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Jul 9, 2021

A Film Fan's Summer Screenplay Reading List

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 offers a summer reading list of adapted screenplays of recent films, which, successful at the box office or not, demonstrate the art of bringing the page (or the stage) to the screen.

One Night in Miami

Kemp Powers adapts his own stage play of the same name.

“Four black celebrities walk into a bar…” sounds like the beginning of a joke, but actually forms the fictional premise of Sam Cooke (Oscar nominated Leslie Odom, Jr), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Malcom X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) gathering in a Miami hotel room to discuss strategy on improving lives of African-American men.

The play, more than the film, sides with Malcolm X, that any social movement begins with a moral and spiritual renewal of manhood and competent fathering.

In a divided country, Christian conservatives may, in hindsight, find common ground with the slain black leader from the sixties. Malcolm X also offers the best creative advice for Sam Cooke: he clearly has the craft of music mastered, so why not write songs of more social impact the way Bob Dylan has done?

The White Tiger

Based on the novel by Aravind Adiga. Potential viewer and/or reader beware: the filmmakers “faithfully” (an ironic term) adapted Adiga’s amoral universe into an Oscar-nominated best adapted screenplay.

In the author’s worldview, from what I could best determine, India never has to worry about a social revolution, given how fused the caste system is into the country’s psychology. One exception might be “white tigers": individual servants turning on their masters.

Best of the Rest

Greyhound: See previous blog linked here. In reading the original C.S. Forester novel since posting this blog, the film did not shy away from the overt Christian themes.

Commander George Krause (Tom Hanks) hangs in his quarters the letter to the Hebrews quote: “Yesterday, today and forever” as his guiding principle.

For nautical literature buffs who enjoy Patrick O’Brian novels, Forester dives into more of the technical details, evidenced with his inclusion of a glossary of “Navy Terms.”

Hillbilly Elegy: Best Supporting Actress (Glenn Close) & Makeup and Hairstyling. Based on J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis. I read this book in one sitting while on annual retreat last summer. I said to myself that this will win Best Picture if they adapt it correctly. They didn’t. Excised from Vance’s story is the entire second act where he serves in the Armed Forces, enrolls as a Ohio State undergrad and later Yale Law School, thus breaking the welfare cycle that plagued generations of his family prior. Nominated for three Golden Raspberries.

The Life Ahead (Italian): Based on The Life Before Us by Romain Gary, the film tells the story through the point of view of Sophia Loren’s Holocaust-survivor character, an odd choice seeing the narrator of the novel was the ten-year orphan boy she adopts.

What’s lost is the perspective of an outsider to the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Muslim boy can’t quite understand why his Jewish guardian living in Catholic France must suffer until her natural death.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: Based on the August Wilson play, the illustrative film about two-act storytelling also paralleled in the writings of James Baldwin.

Music producers exploit the original work (later to be defined as intellectual property) of blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), while conflicts erupt among her band members (including the late Chadwick Boseman).

There’s not a third-act redemption, because being true to this story means there’s not a realistic chance at redemption.

The Midnight Sky: Based on Good Morning, Midnight, a novel by Lily Brooks-Dalton. As one of the last persons on earth following an undefined environmental catastrophe, astronomer Augustine (George Clooney) spends most of the novel contemplating the value of his life’s work.

You would think the director (also Clooney) directing himself could get into his own mind the best in portraying this book about the interior life, but that wasn’t the case here.

Pinocchio (Italian): Based on the children’s novel The Adventures of Pinocchio, written by Carlo Collodi.

Life is Beautiful director and tragi-comedian Robert Benigni stars in the Italian children’s classic. Upon publishing the novel in the 1880s, Collodi wrote within the context of political turmoil in Italy.

Benigni’s choice for live action better suits the book’s sometimes dark content than any Disney animated version previously.

The United States v. Billie Holiday: Inspired by Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, by Johann Hari. The book provides more context for the famed singer's (Golden Globe-winner Andra Day) turn toward drug use: her abusive childhood.

It also follows the controversy that erupted every time she sang Strange Fruit, a song about lynching.

The book also fleshes out Holiday’s Catholic faith, whereas the film only gives fleeting reference in a shot of her praying before a concert.

Honorable mention

Sound of Metal: For a change of pace, try reading the script of this original film. The main character, a heavy-metal drummer, played by Riz Ahmed, loses his ability to hear, and a Christian counselor (Paul Raci) runs the speech therapy camp he lands at.

The story unfolds through scene description and, more specifically, over the sound design. A great script reads a minute per page -- a pacing also played out in running time.

Previously blogged

  • Emma: See previous blog linked here. Based on the Jane Austen novel.
  • The Father: Based on the play by Florian Zeller. Previously blogged here.
  • Mulan: See previous blog linked here. Based on the original animated film.
  • News of the World: See previous blog linked here. Based on the Paulette Jiles novel.
  • Nomadland: This year's best-picture winner at the Oscars; based on the memoir by Jessica Bruder.

Finally, click here for Deadline.com's Read the Screenplay series, which contains links to the scripts for several of the above films.

Image: Adobe Stock

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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