Sunday, November 14, 2004

Andrew Lloyd Webber (and me!) on Adaptations

The film version of The Phantom of the Opera screened this evening at the Writer’s Guild, with Joel Schumacher and Andrew Lloyd Webber in conversation afterward (interviewed by JJ Abrams of Armageddon/Alias/Felicity fame). What I found most interesting was Webber’s reasoning for why he chose the material in the first place. He said he found the original book “confused” and that in choosing material that is imperfect, he finds more inspiration in terms of what he wants to bring to a story. This seems to make perfect sense to me—and in fact, it’s why I’m always puzzled when brilliant movies (Psycho, Stepford Wives) are remade. It’s often been said that only bad movies should be remade. As for material for adaptation, I know that when I have my screenwriter glasses on, I’d prefer a book with a good, yet underdeveloped premise to a book that’s perfect that I need merely to transcribe into a new format. I just don’t know what I’d add to the equation adapting, say, Elmore Leonard. I’d feel like a typist. That is, unless I was able to bring an entirely new sensibility to brilliant subject matter, as Baz Luhrmann did with Romeo & Juliet. Adapting my own work seems different—with The Kill Clause, it felt great being in control (however briefly) of the decision-making process as to which scenes to keep and which to cut, and as to deciding how to steer the story along. I felt as if I had the pick of the litter for every scene—I could select my favorite few moments or lines and build the script scene around those.

Schumacher pointed out that he drew a distinction in the film (which is more sexual than the stage version—lots of heaving bosoms and white stockings) between Christine’s innocent first love with Raoul and her more sexual attraction to the Phantom. I’ve always found the Phantom most compelling when interpreted as a personification of Christine’s enmeshment with her deceased father—an enmeshment she must shed in order to enter into an adult love affair. Either way, I agree with Lord Webber’s assessment that the original story is a confused one. “It couldn’t figure out what it wanted to be,” he said. “Part horror, part mystery, and part drama.” When he found the romance at the core, he said, he found his way to the heart of the story he wanted to write. I guess at the end of the day, that’s what we’re all trying to do when we sit down and stare at the blank page.

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