Great Adaptations, recommended by Judith Orlowski Cernobori

This week’s guest post is from my colleague Judith Orlowski Cernobori,
whom I first met at Home Box Office.  

In her own words: She’s been  foisting trends upon the American audience by making deals happen in cable TV for over 2 decades: the Bollywood Dance style exercise shows (Bollyfit, BollyDance) to VeriaLiving; the Canadian host craze to HGTV, and yes, Bridezillas.

To paraphrase the late great comedian Milton Berle, “I know a good joke when I steal one, I mean hear it.”  I created this list of Great Adapations to be helpful (I hope) to those of you who aspire to write for film or TV.
Let’s say that you follow these steps to ensure that you’ll have ideas that would be perfect as the next best thing:  You learn network brands, tag lines, ratings winners and plot formulas; study schedules, rattle off the talent bios of all top stars/hosts and have ideas about recasting-- plus you get meetings to pitch your idea!

“Yeah,” the reality producers say, “we know the swamp and hillbilly and redneck and back woods types are all the rage.  But we did those last year…”  Scripted dramas have explored every permutation of the cop story.  (Some of the strongest ones don’t make it, like Southland.  Great casting, writing, gritty street scenes – a compelling story every week.  Problem was, not enough people found it compelling.)  
My suggestion: Adapt an existing crowd pleaser!  Hollywood remakes itself on film every 30 years or so as new writers, directors, producers reflect back on the favorites of their youth.  Take a look at some of these Great Adaptations:
 Wizard of Oz (1939)

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum.  It bears so little resemblance to the MGM Musical of 1939 it makes me wonder if the screenwriters read the originals – maybe they just saw coverage!  Yes, I said originals, as in plural. There are 15.  I read ‘em all. They are so rich in wild ideas that Hunter Thompson and William Burroughs needed major drugs to imagine these kinds of worlds.
Though the movie is one of my favorites, I feel ripped off each time I watch it.  Gone is Ozma, the Princess who befriends that rag-tag gang lead by Dorothy.  She puts them up in a castle, puts them in charge of various parts of the realm.  Sweet deal – so much for sleeping in poppy fields.  The Flying Monkeys hate the Wicked Witch of the West, who only gets to summon them three times.  After the final time, they fly off without so much as a glance back to flip her the bird.  Where are the Pogostick people, the Ceramic people (talk about walking on eggshells), and my favorite Garden Gnome Empire? 

Of all the films that have gotten a sequel, why has this never been done?  WAIT!  I take that back.  Don’t screw around with a classic.
Why do I think this is a great adaptation?  Great writing. Screenwriters Langley, Ryerson and Woolf (along with a dozen uncredited writers) took this from morality play to its magical, musical final state.  The Wicked Witch of the West was, in the books, the least of the quartet's problems. But Margaret Hamilton turned the Witch/Almira Gulch into an iconic role and added phrases to pop culture, like “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too.” Watching her in other movies makes me wait for her signature cackle. So while the movie bears little resemblance to the novels, it proves that all you need is a nugget of a good idea in the hands of talented writers.
 Star Wars (1977)
If you’ve never seen The Three Villains or The Hidden Fortress, by Akira Kurosawa, then you probably believe that George Lucas is a film wunderkind. Well he is, but not because of Star Wars.  American Graffiti, maybe.  Star Wars?  No, not for originality.  Being savvy enough to retain merchandising rights to Star Wars makes him a genius.  [An aside: I met him at an AMC function at the Playboy mansion, and he was quite the hound dog with the Bunnies. But I digress.]

Star Wars (1977) is a writing wonder. Lucas adapted the story from Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (1958) -- and two bumbling serfs became robots.   Star Wars took the genre of the Western and adapted the Wild West into Space.  It elevated Sci Fi from 1950's schmaltz into a new art form.  Gone are colander helmets and rubber monster suits.  In came special effects that moved the story along.

Anything wrong with this? No, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
 Clueless (1995)
Speaking of using the best, Jane Austen’s classic, Emma, was the basis for the Amy Heckerling film, Clueless.  Heckerling has been accused of lifting other people’s ideas.  If you are gonna steal, steal from the best.  Austen is the queen of structured plotting and minute detail, irony and social commentary.
The plot structure of both is the same – shallow popular girl plays matchmaker only to discover she is in love with the guy she keeps trying to set up.  18th century English country life is traded in for Beverly Hills High School.  In adapting, the film changes not just the venue but vernacular – the language has to be not only appropriate to the scene and time period, but casting plays a big part.  Emma is morphed into the spoiled Cher Horowitz, the epitome of Beverly Hills cool.  Her dialogue is as timely as Austen’s Emma, bringing “Valspeak” to the masses. Totally.

Cabaret (1972)
Now that was smart casting. Liza Minelli as Sally Bowles.  It was a defining role that played on her over the tops look and personality.  It won her an Academy Award for Best Actress (one of 8 Oscars for this film).  If you were thinking of a remake, focus on finding your next Sally. Liza will be tough to duplicate.
This 1972 film adaptation drew from two Broadway plays – a 1961 musical, Cabaret and a 1951 drama, I Am A Camera.  Both were based on Christopher Isherwood's The Berlin Stories (1939)-- a series of vignettes that give us insight into the wild times of Berlin before Hitler changed Germany and the world.  It’s a wild ride of a read.
Like The Wizard of Oz, there was so much material, songs, scenes, plots, as well as historical information from Weimar (pre-Nazi) Germany.  Only a director like Bob Fosse with a clear vision could avoid a mish mash.  

How? Fosse knew he was making a film, not a play.  He confined musical numbers to the Kit Kat Club. American audiences were abandoning the Musical for the naturalistic 1970's film styles, so bursting into song and dance wasn’t going to fly. The film behaves more like the novel and the play I Am A Camera than it does the musical, Cabaret.
Fosse let Liza, be effectively, Liza – an American singer working the clubs in Berlin – rather than retaining Sally as a minimally talented German girl.  He made a film relevant for modern audiences by drawing on the gay/bisexual elements (less than 5 years after the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village in 1969.)
 Anna Karenina (2012)
Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has enjoyed several adaptations. Best is the the recent Tom Stoppard (writer) film.  The film is true to the novel – Socialite Anna cheats on her long suffering husband, leaves him only to find she may be cheated upon her lover which drives her to suicide.  Stoppard is a playwright: the film derives much of magic from the set.
Characters move through scenes by entering and exiting as they would in a play.  Add to that Joe Wright’s direction, moody cinematography, costumes and the film is stunning.  The book has been made into at least a dozen different films and miniseries.  What was there to be done but update the design? 

I enjoyed the way it was handled visually, and the cast was great (though who would leave Jude Law for Aaron Taylor-Johnson?!), and thank god there was no singing and dancing!

Honorable mentions:  In Cold Blood by Truman Capote made into a equally creepy film and featured in the biopic Capote with Phillip Seymour Hoffman; 1920s Batman comics made into 60s mod cult series, Batman, further adapted in The Dark Knight.
My advice: find something you love and rethink it. Just find a way to write it better.

You can find Judith on Linkedin.
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