The Oscar season is (finally) over for another year and, for all of you who had neither the time nor the inclination to (a) read the book on which a film was based or (b) watch the movie when it came out, I am going to fill you in on the “differences” from written word to visual image for some of the Big Ones This Year. In some cases, I’ll be primarily mentioning some of the controversies that erupted and probably killed the film’s chances for a coveted gold statue, prior to the awarding of the Best Film of the Year honors to “Birdman.” “Birdman” will not appear anywhere on this list because it was original material developed for the screen and not adapted from a novel.
There is at least one notable exception this year that I thought should have appeared as a Best Picture nominee and should have earned Chicago’s own Gillian Flynn a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination, and that was “Gone Girl.” I’m including that film and “Unbroken” and “Inherent Vice,” all films which did have some play at Oscar-time, but were not up for Best Picture (they were nominated in some smaller categories). I’m also bummed that “The Drop” didn’t get anything, and I admit that I liked the soapy “The Fault In Our Stars,” which will probably win some MTV awards coming up soon.
Here are the films, in alphabetical order: “American Sniper;” “Foxcatcher;” “Gone Girl;” “Inherent Vice;” “Selma;” “Still Alice;” “The Imitation Game;” “The Theory of Everything;” “Unbroken” and “Wild.”
1) “American Sniper:” The 2012 memoir that Chris Kyle wrote with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice was a nonfiction hit about a Navy SEAL who was lauded as the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history during his 4 tours of duty in Iraq.
Movie: Adapted by Jason Hall and directed by Clint Eastwood, it starred Bradley Cooper, who gained 30 or 40 pounds to more closely resemble Chris Kyle, and Sienna Miller as his wife. It was nominated for Best Picture honors and Cooper also got a nod.
Differences/Similarities: As in the book, the film opens in 2003. It details Kyle’s first kill as a sniper, but the decision to shoot is his, not an order from a higher-up. The intitial target is a woman, not a small boy. After Kyle was killed at a shooting range in 2013 in Texas, conversations with Kyle’s widow, Taya (Miller) led screenwritr Hall to add more emotional content based on her collaboration. The film implies that Hall was 30 upon becoming a SEAL; he was actually not quite 25 in 1999. Initially, the Navy rejected him because of a pin in hs arm, which is not mentioned.
2) “Foxcatcher:” The movie is based on the story of the wrestling Schulz brothers, one of whom is murdered by the wealthy DuPont heir portrayed by Steve Carrell in a very different turn from such films as “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” Carrell’s make-up and dental prosthesis were even Oscar-nominated, losing to “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Mark Ruffalo also scored a nomination as the murdered Schulz brother, but lost to Eddie Redmayne. Director Bennett Miller crafted a lengthy film that could have used some judicious editing, but the Big Buzz come Oscar time was the Twitter outburst of the surviving Schulz brother (played by Channing Tatum in a real tour de force performance), who objected to the homo-erotic subtext he felt Miller had included in the film and denounced him for “promises made,but broken.” This definitely was not good timing during a run-up to the Oscars.
3) “Gone Girl:” I’m reading this one right now, but I am aware that the 2012 novel by Gillian Flynn about a young woman who mysteriously disappears, putting her husband (Ben Affleck) under scrutiny as the prime suspect, had differences because my husband read it first and clued me in. David Fincher (of Gwynneth Paltrow’s head in a box in “7”) kept the rapid pace of the book and most of the book’s twists and turns were retained, probably because the author, herself, was writing the adaptation.
So, what was added or eliminated?
There is less detail in the film about Amy’s bizarre upbringing as “Amazing Amy.” A trip to Hannibal, Missouri, is eliminated. There is no ugly break-up scene between Nick and his mistress. Nick’s father is given a much smaller role in the film than in the book and Amy’s parents are background figures. Some characters didn’t make the cut at all, like an alleged stalker of Amy’s, the mother of boyfriend Desi (Neil Patrick Harris) and Rebecca, the blogger. Nick’s violent and obsessive tendencies are downplayed in the film version and the couple do not pen dueling memoirs, as they did in the book. Another critic mentioned that the family cat seemed to get more play on film. I adapted my science fiction novel “Out of Time” for the screen and won an award from “Writer’s Digest” for it, and, therefore, was duly impressed with Flynn’s screenwriter’s adaptation.
4) “Inherent Vice:” This 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon is set in 1970 Los Angeles and Doc Sportello is searching for ex-flame Shasta’s married boyfriend, who is a billionaire real estate mogul. The book was adapted and directed by Paul Thomas Anderon and stars Joaquin Phoenix in another of his bizarre roles (“Remember ‘The Master’?)
The psychedelic stylings of Sportello (Phoenix) remain. Plot is not really Anderson’s biggest concern, apparently, but remaining faithful to the tone and characters of the book is. Tariq Khalil is a character who loses in the adaptation, while Fabian Fazzo, Fritz Drybeam and Doc’s parents are cut from the film entirely. In fact, Anderson created an entirely new ending for the movie, which I will not reveal, in case you haven’t seen it.
5) “Selma:” This bio-pic remained faithful to most of the key points of the MLK march, but certain characters were combined and, according to key workers in LBJ’s administration, the entire conflict set up between King and Johnson over the timing of the march was bogus. While there is an allusion to Martin Luther King’s alleged trysts with other women, that particular character point was glossed over in one brief scene with wife Coretta where MLK more-or-less admits to extramarital dalliances, but says they meant nothing. It was fairly common knowledge at the time that J. Edgar Hoover had bugged King and had evidence of some of these shenanigans, but the film wants to rise above such seamy topics, just as, during JFK’s time in the White House, little was said or written about the president’s own character failings in that area. (Ah, the times, how they have changed!) There is no question that British actor David Oyelowo evokes King passionately and Carmen Ejogo as his wife was also very good. Ava DuVernay was supposed to become the first African-American female director to be nominated for an Oscar for the Paul Webb-written film, but that didn’t happen and many offended parties were boycotting the Oscar ceremony because of it—although the memory of “Twelve Years A Slave” winning as Best Picture the prior year surely faded fast.
6) “Still Alice,” which I saw in Des Moines the night before the Oscar ceremony, was as big a downer as one would anticipate from the important subject matter of early Alzheimer’s onset in a highly intelligent woman who is a college professor. Julianne Moore played the lead in the 2007 novel by Lisa Genova that was adapted and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland.
Similarities/differences: The film is set in New York City, rather than in Boston. Professor Alice Howland (Moore) teaches at Columbia in the film. Her husband John’s (Alec Baldwin) new job opportunity is presented as being at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. In the book it was in New York. I remember thinking, as we watched the film, “Moving to be near the Mayo Clinic would be the best thing to do in her situation.” In the book, Alice writes her future self a letter on her computer, but in the movie it’s a video. The key relationships remain the same, with Lydia (Kristen Stewart), her rebellious actress daughter, given the most screen time. A patient support group bit the dust and so did the graduation ceremony of one of Alice’s students in the book.
7) “The Imitation Game,” based on the book “Alan Turing: The Enigma” is a 1983 biography by Andrew Hodges. Hodges revised the book in 2000, adding more than 200 pages after classified information was released in the 1990’s and my niece, Emma, a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology in computer science, told me they had to study Turing in her classes. The movie was adapted by Graham Moore and directed by Morton Tyldum into a script that actually works in the same way that “The King’s Speech” worked. Benedict Cumberbatch gave one of the very best performances of the year and of his career and Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke, the only woman to work with the puzzle-solvers at Bletchley Park, supported nicely.
Similarities/differenes: The movie leaves out Turing’s main collaborator in breaking the Nazi code, Enigma: Gordon Welchman. Joan Clarke (Knightley) did not secure her place by figuring out a crossword puzzle, but it is true that she and Turing were briefly engaged. Turing did fall in love with a boyhood schoolmate named Christopher Morcom, but it is not true that he then named the fledgling computer Christopher. Two pivotal figures in the film—Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) and John Cairncross (Allen Leech) are not mentioned in the book at all. Detective Nock who arrests Turing on charges of homosexual behavior in the film is invented and does not appear in the book.
8) “The Theory of Everything:” The book was “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen,” a 2008 memoir by Jane Hawking, which followed on the heels of a harsher 1999 book by Wife Number One entitled “Music to Move the Stars: A Life with Stephen.”
Adapted by Anthony McCarten and directed by James Marsh, the film scored an Oscar for Eddie Redmayne, and deservedly so, but Felicity Jones , who was also nominated, gave one of the strongest female performances of the year. If she weren’t so young, I think she would have (and possibly should have) won. There were so many in the list(s) above who were shortchanged, including Channing Tatum for his role in “Foxcatcher” (also playing against type) and, in “Whiplash,” Miles Teller, whose role as the young drummer was every bit as good as Oscar-winning J.K. Simmons’ Mr. Fletcher.
Similarities/Differences: The courtship of Stephen and Jane is streamlined in the film. The two began dating after his diagnosis, but in the movie they are engaged. His personality is portrayed as less abrasive in the film as opposed to the book. The couple’s views on religion are played out as banter. The role of the 2nd Mrs. Hawkings—who was his nurse—is reduced, but the dramatic tracheotomy scene is given more screentime and the circumstances of it are changed from the book.
9) “Unbroken:”: Angelina Jolie’s directorial adaptation of “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” is from a 2010 biography by Laura Hillenbrand that was a best-seller for over 3 years. It chronicles the real-life adventures of Italian immigrant Louie Zamperini, who had a troubled childhood but went on to become an Olympian, survived more days at sea than nearly anyone (47) and was a prisoner of war after being shot down (he was a bombadier in WWII). Joel and Ethan Coen adapted the screenplay with help from Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson and newcomer Jack O’Connell played Louie.
Similarities/Differences: The movie focused on the 47 days adrift at sea and the nearly 2 years in a Japanese prison camp with a sadistic guard nicknamed “the Bird.” The book went on to outline how Zamperini failed to qualify for the 1948 Olympics, battled to overcome both PTSD and alcoholism, and became a born-again Christian.
Most of that after-the-war stuff did not make the cut.
For me, watching the film, I thoroughly enjoyed the aerial scenes (Oscar nominations for those) and the drifting at sea part, but the “let’s beat Louie up again” part in the Japanese POW camp became a bit too repetitively sadistic for me. It’s why I quit watching “The Walking Dead,” so call me an emotional softie, but I did think that Angelina showed us something with this one, whereas her directing of the story of the beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl, (where she both directed and played his wife, Marianne,) was notable only for one fine scene where she breaks down in tears when alone.
I read that Angelina was heavily influenced by the storytelling technique of Clint Eastwood, who believes in getting it done. (“The real baby is sick? Grab the doll, Bradley!”) If this film is any indication, Jolie has improved markedly since her first film.
Then again, with collaborators like the Coen Brothers and Richard LaGravenese (who appeared at the Chicago Film Festival with his all-musical movie “The Last Five Years” which, like the “Cop Rock” TV show that Steven Bochco tried years ago, had NO spoken dialogue and all the dialogue was sung (Emma Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan did the honors), who can go wrong? LaGravenese, who has worked as actor, director, producer, writer and all-purpose go-to guy with 20 credits for writing, 7 for directing, 5 for producing and 2 as an actor, announced to all of us in the crowd at the AMC Theater in Chicago that it was projects like his all-singing-no-dialogue musical that kept him going, creatively. However, it is probably writing for films like “Unbroken” that keeps him solvent.
10) “Wild:” This trek across the Pacific Crest Trail, adapted from the 2012 Cheryl Strayed memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” was about as interesting as you would expect a movie about a woman out hiking to be. Ms. Strayed hiked 1,100 miles after her mother’s death when grief, drugs and sex derailed her life. She trudged along through California and Oregon. The book was adapted by Nick Hornby and the film was directed by Jean-Marc Vallee with Reese Witherspoon providing the star power, for which she won an Oscar nomination.
Similarities/differences: The opening and closing scenes are the same as the book’s. Mostly, the movie sticks to the book, while consolidating a few characters. Strayed spends more time hiking with others in the book. Only Bobbie, Cheryl’s mother (well played by Laura Dern, who also played Shailene Woodley’s mother in “The Fault In Our Stars” earlier this year) is really highlighted, with some mention of her younger brother, Leif (Keene McRae). Her stepfather Eddie and her older sister Karen were cut entirely from the film BUT, the filmmakers—perhaps realizing they had a real snoozer on their hands here (I kept checking my watch to see how much longer before this thing was over)—added a scene in an alley where Strayed has sex with two men. (!)
The long-suffering ex-husband of the film should get a medal and you would have to beat me with a stick to make me watch this movie again, while I DID just go see “Whiplash,” “The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything” and “American Sniper” over.
My spouse does not get to see things in September and October at film festival gatherings as a member of the press, and I go to see them when they are in general release, if merited.
If you like hiking and movies where they tease you that “Ooooh. Something might happen in this movie NOW—and then it doesn’t !”, then you’ll enjoy “Wild.” If you are planning to hike across a desert some time soon and want to know the correct way to blow up a tent or other technical matters of that sort, by all means, go and take notes.
If you were hoping for excitement and/or something actually happening other than a self-indulgent narcissistic film about “finding one’s self” (I’ve lost 2 parents, too; it didn’t drive me to drugs, excessive sex or hiking through a desert, but maybe I should consider it; I did consider the drinking part after sitting through this) then this is the film for you.