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Read the Book, See the Movie: Part 5

Empire of the Sun

Since the beginning of the movies, teachers around the world have been able to awaken a love of reading in their students by using films adapted from great works of literature. Names like Dickens, Austen and Tolstoy instantly conjure up distinct worlds and characters to readers and moviegoers alike. The works of many classic authors, whose stories and lessons remain powerful and relevant, continue to be adapted frequently for the big screen.

MORE: Exclusive Interview with Oscar-nominated screenwriter Robin Swicord

Robin Swicord
Robin Swicord

Robin Swicord received an Oscar nomination as co-writer of the screen story for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Writing – Adapted Screenplay). Her screenwriting credits include numerous adaptations from novels: "Little Women" (1994); "Practical Magic" (1998); "Matilda" (1996); "Memoirs of a Geisha" (2005); and "The Jane Austen Book Club" (2007).

What kind of expectations for a modern audience did you keep in mind while adapting "Little Women?"

I think an adaptation of a classic novel should speak directly to its current audience, or there's little reason to make the film. Obviously when a screenwriter interprets a 19th-century novel, finding the material's contemporary relevance can be a challenge. In fact, "costume dramas" were very much out of vogue in Hollywood when Amy Pascal and I decided it was time for a new adaptation of"Little Women" --but we believed that a modern audience of women would relate to Alcott's characters, in spite of the corsets and long skirts and Civil War era conventions. We knew we had to highlight Alcott's intention: to tell the timeless story of four young women growing up to realize their ambitions, in a household headed by a single working mother.I tried to draw from the novel those themes and scenes that I felt resonated most for a contemporary viewer.I was also aware that the 19th-century genre dialogue in Louisa May Alcott's novel could seem false to the contemporary listener, so to find the film's voice, I read a number of "overland" diaries from Alcott's time, written by the first non-Native women who travelled West in America in the mid-19th century. This helped me train my own ear toward a more vernacular voice that I knew would be authentic to Alcott's era.

"Little Women"
"Little Women"

What differences did you find when adapting a narrative like "Matilda" (which takes place over a contained period of time) versus a decades-long story like "Memoirs of a Geisha?"

The challenge in adapting "Matilda"was to embellish and re-organize the scenes in Road Dahl's wonderful children's classic without departing from his distinctive, darkly comic voice. Nick Kazan and I had to make invisible tucks and repairs in Dahl's structure, moving and adjusting scenes in such a way that Matilda could move from the minor leagues of taking on her neglectful, self-centered parents to the major leagues of facing off against The Trunchbull, the diabolically insane Head of School; and we had to build a final act that would adequately showcase Matilda's heroism. In short, our challenges lay in stealthy invention rather than compression. With"Memoirs Of A Geisha," my work was to compress, streamline and often simplify the gloriously complex story created by the novelist Arthur Golden. Golden's story provided a naturally dramatic three-act narrative spine: a child is taken into slavery and as a young woman struggles toward the illusion of freedom by becoming a geisha; she can only truly free herself from bondage when she turns against the geisha world. A film of moderate length could contain only the most iconic elements of this sprawling epic novel stuffed with events and characters. I was constantly having to leave treasure behind as I adapted the book to film.

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"

Is there a particular method you use to create such strong female lead characters, and do you feel an affinity for novels with similar protagonists?

More likely I'm just drawn to good writing -- maybe I'm hoping it will rub off on me!I am "gender-neutral" when it comes to creating a character. In adaptation, of course, the character is given (in large part) by the novelist. I do my best to understand and honor the author's intentions. I tend to prepare as much as possible before starting and then slip into the novel much as an actor steps into a role.Rather than favoring female protagonists over male, my M.O. is toseek out novels with a strong narrative and an interesting, emotional story.I've made a long career trying to make movies that I'd love to see, and that I'd love to share with an audience. I did make a decision early in my twenties to write films that would be more worthy of the female actors I was seeing on the screen. It pained me to watch brilliant women who in some cases had trained for years at Juilliard or Yale Drama, only to be sidelined to skimpy roles that required the actor to do little more than be adorable wearing an even skimpier towel. I very much wanted to help change that norm. Because I've written strong roles for women I tend to be called in for that work, but I enjoy writing any rich character. I spent ten years working on the first (numerous) drafts of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," writing a male character with whom I felt perhaps my strongest alignment ever. Recently I adapted for television "The Outsiders" by S.E. Hinton, for American Zoetrope, andI felt very much at home inhabiting those three teen brothers raising themselves to be men.

The Victorian era’s most popular writer, Charles Dickens, is responsible for some of the most indelible characters both on the written page and on the silver screen. Among his works translated to film many times over the years are Oliver Twist (1837-39), A Christmas Carol (1843, one of several holiday-themed works), David Copperfield (1849-50), A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Great Expectations (1860-61). His novels often reflect the social conditions of the time, with a focus on illuminating the situation of the working lower classes.

War and Peace

Another author with keen social insights is Jane Austen, who remains one of the most popular and influential writers in the English language. Her depiction of the treatment of women and the manners of the various social classes distinguishes her novels, which have influenced the modern romantic comedy. Her six novels have all been adapted for film and television, most significantly with the Academy Award-winning films "Sense and Sensibility" (1995) and "Emma" (1996), based on her 1811 and 1815 novels respectively.

Often cited by critics as the greatest novel of all time, the epic War and Peace (1865-69) was written by Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy and has been filmed several times, most notably by director Sergei Bondarchuk, in a version that was released in the U.S.S.R. in four parts (1965-67), and an American version directed by King Vidor (1956). His novel Anna Karenina (initially serialized over a four-year period beginning in 1874) has also been filmed numerous times around the world, including English-language versions starring Greta Garbo (1935) and Vivien Leigh (1948). Another major Russian novelist whose works have been filmed is Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whose books adapted to film include Crime and Punishment (1865-66) and The Brothers Karamazov (1879-80). 


Additional Links

Read the Book, See the Movie
Margaret Herrick Library
Academy Film Archive

On the Set

From Here to Eternity

Even when they don’t write the screenplays for the films based on their novels, authors are often welcome on film sets and maintain a relationship with the filmmakers. Click here to see literary notables over the years visiting productions inspired by their work.

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