To award the Oscar for best adapted screenplay, as will be done in a few days, judges should properly not just watch the nominated films but also read the novels or plays from which the screenplays were adapted. I wonder how many of the judges actually do that. For some, I suspect, just watching all the nominated movies would be a challenge. But how can one determine the best adaptation without being familiar with what the screenplays were adapted from?
Most of us have said at one time or another that a movie isn't as good as the book. Sometimes the movies are actually better (The Godfather, perhaps), but in most cases the novels really are superior. There are reasons for that. Authors can describe characters' feelings and impressions that can be difficult, if not impossible, to translate onto film. A writer can take as many pages as needed to tell a complex story. A film director is expected to tell the same story in two hours or less. Screenwriters hired to adapt a novel for the screen must decide how much of the plot and how many of the characters they can cut out and still have a story that makes sense. For those adapting a play, the big challenge may be turning it into a movie that isn't as static or as talky as a play.
I was reminded of just how difficult adaptation must be when a couple of weeks after reading Elizabeth George's novel In the Presence of the Enemy (1996) I watched on DVD the BBC adaptation shown on PBS as part of the Inspector Lynley Mysteries a decade ago. Had I watched the TV episode without first reading the novel, I probably would have thought it pretty good. I might even have enjoyed it had I waited a year or more before watching it. But the novel was too fresh in my mind and I seemed to focus more on what had been changed than on the story itself.
George's novel is more than 600 pages long. This had to be squeezed into one 90-minute episode. Obviously a great deal of the main plot, many of the subplots and quite a number of characters had to be eliminated. The novel was written before cell phones were in common use, and a character's isolation at the climax of the story required that she be unable to call for help. The TV version, made just a few years later but after police officers began using cell phones, required a reasonable explanation for her phone not to work, which the screenwriter had to work into the story.
Thomas Lynley, the main character in most of George's novels and on the TV series, is little more than a supporting character in this particular story. So in adapting the novel, the scriptwriter had to find ways to work him into scenes where he wasn't originally present.
I still wouldn't vote to give any awards for the adaptation of this particular book, but understanding some of the challenges faced in the adaptation at least helps me appreciate the work. I do hope the judges of best adapted screenplay understand and appreciate the work that went into the scripts for Before Midnight, Captain Phillips, Philomena, 12 Years a Slave and The Wolf of Wall Street. The Oscar should not go to the best movie of these nominees but to the screenplay that did the best job of turning a book into a movie.