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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 1, 2012

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Moneyball, Descendants, and Hack Adapters

The Oscars are over, and I'm content with the outcome: Good movies and good performances were acclaimed, and if some that I thought were better were left with nomination alone, and others I admired were not nominated at all, what of that?

Two best-picture-nominated films that I saw are still worth seeing, even if they didn't win.

I was told again and again when it first came out that I needed to see Moneyball. But I don't care about baseball.

Even the two most recent "great movies" about baseball -- The Natural and Field of Dreams -- I resisted for a long time.

When I eventually saw them, I understood the appeal, and I enjoyed them. But they remained outside my realm of concern, in the way that circus stories remain forever alien to me.

Because I don't like the circus. I don't hate it; I understand its appeal; I just don't care. It has no magic for me.

Ditto with baseball. I played softball in my childhood at least. I hit, threw, caught. I did these things fairly badly, but I did them, and I have rounded the bases; I even hit a couple of home runs, mostly because of fielders who were even more inept than I.

But I don't care about the game. And when my peers started getting competitive, which made them angry over errors, it stopped being fun and I quit playing and never looked back. No nostalgia about it whatsoever.

So when I see film characters who are passionate about any sport, but especially baseball, I understand that such people really exist.

I have a good friend who absolutely kills in Trivial Pursuit because it's a rare sports question he can't answer instantly. He cares; he knows this stuff.

I have a couple of nephews -- one of whom now supports himself as a sportswriter -- who have a similar deep and abiding love of the game. Practically any game.

But The Natural does not speak to my soul, and Field of Dreams is, to me, fundamentally silly.

"If you build it, they will come"? Really? I know too many entrepreneurs who took such nonsense seriously and lost everything.

The real rule is, Don't build it unless you have a pretty good idea that people will want to come and have a plan for letting them know it exists and they can get it for a cost they are willing to pay.

Field of Dreams is, fundamentally, a miracle play. It's religious, and I don't belong to that church.

Moneyball, however, works whether you care about baseball or not. You don't even have to care about sports. Because this is a story about transforming an entrenched system. In other words, it's The Social Network, but with greater clarity.

In Moneyball, Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, a former top-draft-pick baseball player who passed up a Stanford scholarship to have a mediocre pro career. He went for the money, and it didn't work out all that well. Now, after rising through the ranks of scouts -- the guys who go out searching for talented new ballplayers to recruit for their team -- he's the general manager (GM) of the Oakland Athletics (A's).

After losing in a five-game playoff series -- which means that he had one of the top teams -- he is frustrated by the knowledge that he has taken his team as high as it can go. The A's just don't have the income to pay high salaries; they can't compete with rich teams like the Yankees and Red Sox.

Not only that, the big boys have just raided his team and taken the top players as they became free agents. So he's facing a year in which his playoff-level team has been gutted; he's starting from nothing.

The team scouts are trying to find ways to plug adequate players into the slots left vacant; but Beane runs across Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a sharp young economist freshly graduated from Yale who is following a computer-modeled system of plotting out a team. Instead of looking for players to fill particular slots, or who have a list of talents, the computer evaluates their actual results, and they primarily base their choices on one thing: Does he get on base?

You can't win at baseball unless you have hitters who, for one reason or another, can get on base.

There's enormous resistance to this method. One of the best sequences in the movie is the period when the team's manager, Art howe, played wonderfully by Philip Seymour Hoffman, simply refuses to follow the GM's game plan. And managers don't have to. So Howe doesn't use the players that Beane has provided.

How Beane wins that contest of wills is one of the delights of the film. But even better are the choices Beane himself makes when his method is proven to work. Let's just say that I love the end of this movie, and I love every step along the way.

Screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, with story writer Stan Chervin, have adapted Michael Lewis's book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game into a brilliant movie.

When you add in some of the finest actors working in Hollywood -- Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill deserved their Oscar nominations and in another year might easily have won -- and a director who kept the story clear and clean and simple, playing no favorites, you end up with a movie that works for anybody.

I still don't care about baseball. Moneyball isn't a baseball movie. It is, incredibly enough, an economics movie, but because it's baseball and because the writers made it extremely personal and truthful and deep, it is a classic.

*

The other nominated but non-winning movie I saw recently was The Descendants, a George Clooney movie about a man in Hawaii who has the power to dispose of an old family estate worth millions. There are many others in the family, and they lobby him to decide this or that -- most of them wanting him to sell the land and distribute a lot of money to all the descendants.

But it is his personal story that dominates, for his wife is in a terrible accident and lies in a coma, with no real hope of recovery. Clooney's character is dealing with their two daughters, one of whom has been having serious problems (he brings her out of rehab to visit her mom in the hospital) and has a boyfriend who seems like a spaced-out dolt but turns out to be OK.

Then Clooney's character finds out that his wife was having an affair. He can't talk to her; he's deeply hurt; he has to find the man and confront him; and all that.

I am not a fan of writer-director Alexander Payne, whose films Sideways and About Schmidt I found pretty much loathsome, but with good casts. I expected nothing different from The Descendants, but it seems that Payne's films are no worse than the material he bases them on.

That is, the novels that Sideways and About Schmidt were based on amount to pretentious literary drivel, and so the movies had the same contemptuous ignorance of ordinary American life. But because the novel The Descendants (by Kaui Hart Hemmings) is actually pretty good, so is Payne's film.

(He had two co-writers, actors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash -- who played Fenton on That 70s Show and now plays Dean Pelton on Community)

When a screenwriter sets out to adapt a novel for the screen, there are two basic approaches. One is to tell the story of the novel as faithfully as possible, making only the changes required to make use of the strengths of the film medium, and avoid its weaknesses.

The other approach is to take a few character names and situations from the novel, and make up your own story.

The first approach, when applied to masterpieces, can result in glorious films: I point first, as always, to Emma Thompson's brilliant screenplay of Sense and Sensibility, which is almost scene for scene faithful to the novel, and yet makes key changes that eliminate time-wasting digression and needless explanations and changes of setting (that is, time-wasting or needless in a film, but not in the novel).

It was clear that Thompson weighed carefully even the slightest changes from the novel, and because the story of the novel was brilliant -- no one is better than Jane Austen -- the film could also be brilliant, and was.

When the original was a play, the film adaptation can be even more faithful, but still some changes must be made. Yet it is arguable that the films of A Lion in Winter and A Man for All Seasons are even better than the plays; both screenplays, however, were adapted by the playwright.

The key here is to have a screenwriter who has respect for the story and who understands that this is a translation, not a new work, and therefore the adapter has a translator's responsibility to be as faithful as possible. The goal is to re-create not just the feelings that the novel or play aroused, but to faithfully follow the choices of the creator of that original story, as much as possible.

Payne -- or at least Payne with Faxon and Rash -- is apparently that kind of adapter, and if his choice of material is sometimes (well, usually) not to my taste, what of that? Movies do not live or die on the basis of whether they please me. At least Payne understands that he is a translator.

The other kind of adapter, however, is, to put it kindly, an arrogant idiot. This adapter reads the original material -- or perhaps only reads a summary of it -- and then sets out to fit it into the template of the "three-act structure" followed by most bad and some good screenplays making the rounds in Hollywood.

In other words, this adapter thinks that the supposed "rules" of screenwriting trump the genius (or even the adequacy) of the original material; anything that doesn't fit the procrustean bed of the screen-writing manuals must be jettisoned.

And because good stories rarely fit such formulas, the result is that the "adapter," far from translating, is creating an "original" work that uses bits from the source material but in fact has little relation to the story. Instead, he plugs in bits that have worked in every other formula movie.

This is why some "adaptations" have almost no resemblance to the original novel, and in fact look like every other movie of that genre made that year.

In vain do you explain to such weak minds that formulas may dominate an art form, but when they do, they kill it.

There were two phases in theatrical history in which formulas ruled: The five-act play beloved of Ben Jonson and supposedly based on classical models, and the three-act "well-made play" of Eugene Scribe and his successors and disciples in the 1800s.

"Well-made plays" were tight and quick -- very much the precursors of the three-act film. They zipped along, were highly entertaining -- and they are almost never performed today. Why? Because they're formulas! The story doesn't arise from nature, or from the deep understanding of the writer. Instead it is a cut-and-paste job, plugging bits from other plays into this one, in order to follow the rules of the form.

It is paramount for a screenwriter to remember that the great storytellers do not follow the rules.

When Shakespeare adapted his plays -- almost all of Shakespeare's plays were adaptations from source material -- he was much criticized by writers like Ben Jonson because he didn't follow the rules.

But the audience didn't care. They loved Shakespeare's plays.

When you read Shakespeare, you see everything nicely divided into five acts. But this is fakery. The five act divisions were created in the publication process, most of the time; and the acts don't do what the formula says they should do.

In fact, Shakespeare just told the story clearly and powerfully, peopling it with deep and fascinating characters whose motives gave shape and meaning to the tale.

You can take the formula and apply it, after the fact, to all the great movies. But what you'll find is that the formula hacks have to make allowances. They'll say things like, "In this great film the third act, surprisingly, comes very late," or "the first act is unusually long."

What this means, of course, is that the "three-act structure" isn't there at all. Instead, the three-act hack is imposing his rules on a screenplay that told a story without regard to the rules. You can always do this. Always. It means nothing.

Alas, the hack adapter doesn't understand this, and instead of following the brilliant original story as faithfully as possible, making only the minimal changes necessary for the translation, he hacks it to pieces and jams the bleeding body parts into places where they don't fit.

And then, when the film sucks and the readers of the original complain about it, the hack adapter defends himself by pointing to the three-act structure and saying, in effect, "I followed the rules! It should have worked."

Sadly, the equally incompetent studio bureaucracies, having no idea what makes good movies good (It's the Story, Stupid), look at faithful adaptations and, because they can't see an obvious formulaic three-act structure, they say, "This doesn't feel like a movie."

No, it just doesn't feel like the kind of bad movie that you have trained yourself to recognize.

This is why so many really bad movies are made out of really good books.

It's not all the three-act structure. After all, this structure actually works on certain kinds of movies, when written by good writers. It's not the formula that's evil, it's the misapplication of it.

The worst thing is that once a hack adapter starts shredding the original to make it fit the formula, he feels like he has carte blanche to change everything, based on no reason better than his own personal whim.

He arrogantly supposes that he -- a hack -- is capable of replacing or changing any element of the highly successful original. He thinks he's the equal of the writer whose work he's destroying.

He's wrong. Yet studio people, knowing nothing and yet having their jobs constantly at risk, let the hacks get away with it, as long as they can come up with some specious explanation for their meaningless-yet-destructive changes.

Imagine, for instance, if some hack adapter was working on Pride and Prejudice and, as he was putting the bleeding pieces of it into his three-act frame, he realized, Wow, England was fighting Napoleon at the time of this novel, and yet Napoleon isn't mentioned at all. The only impact it has on this country village is that some soldiers are quartered there.

Everybody's still having dances and dinner parties and worrying about getting married. Don't they know there's a war on?

Poor idiot hack adapter. Does he think Jane Austen didn't know what she was doing? That the very ignoring of the war was a deep and truthful part of the story? That the concerns of this family had nothing to do with the wider world, and that marriage was the center of these young women's lives?

No, the hack adapter, thinking that any idea that occurs to him belongs in the movie, decides that he'll make the war a part of the story by having Darcy's fortune come from the fact that he's an arms manufacturer! Yes! That will make his character deeper -- he's a war profiteer! Cool! Great idea! Now he's so much more interesting!

And the idiots in the studios might actually take this nonsense seriously.

Never mind that if Darcy were in manufacturing, nothing else in the story would even be possible. He would have no standing. He would be despised by the families of old fortune. Bingley would never have been his friend, and nobody would consider him eligible except for a handful of fortune hunters who would, in their turn, be despised by all the old money.

Such destructive choices happen all the time in Hollywood.

Fortunately, when dealing with Jane Austen and a handful of other classic writers, the idiots in studios understand the importance of remaining true to the underlying story. So such egregious errors are usually avoided.

But more recent works, like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, for instance, are subject to such stupid hacking. Yes, Peter Jackson's film was beautifully filmed and mostly well-performed. But the script is a perfect example of hack adapting.

Jackson didn't understand the structure of the books. He thought (because he's kind of an idiot about story) that the Scouring of the Shire was a weird afterthought.

He didn't understand that it's the heart of the story and if it's removed, what's left is a kind of an empty adventure tale. Exciting, but not so deep and true.

So he removed it. And that's why the movie trilogy of The Lord of the Rings feels like it has about six endings in a row. It does. Because the heart of the story happened in the midst of those endings, and yet all the endings were left in place after the heart was cut out.

Not only that, but hack adapter Peter Jackson then added formulaic nonsense in order to "beef up the romance." Never mind that this brilliant classic had no romance and never needed it. No, the hack adapter beefed up the part of Arwen by adding meaningless, stupid stuff about how she was dying because the land was dying.

Jackson apparently thought poor dumb Tolkien -- the world's foremost expert on Medieval and Northern storytelling -- was unaware of the Fisher King myth and merely overlooked it in writing his books.

"You know what Moby-Dick needs, man? There's no love interest!"

Take Princess Bride. William Goldman, the novelist, is also one of the greatest screenwriters of our time. His novel is so complex, so very novelistic, that I used it to teach literary structure on a very sophisticated level long before it was made into a movie. It's a Great Novel (way better, as literature, than anything by Bellow or Updike).

But Goldman, in adapting it to film, knew that the novelistic aspects of it had to go. He found instead a simple frame that did the same job as the complex work-within-a-work stuff, and concentrated on the basic story ... which he did not change at all.

Goldman understands that story comes first. And if you have a great story, you don't do anything to damage it. You certainly don't change characters and relationships, motives and the way the world works. You preserve it as close to intact as you possibly can.

That's what the great writers, and the great translators, and the great adapters, all do.

Too bad that most of the time when you plunk your money down at the movie theater, you're paying for the work of a hack adapter.

Don't blame the original writer for what the hack adapters did. The great (or good) novel remains great (or good) even if the movie sucks.

The sad thing is that in Hollywood, the fearful executives invariably blame the novelist ("I guess novels by So-and-So don't make good movies") instead of realizing that they themselves and the process they preserve and the hack adapters they hire are completely responsible for the destruction of what could have been very good films.

And when you do find adapters who are faithful to the original, preserving the fragile shape and details of the story as much as can possibly be done, be grateful for them. Their tribe is rare.

Much as it pains me, I must, on the basis of Descendants, introduce Alexander Payne into the ranks of the Faithful Adapters. When he is adapting a pretty good story, the result is a pretty good film. Like The Descendants.

Someday I'd like to see what he does with a great story.


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