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Book Report: My Movie Business

Gentle Reader will remember that I am peculiarly fascinated by adaptation, particularly the adaptation of written fiction to stage and screen. One of my contentions is that it is possible to make a good movie that is close to the work it is taken from, but that it is probably easier to make a good movie that departs from the original quite a bit. Fidelity becomes an obstacle, one that can be overcome, certainly, but often at tremendous cost. I think it’s a fascinating task for a writer, and when I spot an occasion where it is done well, I always want to find out how the writer went about the process of adaptation, how the decisions were made, how the writer understood the pressures of the medium, and to what extent the adaptor is satisfied with the finished adaptation as his work, as well as the original author’s.

In some cases, of course, it’s the same person, which makes it even more interesting, and in at least one case, the writer wrote a book about it. That’s John Irving, who wrote My Movie Business about the adaptation of The Cider House Rules into a movie. I knew the book existed, vaguely anyway, and when I reread the book last summer I finally got off my bottom and went to look for the book. I had to ILL it, actually, but thank goodness my ILL librarian is wonderful.

Alas, the book was not as wonderful as I had hoped. Too much of a build-up, I guess. There is a lot of good stuff, and he did talk a lot about the essential question I had, which was how did he decide what to keep? Because what they wound up doing was ditching three-quarters of the book or more, and compressing the rest into a short period (fifteen years into one, etc), and taking out lots of stuff here and there. And it works as a movie, and as an adaptation of the novel, which is pretty incredible. So it’s interesting to read Mr. Irving’s rumination on the various drafts and versions. Evidently for a long time (the movie took twenty years or so to make) the screenplay had no love interest for Homer at all; when he brought back the character of Candy, he tried to make her unsympathetic to increase sympathy for Homer (who needs it). It’s a good choice, but not the only choice, and there’s a sense of some regret throughout the book there and in similar situations he was compelled, ultimately, to make a single good choice and leave behind all the other possible choices.

So there was some good stuff in the book. The book as a whole wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be, though. It was more a collection of anecdotes than a book about adaptation. Some of the anecdotes were terrific and some not so terrific. And it made John Irving himself seem like one of those people who doesn’t quite realize how unusual it is to be a Best-Selling Novelist, somebody who is popular and critically acclaimed and reasonably well-compensated and all. Just as an example, here’s a bit from page 121: “Imagine writing a novel and having someone else, without your approval, design the jacket. But that’s how it is in the movie business.” That’s how it is in the novel business, too, for most people.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

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