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Oliver Twist and the Art of Adaptation

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By Claire Walla

Everyone knows the story of Oliver Twist, the little orphan who takes to the streets of London and learns to live as a pick-pocket after being punished for asking, “please sir,” for more food.

But, not everyone knows the same version of the Dickensian tale.

The original novel was penned by Charles Dickens in 1838, and since then several adaptations of the original text have made it onto stage and screen. This notion — adaptation — will be the focal point of an event this weekend, Saturday, February 25, at Guild Hall in East Hampton.

After a 7:30 p.m. screening of the 1948 film version of “Oliver Twist” — it is, after all, the 200-year anniversary of the birth of London’s most feted chronicler of lowly street urchins and portly rich folk — actor Alec Baldwin will lead a Q&A with writer Jon Robin Baitz, during which another veritable Dickensian writer will come to the forefront of their discussion: David Lean, the man who adapted the book for the silver screen.

“[Adaptation] is particularly difficult with Dickens,” Baitz said in an interview this week.

A celebrated writer in his own right, Baitz’s play, “Other Desert Cities,” is currently running at the Lincoln Center Theatre in New York where it has received rave review. Baitz, who lives in Sag Harbor, knows a thing or two about adaptation, having rendered Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” for a theatre production in 1999 (which ran at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor in 2000). Baitz has also adapted novels and plays for the screen, including an as yet unproduced version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic “Tender is the Night,” as well as his own play “The Substance of Fire,” which was released theatrically in 1996.

“Oliver Twist,” like much of Dickens’ work, was originally written as a serial and published in monthly installments over time. Like all serials, Baitz explained, it relies on plot, and “Dickens is also great at digression.”

The resulting novel is a long-winded, sometimes meandering storyline, rich with details and diversions and peppered with more plot points than can possibly fit into a single, two-hour film. In that sense, Baitz continued, the art of adaptation comes down to one word: compression.

“You have to impose a sort of censorious logic on [film] adaptations,” he added, because in no other way can you reduce a several-hundred-page text to a tightly bound screenplay that accurately reflects the essence of the original story.

Compression is different from condensation, he cautioned. Rather than completely eliminating story elements, a skilled adaptation will reveal details in shorter, more subtle ways.

“’Oliver Twist’ is interesting because it is beautifully compressed,” Baitz said. Part of the film’s success, he speculated, is probably due to the fact that Lean worked as a film editor before becoming a writer. Even though “Oliver Twist” is a scant 105 minutes (or about 100 pages), compared to the almost-500-page novel, Baitz added, “it doesn’t lose the sense of the book.”

“I think people don’t understand how much craft there is to all this,” Baitz continued. “Movies are magic and alchemy. Knowing what to put where, and when… it’s all very difficult to pull off.”

Baitz added that the adaptation process for him is in fact very tactile.

“I sort of tear the book apart. Literally. I paste it up on a wall and put red pencil through different parts — that’s what I do with my plays,” said Baitz who is currently working on an adaptation of “Other Desert Cities.”

“Then, after the initial act of compression,” Baitz said, “I sort of create a wall with big empty spaces to fill.”

Compression is difficult, he added, because knowing what to put in where is just as important as knowing what to leave out.

“I think it becomes more difficult [to adapt a novel for film] when there’s a degree of psychological complexity that’s entirely internal,” he said..

Baitz pointed to his adaptation of “Tender is the Night,” for example. Not only were two different versions of the book published in England and the United States; but the story is weighted in emotion.

“It’s a book about madness, and dedication, and devotion, and self-sacrifice, and the cost of all those things,” Baitz continued.

To capture this on film, Baitz said he wrote a screenplay that “concentrates on what the engine of the story is.” In other words, he focused on plot and characters’ actions rather than thoughts.

The case was similar with his own play, “The Substance of Fire,” which Baitz also wrote the screenplay for.

“The play had left sort of vast areas of blank space where you [the viewer] were asked to supply your own narrative,” he explained. “I just made it a straight, conventional narrative [for the screenplay] and it worked very well.”

Again, Baitz was careful to make a distinction between compression and condensation, because adaptation — while reducing a narrative — does not necessarily cut the story to make it fit.

“Compression means that you keep the energy, what I call the temperature,” he explained. “It’s like, when you’re cooking a whole meal, knowing what to take out when. It’s all about synchronicity.”

Tickets for “Oliver Twist” and the discussion at Guild Hall (158 Main Street, East Hampton) are $17 ($15 for members) and can be purchased by calling 324-0806.

Carter Burwell

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By Claire Walla

Over the course of a 28-year career, the film composer and Amagansett resident has written music for more than 75 feature-length films including “Twilight” and nearly every film ever made by the Coen Brothers.

At what point in the filming process will you come onboard?

Generally, I don’t actually write anything until a film has actually been shot. But, there are some exceptions.

In the movie I’m working on right now, which is “Breaking Dawn: Part II,” they needed Rob Pattinson and the actress who plays his daughter to play piano onscreen. I had to write this duet before they shot the film so they could actually learn the parts. Rob is a musician, so he prides himself on working out the fingering for these correctly.


So before the movie is finished filming, but after you’ve discussed the mood of the film with the directors, do you start to research and gather sounds?

I do. Actually, it’s an interesting thing. The question of mood doesn’t really come up that much. A typical thing we would discuss would be the motivation of the main character.


Is there an example from a movie you’ve worked on recently, like maybe “True Grit”?

Yes. The insight Ethan [Coen] and I had into the music was that it needed to play the protagonist’s church [going] background. When you read the book, you can see that on every page this is one of the things that’s motivating her, driving her to make her choices. But in the movie, you don’t hear her inner voice. So, we both thought: Why don’t we use hymns? While they were off shooting, I was trying to reacquaint myself with 19th century protestant hymns.


I imagine that whole process — having not only had a previous movie but a book to draw more inspiration and more information from — is totally different than working on a film like “Adaptation,” which is not only fictional—well I guess it was based on a book…

[laughs] There was a book, but it was based on it in a very unique way.


Yeah, very loosely…

But you’re right, it is very different. One of the things that Spike [Jonze] was doing when he was shooting the movie was rearranging some of the scenes because the film doesn’t have a plot, exactly. During the course of making the movie he rearranged the scenes in every conceivable fashion to see what would happen. So, I also sort of wrote the music in a similar way. The one thing we knew was that it was going to end by becoming everything it says it’s not going to be: a cheap thriller.

And, as, honestly, often is the case, my personal life entered into it, too, in that I was about to have a baby and I could see that Spike was going to edit this movie forever. So, I also had to write the music in such a way that I could say to Spike: I’m going to leave on this date, so I’m going to give you the music for your movie, even though you haven’t finished editing it, and I’m going to give it to you in such a way that you can keep playing with it as long as you want.

It’s strange. Those kinds of exterior constraints, or involvements, I’ve noticed come up in my work quite a bit… I’ve noticed my personal life keeps having a lot to do with the way I write the music.


Well, it seems pretty relevant for that movie, anyway.

Yeah, right… Exactly.


So, I understand the creative process, the idea of trying to find a character’s motivation. But, how do you even start to put music to it?

I’ll first watch the movie enough to get a definite idea of what I think it wants: there’s a story element that needs a theme, or there’s a character that needs a theme. I’ll have these thoughts in mind, and then I’ll go and play the piano without the movie there and that’s what I do. I’ll sit at the piano for as long as it takes — and hopefully it doesn’t take too long because they don’t give you that much time!


Have you always played piano?

I took lessons as a kid — I really hated it — and came back to it later when I was in my high school years because a friend showed me how to improvise on piano. Playing written music, which is of course what I was doing when I had lessons as a kid, is not really interesting to me. I don’t even like playing my own music once it’s written down.


Have you always been able to associate emotions with sound? For instance, to know what a character’s motivation is, and then easily get to the piano and play it out?

What you just brought up is the hardest thing. To find what that relationship is between sound and emotion, and to do it in some non-cliché way is still a bit of a mystery to me. The only way I can usually do it is to just try many, many, many things… but that’s what I enjoy doing on piano. I make random mutations in a melody, or a theme, and then I perform selections by choosing ones I think are getting me somewhere.


Are there any other films where you’ve taken a specific song, or a specific musical genre, and sort of mutated it, like you said, to kind of make it form to a particular film?

Yes. An easy example is “Fargo.” Based on the script, I thought that there might be something in Scandinavian music that might be helpful. So, I found an old Norwegian folk tune, called “The Lost Sheep,” that had later been turned into a hymn. And then took it out of that context and put it into the context of a film noir.

To do that I would listen to a lot of film noir scores. Miklós Rósza is the composer I listened to to get a sense of how to orchestrate the film noir genre… the use of low woodwinds and percussion, and not so much strings.

I basically took a tune out of the Scandinavian context and put it into a Hollywood film noir context, and that was the essence of the idea for the music for “Fargo.”


The first movie you ever worked on was the Coen brothers’ first film, “Blood Simple,” in 1984. Was it intimidating the first time you were faced with these pictures that you were solely responsible for giving a soundtrack?

Um, it’s not. It probably should be [laughs]. The only part that’s intimidating, really, is the schedule. I might have somewhere between three and eight weeks to write an hour of music, or 50 pieces. It’s just a ton to do if you actually expect to have any other life. And I try to make sure that it’s always a little bit intimidating because a little bit of fear of the deadline is what keeps me going every morning.

But, I don’t find the creative part intimidating. Again, maybe I should, but I enjoy it. I really do.

Carter Burwell gives an Artist talk at the Ross School’s Senior Building Lecture Hall (18 Goodfriend Drive, East Hampton) on Friday, January 20 at 7 p.m. A screening of the film “Twilight” will follow.