In 1996, Bill Bryson — then age 44 — undertook a hike of the 2,000-mile-long Appalachian Trail, extending from Georgia to Maine. He chronicled the journey with his estranged middle school friend Steven Katz in his memoir A Walk in the Woods. In parallel, Robert Redford and Paul Newman undertook a hunt for their next co-starring film; after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, the duo teamed up for A Walk in the Woods. Redford would play Bryson, while Newman would play Katz. Unfortunately, Newman died before the plan could come to fruition, but after a couple years' delay, the film has finally been made, with Redford in the starring role and Katz played by a grizzled, rotund Nick Nolte. In between all of the film logistics, though, was Bill Bryson involved in A Walk in the Woods ?
Bryson told ABC News Australia that Redford's company bought the film rights directly — "For me, that was a complete comfort, right from the very beginning, because, you know, Robert Redford just makes intelligent movies." But with Newman's death, the project seemed to fall into purgatory until Bryson learned that filming was about to begin, Nolte had been cast, and the movie was forthcoming. "The next thing you know, they've got a movie," he told ABC. So it seems that Bryson wasn't as involved in the making of his film as, say, Gillian Flynn with Gone Girl — while Flynn wrote the screenplay as well as the original novel, Bryson is not credited on the script for A Walk in the Woods.
Perhaps that's the reason Bryson doesn't quite recognize himself in Redford's portrayal. As he told the Radio Times, the British analogue to TV Guide, seeing Redford up on screen was "surreal for about 60 seconds."
"In terms of vanity, it was terrific," he told the Radio Times. But he soon realized that the story had become Redford's own project — "It was clear from that point that this was no longer my life. It was a film about a character name Bill Bryson." But many writers, Flynn included, have taken a leading role in the adaptations of their films rather than a more passive perspective. It's not for nothing that there's a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar — adapting the intricacies of a novel or memoir into film presents a whole new set of challenges apart from those of writing an original screenplay.
1. J.K. Rowling / Harry Potter Series
Filmmakers for the Harry Potter series actually requested that J.K. Rowling come on board as a producer — she initially declined, but decided to join the team for Deathly Hallows. She still maintained a close connection to the film production, and insisted that the ending of the series not be altered. The result is a series of films that is overwhelmingly faithful to the source material, perhaps due to its intense fandom as well as the involvement of its writer.
2. Suzanne Collins / The Hunger Games
Collins worked alongside established screenwriters like Billy Ray to bring her novels to film. Like Harry Potter, The Hunger Games faced enormous pressure to be faithful to the books from its devoted following. Additionally, the universe of The Hunger Games is so meticulously planned that it seems necessary for Collins to come on board to adapt it.
3. Gillian Flynn / Gone Girl
Flynn has the lead writing credit for her screenplay for Gone Girl. The Hollywood Reporter recently reported that this foray into screenwriting may lead to an HBO show with Gone Girl director David Fincher for Flynn. And like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, Gone Girl — the film — is remarkably faithful to the original, down to the narration-diary-entry interludes that break up the Ben Affleck narrative.
4. Stephen Chbosky / The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Chbosky both wrote and directed the adaptation of his cult-favorite 1999 novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower. The likes of John Hughes, Richard Linklater, Danny Boyle, and McG were also reportedly interested in obtaining rights to the film at various points, but Chbosky ended up doing the job himself. He takes what was originally an epistolary novel and turns it into a continuous narrative. But when a writer adapts his or her own work, it often lacks the outside perspective that a new director or contributing screenwriter can bring to the film.
5. Mario Puzo / The Godfather
Puzo's Godfather is perhaps the best example of a successful novel-to-film adaptation, especially one with which the author was particularly tightly involved. He wrote the screenplay in collaboration with director Francis Ford Coppolla, and he won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1973 and 1975 — for The Godfather and The Godfather Part II.
So Bryson may be justified in saying that, without his input, A Walk in the Woods became a Robert Redford film featuring a character named Bill Bryson. But the fresh outlook that a new screenwriter working with an old text can offer audiences a fresh way to view a favorite text.
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