that way, and a lot of what's discussed is not driving the plot forward."

Dominik says he selected scenes from the book that simply interested him and others that "drive the plot. I try to prune all that stuff down until it has some sense of narrative urgency."

The story, which was written in 1974 about the crisis of confidence a robbery causes in the illegal gambling industry, was also updated to 2008, in order to draw a parallel with the global economic collapse. "In crime films we see Americans as they are," says Dominik, "but it's disguised, it's about the capitalist ideal in its most base form. So I was making a crime film about a crisis in its capitalist economy, and it seemed too good to ignore the parallels."

More: In calling for summit on violence, Weinstein could showcase own slate | Cannes 2012: Brad Pitt's 'Killing Them Softly': Anti-capitalist screed?

On the Road’

Adaptation problem: An episodic novel filled with character and incident, subplots and digressions, told in a highly stylized, often poetic manner.

Solution: Cut down on the excess, pay attention to the inner journey of the main character.

"My feeling was to concentrate on the spiritual and emotional growth of the Sal Paradise character," author Jack Kerouac's stand-in, screenwriter José Rivera says. "Kerouac also gives you all that atmosphere, so I was hyper-conscientious in getting the details right in terms of the time period [the late '40s and early '50s].

Director Walter Salles "was very interested in adapting not so much the book but the scroll, the original first draft of the book [Kerouac typed the first draft on a long roll of Teletype paper], which is edgier, sexier, takes more risks and has a harsher edge than the novel," Rivera says.

In the end, says Rivera, he had to deal with "the enormous baggage that comes with the book, how we deal with the legions of fans, how the book changed things culturally. I had to ignore all the voices out there who hate the idea of an 'On the Road' film."

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