Monday, April 25, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: Daniel (1983) - Tricky Adaption Problem; Theme That You Intend

[Quick Summary: A young man relives the heavy cost of the accusations, incarcerations and trials of his Jewish parents during the 1940s.]

You're a hungry screenwriter. (Producer or director is ok too.)

You're reading script after script, and you've gotten comfortable...and bored.
What do you do?

Answer: To up your game, you read and study scripts of advanced difficulty.

(In sports terms, it's called boxing/wrestling above your weight class.)

This is an advanced script.*

Ok, ok, it has a slow start.  Yes, the scattered timeline is distracting.

No, it did not do well at the box office, and reviews were mixed.

Even the director said the final film "succeeded in some cases, did not succeed in others." (p. 121)

However, I still believe it's worth reading because:

1) Sidney Lumet directed it.

Lumet never failed to choose emotionally challenging material that had something important to say (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico).

2) It shows you how to tackle a tricky adaption problem.
Daniel, for a director, presented nightmarish problems because, first of all, you must find out how to make that internal life clear, and find the visual equivalent of Edgar's [E.L. Doctorow's] poetry, of Edgar's nonreality.  How do you make a picture seem real? But you can't use reality because it's not a realistic novel. The time fracturing that Edgar did was the only way to tell the story... (Interview with Lumet, p. 121)
3) It shows you that the theme you intend may not be what comes across.

I read the script but was still unsure of its theme. Film reviewers were too. 

Then I read this quote from Lumet:
I was at that point in my life, again without knowing it, very ready for anything to do with family. My children were growing up and, like all people who have been, well, obsessive about work, I started wondering what damage I had caused. Who was paying for my obsessiveness? Had my kids paid for my obsessiveness? And from a thematic point of view that to me is the largest single element in Daniel.  To me, it is a book about who pays for your passion. Because passion is such a part of one's life. (p. 119-120)
A-ha! The theme is how parents' decisions affect their children. Not an easy theme.

I saw how the writer here did it, and wondered, "Could I make it clearer?"

I am not sure I could (but perhaps someone smarter than me could.) 

You've got to admit, though, that this writer had guts to try for it.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  Read hard scripts to broaden your horizons of what works or does not work. Don't be afraid to aim high, even if it doesn't quite make it.

Daniel (1983) 
by E.L. Doctorow, based on his novel, The Book of Daniel 

*It is also the rare case where I think it was best that the novelist adapted his own work.  But also note this novelist/book editor/professor/playwright/screenwriter has been winning awards since 1975.

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