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Voice-overs help bring villains to big screen

A sadistic mobster. Self-absorbed suburbanites. A tobacco lobbyist. A closeted lesbian stalker. Getting inside the heads of twisted protagonists such as these demands a skilled screenwriter who can get his audience — and hopefully Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters — to identify with them.
/ Source: Hollywood Reporter

A sadistic mobster. Self-absorbed suburbanites. A tobacco lobbyist. A closeted lesbian stalker. Getting inside the heads of twisted protagonists such as these demands a skilled screenwriter who can get his audience — and hopefully Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters — to identify with them.

This year, respectively, “The Departed,” “Little Children,” “Thank You for Smoking” and “Notes on a Scandal” have found considerable critical plaudits by adapting such malcontents and misanthropes for the big screen.

Perhaps not coincidentally, many of the best adaptations of 2006 have included a voice-over to help the audience get to know their villains. “Departed” screenwriter William Monahan says having a familiar voice open the film instantly sets the mood.

“Since I was opening the script with a historical montage, a voice-over just fit,” he says. “The faster you can say, ‘This is Boston,’ the better, [and] having Jack Nicholson’s voice coming at you with a quasi-Luciferian statement really kicks off the film.”

Changing the setting of the 2004 Hong Kong action thriller “Infernal Affairs” wasn’t one of Monahan’s concerns, but keeping his film unique was.

“It got very personal very fast. I really had a good time writing about my own culture and people,” the Beantown native says. “You don’t find adaptation problematic when you’ve read a lot of [William] Shakespeare. You get a plot, you pull it into your own world, you transform it.”

Todd Field had to filter more than 350 pages of Tom Perrotta’s book “Little Children: A Novel,” an anthropological study of suburbia. Field (who co-wrote the script with Perrotta) realized after six reads that the book’s third-person narrator subtly changed his words to reflect each character, as well as the shift from satire to melodrama. Field duplicated this effect in the script until the appearance of the character everyone is talking about: a convicted pedophile released from prison.

“He’s alone and heightened, and when the narrator suddenly goes away for a half-hour, you don’t know what he’s thinking,” Field says. “You’ve seen him through the eyes of others, and suddenly it’s up to you. That seemed like an exciting idea.”

Using narration to reach into a characterJason Reitman used his amoral tobacco lobbyist’s own voice to help the audience see his side of things as he adapted Christopher Buckley’s book “Thank You for Smoking.”

“I wanted to give the impression that Nick [Aaron Eckhart] is in control of the film, almost as if he were directing the movie: speaking to the audience, writing things on the screen, putting icons over people’s heads,” Reitman explains.

Reitman did give the character a son — “to give him a soul” — and changed the ending.

While Reitman sought to get more inside the head of a novel’s lead character, however, the screenwriter of another satire worked to get out of it. Aline Brosh McKenna notes that Lauren Weisberger’s fictionalized roman a clef to Vogue magazine boss Anna Wintour, “The Devil Wears Prada,” which became a worldwide hit for Fox, is written in the first person and “seen entirely through her eyes. We wanted to preserve that but have more of a rounding out and see [her boss] Miranda’s point of view.”

In the role of Miranda Priestly, Meryl Streep helped that along by working with McKenna. “She felt it was interesting to look at how women related to themselves based on what’s fashionable and what sacrifices they need to make,” McKenna says.

Narration was an obvious choice for Patrick Marber while adapting Zoe Heller’s novel “What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal: A Novel” (now “Notes on a Scandal”) for the screen, a decision made all the more intriguing by the fact that the book is a series of diary entries written by an older teacher obsessed with a younger one, who in turn has a disturbing secret of her own. The challenge with this adaptation was to include the voice-over but make audiences understand that the narrator is unbalanced and probably unreliable.

“The voice-over is not the truth,” Marber notes. “She lies even to her diary, presenting a fantastical version of their experiences. The difficulty was to access [the young teacher] as well and reveal the discordance slowly.” Marber says he was quite involved in the postproduction process, adding narration for Judi Dench’s older teacher character that would “build and build” the tension, along with Philip Glass’ score.

Narration can give the audience a direct look into the minds of the characters, much as musicals express inner or heightened thoughts through song. While adapting the 1981 Broadway musical “Dreamgirls” into a Paramount/DreamWorks film, writer-director Bill Condon had to avoid imparting an artificial or corny feeling, since movie audiences are much less accepting of the jump from spoken word to lyrics.

“The dialogue in the musical is largely sung throughout the show, almost like an opera,” Condon says. To give it a more natural feel, he put several of the songs in a stage setting. “Paradoxically, it becomes more cinematic if you remain true to its theatrical roots,” he says.

Magical dilemma
Two adaptations also dealt with behind-the-scenes stagecraft: Yari Film Group’s “The Illusionist” and Disney’s “The Prestige.” With their twisted, magical story lines, the two films might appear to be too similar to some Oscar voters, but each required a unique approach.

With “Illusionist,” writer Neil Burger had to turn Steven Millhauser’s 20-page short story “Eisenheim the Illusionist” into a feature-length movie. Burger invented two characters, a prince and a duchess, creating a love triangle among them and Eisenheim. There are only four mentions of Chief Inspector Uhl in the story, but Burger makes him the narrator. “He knows almost everything about Eisenheim, so the movie is told from his point of view,” Burger says.

With “Prestige,” director Christopher Nolan faced the opposite challenge. He and his brother Jonathan had to condense Christopher Priest’s 416-page novel about feuding 19th century magicians into a movie of a more reasonable length. And like “Notes,” its narrators are more than a little unreliable. “The film plays with misunderstood, unreliable narrators, each aligned with a character’s point of view,” Christopher Nolan says. “Multiple voice-overs were absolutely essential in telling the story.”

In his adaptation of James Bradley and Ron Powers’ book “Flags of Our Fathers,” the true account of three soldiers photographed raising the American flag at Iwo Jima, for Paramount/DreamWorks, Paul Haggis used several narrators, most of them voiced by the veterans themselves. “I wanted it to be an unsentimental look at war, so I felt their voices wouldn’t give a sentimental view of it,” Haggis says. “Everyone thinks they know what war is, so I thought it was necessary to hear from the men who experienced it.”

Haggis, who wrote his script alongside one that producer Steven Spielberg commissioned from William Broyles Jr. in a formerly competing project, says another challenge was weaving the three stories over decades. Initially overwhelmed by the material, he started to notice emotional moments at different points in the stories and ultimately abandoned attempts to connect them with a linear narrative.

The use of narration to tell a celluloid story has long been frowned upon. In 2002’s “Adaptation,” written by Charlie Kaufman, a fictionalized version of script guru Robert McKee said, “God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. That’s flaccid, sloppy writing.” The thing is, narration helped earn Kaufman a best adapted screenplay nomination, and it’s likely to do the same thing for another scribe this year.

“The stigma came [into being] because there were people who hadn’t done their jobs and used narration to bridge story gaps: ’And then the donkey went up to the cave,”’ Field says. “If you told me a year ago I’d do something with narration, I’d have said you were nuts.”

“There’s nothing like the certainty of a young film student,” he continues, laughing. “But these things we hold as cinematic truths ... why not use all these things we have at our disposal?”