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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Consider the Source: The Adaptation of Revolutionary Road

Published under Oscar Outsider.

Spoiler Warning: This column contains heavy spoilers for both the book and film Revolutionary Road.

In adapting Richard Yates‘ 1961 novel Revolutionary Road, screenwriter Justin Haythe faced the challenge of translating a book that’s largely interior and told from the point of view of one character, Frank Wheeler (played in the film by Leonardo DiCaprio) into a film that’s about the marriage between Frank and his wife April (Kate Winslet). Much as it directly translates the book to the screen (including whole sections of dialogue lifted directly from the source material), there’s a good deal of subtext about the Wheeler’s marriage and, in particular, both Frank and April Wheeler’s motivations, that was lost in the translation from page to screen — in part due to the excising of much of the first third of the book from the screenplay.

The book Revolutionary Road is divided into three parts: the first third of Yates’ novel sets up much of the context for the Wheelers’ troubled marriage and lets us into the mind of Frank Wheeler, a man who wants to be more than he is, but allows then-girlfriend April’s first unplanned pregnancy to detour him onto a more mundane path of providing for wife and children and a life in the suburbs by working for the same company his father worked for — the one job Frank had sworn never to take. There are layers and layers of context in this first section of the novel, which lets us delve into Frank’s mind and understand his rationalizations, and the ways in which he cocoons himself against the possibility of a larger failure as the brilliant and extraordinary man he aspires to be by setting up his wife and children to take the blame for the average man he’s become.

The book’s first section also sets up the many ways in which both Frank and April try to protect themselves from being absorbed into the suburban obscurity they disdain and fear by holding themselves above “those people” — while ignoring the fact that they themselves have become all that they purport to loathe. The Wheelers’ marriage is unraveling at the seams under the weight of all this contrivance and unspoken blame; the first part of the book ends at the point that April, having had a revelation about what path to take to get their marriage on a better track, persuades Frank that they should do what they’ve always talked of doing, and move to Europe.

The book’s second section charts the course of the Wheeler’s marriage during a period that’s happier, at least on the surface, as they make their plans to move to Paris. For a while, all the planning and talking of the move makes the Wheelers feel like excited young lovebirds again, and neither of them wants to shatter their newfound peace; therefore, they brush other issues aside to be dealt with later, and keep glossing and polishing the gleaming dream of life in Europe, which they’ve built up as being a panacea that will make the other issues of their troubled marriage melt away. Under the surface, though, while April is planning the move with genuine excitement, Frank is increasingly paralyzed by fear and guilt over her plan to support him for several years while he “finds himself” and figures out what he wants to do with his life. What if they make this move, and he finally has the time to do all the things he’s resented not being able to do, and then discovers at the end that he never was quite as extraordinary as he believed himself to be? So long as he could blame not achieving greatness on the albatross of a wife and kids to support, he could continue to uphold the picture of himself in his mind of being a potentially great person held back by the responsibilities of an ordinary life. When April frees him from that constraint by her willingness to support him in finally achieving that greatness, he’s internally paralyzed by his lifelong fear of failure.

While the screenplay shows this internal conflict to a degree, and DiCaprio and Winslet both excel at conveying as much as they can about the relationship between Frank and April, much of what I loved about the way in which the characters are minutely drawn in the book is unfortunately lost in translating them to the screen. Much of the third section of the book, which deals with the Wheelers in the aftermath of April’s third pregnancy and the derailing of their plans to move to Europe, is brought to the screen intact; lacking much of the set-up the book provides in its first third, though, the film often rings hollow and lacks the heart that made the book so wrenching. As a result, while the screenplay of Revolutionary Road hits on most of the peaks of the novel, much of the context of these characters and their marriage lies in the valleys that never made it into the film.

Such is very often the case when translating lengthy books to screen — decisions have to be made about what to bring in and what to cut out, and it’s a challenge to do that in a way that brings the characters to life through actors portraying them without losing a lot of the context that makes them who they are. The Painted Veil, for instance, which translated William Somerset Maugham’s classic short story about a troubled marriage ending in tragedy, and Brideshead Revisited, an excellent retelling of Evelyn Waugh‘s tale of Charles Ryder and his entwined relationship with the aristocratic Flyte family, both took stories that were largely internal to their lead characters and translated them to the screen in very effective ways, without losing the heart of the books from which they were adapted.

Revolutionary Road, on the other hand, while extraordinarily well-acted by DiCaprio and Winslet in the lead roles, and Michael Shannon and Kathy Bates in supporting turns, often feels cold, and I think this is largely because the heartbeat underlying the story is in Frank’s solipsism and manipulation, and April’s underlying inability to accept the traditional roles of wife and mother because of her own troubled childhood — pieces that are largely missing from the screenplay adaptation. In particular, one crucial piece of information that did not make it from book to screen is that April and Frank had fought when she got pregnant with their first child, Jennifer, and that she had wanted to abort that pregnancy in the same way in which she proposes ending the third. Depending on your own views on abortion and pregnancy, this bit of information can either make the viewer feel more or less sympathetic towards April as a character, and having that knowledge of Frank and April’s history gives a completely different weight and meaning to the scene in the film where Frank and April are fighting over the newest unplanned pregnancy that’s now thwarting their plans to move to Europe. The mirroring of how Frank manipulated April to get her to not abort the first pregnancy with the way in which he plans his manipulation of her over the third with microscopically strategic thinking and planning is laid out in detail in the book, and lost almost completely in the film.

In the book all this context, in turn, gives even more import to the penultimate showdown between Frank Wheeler and the schizophrenic, yet remarkably intuitive John Givings (Shannon), son of the Wheeler’s realtor, Helen Givings (Bates), when John learns that the Wheelers are no longer moving to Europe because of April’s unexpected pregnancy. John Givings’ scathing dressing-down of Frank, when he accuses him of hiding behind a maternity dress, has so much more impact in the book because you know the entire history of the Wheeler’s relationship, the mirrored pregnancies, and all the ways in which Frank, both internally and overtly, has manipulated April to persuade her not to abort both pregnancies and used them as shields to protect him against the full weight of his own inadequacies.

DiCaprio and Shannon play this scene very well in the film, but I had the sense watching it (as I did much of the film) that DiCaprio and Winslet were playing Frank and April with the fuller knowledge of the characters as gleaned from the book than what they actually had to work with in the screenplay. And while this says a great deal about the power of both performances, and both DiCaprio and Winslet do a fantastic job of breathing more subtext into Frank and April than the screenplay actually gave either of them to work with, I would have liked the film better overall had more of the subtext crucial to the feel of the book actually made it into the story arc onscreen.

by Kim Voynar

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon