It should come as no surprise that in Hollywood more scripts are adaptations than original scripts from clearly original ideas. Because Hollywood has always been a business, the fact that a book or a play or even a television show has been popular certainly spurs on producers to say, "Let's make the movie!" The year 2003 even saw the "adaptation" of an amusement park ride into a hit movie ( Pirates of the Caribbean ) and similarly with a video game ( Resident Evil ). In such a manner, Gone with the Wind (1939) moved from the pages of Margaret Mitchell's best-selling novel to the screen in an Oscar ® -winning script by Sidney Howard and others. The list is endless and the formula of "page to screen" might seem quite mechanical were it not for the fact that there are so many variations in the adaptation process.
One form of adaptation that French filmmakers in particular have come to hate is the transformation of a foreign hit into a Hollywood film to spare Americans from reading subtitles. Jean-Luc Godard's breakthrough New Wave film À bout de souffle ( Breathless , 1960) became the inferior Breathless (1983), with Richard Gere reprising the Jean-Paul Belmondo role. Mike Nichols's The Birdcage (1996), with a script by Elaine May, is hardly a memorable "American" film compared to the original French-Italian comedy, La Cage Aux Folles ( Birds of a Feather , 1978), but its box office receipts were more than twenty times those of the original.
Another form of adaptation is the remake. Nothing could be sounder business sense than the idea that "if it made money years ago, let's give it another chance." Robin Hood (1922), with Douglas Fairbanks (1883–1939) as star and screenwriter, has spawned almost a dozen remakes from Robin and Marian (1976) and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) to parodies such as Robin Hood: Men in Tights (l993), with Mel Brooks writing (with several others) and directing.
In yet another form of adaptation screenwriting, the original is the source or an inspiration for the screen-writer, but the actual script and even the title differ from the original. This allows the writer to riff with the material, much like jazz artists know the tune but play with it to express their interpretation of a song. The Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) was nominated for an Oscar ® for such an adaptation, since it is playfully based on Homer's Odyssey , while the title is taken with a wink from Preston Sturges's Sullivan's Travels (1941), which concerns a Hollywood director of comedies, Sullivan, who wishes to make a serious movie to be called "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
Finally, sequels (and, in some cases, prequels) suggest yet a further territory for the screenplay "based on previous films" yet forging ahead with new material. Examples include the Star Wars , Batman , and The Terminator series as well as The Godfather (1972, with a script Oscar ® for writer-director Francis Ford Coppola [b. 1939] and Mario Puzo [1920–1999], author of the original novel), The Godfather, Part II (script by Coppola and Puzo, 1974), and The Godfather, Part III (again, Coppola and Puzo, 1990). The motive is once more that of capitalizing on one hit by trying to duplicate it, by simply extending the story, characters, and even the themes, providing "familiarity with a difference," in a manner not unlike genre films. In a sense, such a concept for cinema pulls the screenwriter into the territory of television series writing, with its problem of making each episode of a show recognizable yet somehow original as well.
Original screenplays, however, have always been in play, and they are especially worth celebrating. Callie Khouri won an Oscar ® for her first script, Thelma and Louise (1991), which came from a combination of her imagination and her experiences. Similarly, the long list of Oscars ® for original scripts is an impressive one, including, to mention but a few, John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), William Inge's Splendor in the Grass (1961), William Rose's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), William Goldman's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Robert Towne's Chinatown (1974), John Briley's Gandhi (1982), Jane Campion's The Piano (1993), and Alan Ball's American Beauty (1999).
Three-time Oscar ® -winning screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky was equally well known as a playwright, novelist, composer, and producer. He had a fine ear for dialogue and an ability to use all media from radio and television to the stage and cinema to explore social issues and to question political and cultural stereotypes.
A graduate of the City College of New York, a semi-pro football player for the Kingsbridge Trojans in the Bronx, and a Purple Heart-winning soldier in World War II, Chayefsky began his creative work as a playwright in England while recovering from wounds sustained in the war. Throughout the 1950s his work for the stage, television, and then the cinema grew out of his own finely etched stories based on his youth in New York City. As Young As You Feel (1951), a story of a printing company employee who does not want to retire at age sixty-five, was the first film based on one of his stories.
In the television play Marty (1953), Rod Steiger brought to life Chayefsky's touching tale of a Bronx butcher who finds love unexpectedly. Considered the golden boy of television during its golden age, Chayefsky also wrote film scripts. The 1955 film version of Marty , directed by Delbert Mann and starring Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair, won Chayefsky his first Oscar ® , along with Oscars ® for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor.
Dividing his energy between Broadway and Hollywood, Chayefsky went on to shape film scripts. His Oscar ® -nominated script for The Goddess (1958), about Marilyn Monroe's complex and finally tragic hunger for stardom, created tight, effective dialogue that thrust actress Kim Stanley, performing in her first film role, into the spotlight. Perhaps because of his natural feel for both stage and screen, actors thrived in the well-defined characters Chayefsky created. James Garner claims that his favorite film was The Americanization of Emily (1964), which co-starred Julie Andrews as the love interest for Garner's World War II American soldier character. The sharply written script still rings true today as a delightful "battle of the sexes" in the tradition of edgy romantic comedy, while at the same time, Chayefsky's social criticism provides a strong antiwar message.
In the 1970s Chayefsky moved away from dramas of social realism and experimented with darker humor and broader satire in The Hospital (1971, his second Oscar ® ) and Network (1976, his third Oscar ® ). Altered States (1980), based on his own novel, was his last script, but Chayefsky was so upset with the finished film that he withdrew his name from the credits when his sense of characterization became lost in the film's "mind-bending" special effects.
Marty (1955), The Bachelor Party (1957), The Goddess (1958), The Americanization of Emily (1964), The Hospital (1971), Network (1976)
Brady, John. "Paddy Chayefsky." In The Craft of the Screenwriter . New York: Touchstone Books, 1981: 29–83.
Chayefsky, Paddy. Altered States: A Novel . New York: Harper & Row, 1978.
——. The Collected Works of Paddy Chayefsky: The Television Plays, the Stage Plays, the Screenplays . Edited by Arthur Schlesinger. New York: Applause Books, 1995.
Chum, John. Paddy Chayefsky . Boston: Twayne, 1976.
Considine, Shaun. Mad As Hell: The Life and Work of Paddy Chayefsky . New York: Random House, 1994.