Friday, February 8, 2013

USC’s Scripter Award: Honoring the Transformation of Books into Movies

Roger Corman is not exactly known for adapting literary subject matter to the screen. But of course his fame as a director rests in part on his creative use of the public-domain stories of Edgar Allan Poe. When I myself worked for Roger, we generally chose projects based on original ideas. But from time to time Roger was not above paying for the rights to a literary property, provided it offered sufficient opportunities for sex and violence. So I was involved with Charles Willeford’s Cockfighter and Ib Melchior’s The Racer (which we transformed rather drastically into Death Race 2000). Years later, I helped adapt a Dean Koontz thriller, Watchers, and a Brian Aldiss sci-fi extravaganza, Frankenstein Unbound. For Julie Corman I worked at turning Gary Paulsen’s award-winning YA survival tale, Hatchet, into a family flick, A Cry in the Wild. (We changed the title because, since our film was to be released under the Corman banner, Hatchet would doubtless be mistaken for a slasher film.)

This weekend’s big marquee event is the presentation of the Grammy Awards. But the University of Southern California, home of a film school begun in 1929 as a joint venture with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is hosting a nifty fundraiser Saturday evening on behalf of the USC Libraries. It’s the 25th annual Scripter Award, which is unique in honoring screenwriters but also the creators of their source material. This year’s finalists were chosen by a blue-ribbon panel co-chaired by Naomi Foner, whom I admire because she wrote and produced Running on Empty. (She also produced Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal, but that’s another story.) Among those involved in the selection process were such major literary lights as Michael Chabon, Nick Hornby, and Mona Simpson, along with Hollywood players like Gale Anne Hurd, Lawrence Kasdan, and Mike Medavoy. Vying for this year’s Scripter Award are the writers behind Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Silver Linings Playbook. When the winners are announced, both the screenwriter and the writer of the prose original will doubtless be on hand to make some gracious remarks.

That’s been true for most of the past ceremonies, which honored such well-crafted screenplays as The Descendants, The Social Network, Slumdog Millionaire, and No Country for Old Men. Back in 1996, though, Emma Thompson was chosen for her spot-on adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Austen, alas, wasn’t able to put in an appearance. So Thompson read a very amusing letter she claimed was Austen’s response to the award. Wish I had been there!

Since I haven’t done all the background reading, I don’t feel qualified to name a personal favorite. But I was quite impressed by the way screenwriter David Magee captured Yann Martel’s apparently unfilmable novel, Life of Pi. I’m also fascinated that Lincoln’s Tony Kushner took a small slice of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s scholarly biography, Team of Rivals, and blew it up into an absorbing film.

Writers know that it’s far easier to expand a short story into a screenplay than to try to compress a big novel for the screen. Looking back through Scripter history, I was certain that one of the winners had been Brokeback Mountain, based on a concise but very powerful story by Annie Proulx. In fact, Brokeback was beaten out by the film (and biography), Capote. Maybe this year’s Scripter folk are making amends to Brokeback’s screenwriters, Larry McMurtry and Diane Ossana. The duo will receive Scripter’s 2013 Literary Achievement Award for their years of high-caliber writing. Write on!

BREAKING NEWS: On Saturday evening, February 9, the movie Argo continued its march toward Oscar by winning the 25th annual Scripter Award. Prizes went to screenwriter Chris Terrio as well as Joshuah Bearman (for his Wired article, "Great Escape") and Antonio J. Mendez (for his memoir, The Master of Disguise). I'm sure my friend Roxanne Lane is thrilled!


  1. I was really impressed by Life of Pi too!

  2. Congratulations to Argo - and thank you, Ms. Gray for another spotlight shone on interesting behind the scenes film industry news!

  3. Thanks Beverly! Yes, I am thrilled for Argo's continued success!

    What I most admire about the film – besides the wonderful balance of suspense and humor fused in a political thriller — is Affleck’s and Chris Terrio’s ability to take a real life story that didn't fit a 3 act format and turn it into a "nail-biter" – all the while preserving the integrity and truth of the real life event.

    In addition, Ben Affleck's amazing Hollywood journey is a great source of personal inspiration. His success - going from a little-regarded actor to award-winning writer and director - serves as a reminder (to me) that one's accomplishments are controlled by their talent and perseverance ... and a little help from friends along the way!

  4. Thanks, Mr. Craig. Rox, you can look forward to more about Argo (and other Oscar-nominated films) tomorrow.