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Dec 28, 2020

Horton Foote, the Elephant Man and Mozart: Best Adapted Screenplays of the '80s

Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies.

Here, he continues a series called Best of the Decades, looking this time at the Best Adapted Screenplays of the 1980s.

Best Family Film: The Trip to Bountiful (1985)

Characters on the move make for the best cinema — films are called “motion pictures” for that very reason. It’s some small wonder then, that Horton Foote’s screenplay was derived from his stage play and not the other way around. Plays lend heavily on dialogue uttered by mostly static characters.

Be that as it may, Mrs. Watts (Oscar -winning Geraldine Page) road-trips to her childhood home, the trek seemingly the last bastion of human agency for the elderly. I remember all too well the time my 80-year old father drove to see his childhood home without informing anyone where he was going or what time of night (“middle of the…”, as it eventually was) he would return.

The characters learn to forgive her instinct for nostalgia as the viewer might do with their own loved ones. By the time her son, Ludie Watts (John Heard) catches up to his mother, he quietly allows her to reminisce…in her own idealized way, not quite in the way her coming-of-age actually was.


Best Adaptation:The Elephant Man (1980)

Unless you’re a medical doctor, I would advise skipping the aptly named medical treatise The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity. It’s as prosaic as it sounds. Nevertheless, director David Lynch insists his adaptation was based on it and not on the more digestible stage play by Bernard Pomerance.

Lynch helms a modern-day leper’s tale, humanizing Joseph Merrick (John Hurt), disfigured from birth and relegated to “freakshow” work. Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) gradually reintegrates Merrick into London society after hearing his patient whisper the words of Psalm 23.

The director, an interesting soul in his own right, selects this most interesting of historical figures in shaping one robustly Christian-themed movie.


Best Source Material: Amadeus (1984)

One of the best homilies I’ve heard on the sin of envy referenced this Milos Forman classic. Not content with being the second-best composer in the world, Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) grows jealous over the man clearly superior to him in talent and accomplishment, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce).

The dialogue in Peter Shaffer’s stage play (he also wrote the adapted screenplay) captures a man envious of another, to the point of wishing for his downfall. Envy remains the one original sin without any positive material reward: wrath is cathartic; greed elicits a pile of money, and so on.

Forman realizes a true tragedy here. Tragic was Mozart’s premature death, but more tragic still was Salieri beginning the story in envy and ending the story with the same envy.


Best of the rest by year: 1980: Breaker Morant/play by Kenneth G. Ross

  • 1981: On Golden Pond/play by Ernest Thompson
  • 1982: Das Boot/novel by Lothar Buchheim
  • 1983: The Dresser/play by Ronald Harwood
  • 1984: Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes/novel Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burrows
  • 1985: Out of Africa/memoir by Karen Blixen
  • 1986: Stand by Me/novella The Body by Stephen King
  • 1987: The Dead/short story by James Joyce
  • 1988: Gorillas in the Mist/article by Harold Hayes
  • 1989: My Left Foot/memoir by Christy Brown

Image: Adobe Stock

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