Thursday, August 19, 2010

Get Your Facts Straight

Many writers fantasize about having their novels adapted to film. While the idea tantalizes with money and fame, there are adequate reasons to resist.

A case in point are the two cinematic versions of Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying (1956, a B-grade noir drama featuring Robert Wagner and Virginia Leith and the 1991 remake with Matt Dillon and Sean Young). Both have their entertaining aspects but do little for Levin’s reputation.

Now a modern crime classic, the 1953 novel won Ira Levin an Edgar for Best First Novel in 1954. Since Levin began his career as a TV script writer and wrote several plays, including Deathtrap (1978, the longest running Broadway mystery to date), it puzzles me why he wasn’t chosen to do the script for either film. Perhaps he was asked and declined.

There are some holes in the first version scripted by Lawrence Roman. But I find less fault with it than with the James Dearden 1991 version. I’m not speaking of the acting here. My concern is with the script.

We’re talking fiction—a film based (loosely) on a novel. With fiction there is leeway; we are not bound with all the consequences of reality. But if you want a work to be taken seriously it’s important to provide a level of verisimilitude. Levin was noted for far-fetched plot twists, but he was skilled at making you accept them as believable. Dearden’s script is riddled with “huh” moments, not to mention clich├ęs and far too many coincidences.

There’s a scene in a hospital emergency room which is almost laughable for the number of errors which would be obvious to the most doped up patient. The most blatant was having Sean Young, the heroine, give the nurse a wad of money for the patient’s bill. Since when do nurses handle billing? Then there’s the scene where Dillon and Young’s father (Max von Sydow) are discussing fishing and Sydow proudly displays a prize carp he caught in Maine. Duh. Carp are not game-fish and there’s no need to leave Pennsylvania (the film location) when the commonwealth’s waterways are teeming with these trash fish. That’s just the tip of the iceberg in glitches.

Dearden is no novice at writing. His screenplay for Fatal Attraction was nominated for an Oscar. A fact-checker was definitely needed on this script. And that’s the point I want to make here. If you’re attempting to portray reality, verify your facts. If you don’t catch your errors, guaranteed someone else will.


  1. I hate some film adaptations, I really start grinding the old gnashers when I see stupid things going on. Remember Blood Work with Cint Eastwood - they changed it completely, as if Michael Connolly was not a superior plotter.
    And my all time bete noir has to be Captain Correlli's Mandolin, a traversty of an adaptation from this most wonderful of books.

  2. John - I'm so glad you brought up that critical point about checking facts. Whether one's a writer of books of any kind or screenplays, that sense of authenticity matters a great deal. Yes, of course, a storyline's important. So are the characters and so on. But without an underlying sense of being realistic - or at least making sense - a story falls flat.