Adapted screenplays confront dreaded voice-over

Wed Dec 17, 2008 3:28am EST
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By Todd Longwell

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - When it comes to adapting literary works for the big screen, British playwright David Hare says, one must be promiscuous to be faithful.

"You can't simply step your way through a book with perfect fidelity. If you do, the whole thing is completely dead," Hare argues. His principle was employed to varying degrees by all of this year's leading contenders for the adapted screenplay Oscar -- including Hare himself, who translated Bernhard Schlink's Holocaust-themed novel "The Reader" into script form.

Hare says the primary challenge with "The Reader" was the same one presented by most novels: the unspoken interior monologue in which characters freely express their thoughts.

"In cinema, there really isn't any equivalent to that, unless you use voice-over," observes Hare, who earned an Oscar nomination for his 2002 adaptation of the Michael Cunningham novel "The Hours." "Personally, I hate voice-over. I hate an actor droning at me, telling me all sorts of things that the screenwriter is too lazy to make obvious by writing scenes."

One of the ways screenwriter Justin Haythe gave voice to the internal turmoil of '50s suburbanite Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) in his adaptation of Richard Yates' "Revolutionary Road" was by taking a scene from the novel in which the character seduces a naive secretary over the course of a drunken lunch and adding an emotional rant, which simultaneously communicates his frustration with the humdrum conformity of his life and the back-story of his relationship with his father.

"I don't think Frank would ever let his guard down, except at that moment with this girl," Haythe says. "In the book, you'd get this information by being given access to his internal life."

Hare says his principal invention for "The Reader" was a vehicle for the main character, Michael (played alternately by David Kross and Ralph Fiennes), to unburden himself of the secret he'd been carrying for decades about a teenage affair with an older woman (Kate Winslet) later accused of Nazi war crimes. Schlink has him do it by writing a book. But writing is hardly cinematic, "and he can't decide to tell it by making a film," Hare says, so he has Michael reveal his secret in a conversation with his adult daughter.

"Like all good adaptation ideas, it's suggested by the novel," Hare says. "Or I should say, I don't think the novelist will feel it's false to the novel."   Continued...

<p>Kate Winslet in a scene from "The Reader". REUTERS/Handout</p>