With two sumptuous incarnations of L.A. Confidential—James Ellroy’s massive, jazzy, complex novel and Curtis Hanson’s sleek, insinuating film adaptation—readily available, why would anyone choose a third, especially one that offers neither the literary virtues of the novel nor the cinematic assets of the film?
One legitimate reason, of course, would be to find out how the first became the second, but readers who hope to learn about the craft of screenwriting by studying L.A. Confidential: The Screenplay will be disappointed. It takes nothing away from the extraordinary accomplishment of co-screenwriters Hanson and Brian Helgeland, who are likely headed for a well-deserved Oscar nomination, to note that readers are ill served by the book packaging of a screenplay that contains nothing more revealing about its genesis than three mutually backslapping introductions by Ellroy and the co-scriptwriters. How did Hanson and Helgeland divide their duties? What did they fight over? What elements of Ellroy’s 496-page novel were most painful to sacrifice? What was filmed and then left on the cutting-room floor? Future film historians, take note: Don’t bother looking here. Welcome to the burgeoning business of screenplay publication, in which the books are ever more numerous but less illuminating. At their worst, not only do these slender volumes fail to clarify the filmmaking process, they actually obscure it. Take a look at U-Turn: The Shooting Script, a presentation of John Ridley’s screenplay for Oliver Stone’s recent flop. In forewords notable only for their exquisitely tense, smiling-through-gritted-teeth tones, Stone comments that his alteration of Ridley’s screenplay went uncredited and complains that ”the ideal book would contrast John Ridley’s script with the shooting script,” and Ridley, who hadn’t even seen the film when this book went to press, demurely claims that his ”arduous duties as Executive Producer largely kept me away from the set.” Well, the non-Pravda version of events would include the fact that Stone barred Ridley from the set in a brawl over the publication date of Ridley’s Stray Dogs, on which U-Turn is based, and detail the differences between the book, the first screenplay, and the final version. Otherwise, why bother? (It’s not as if this one was published by popular demand.)
Even when intentions are less suffused with self-interest, the results can be perplexing. Bean: The Script Book boasts assets few of its competitors cough up: high-quality paper; over 200 color photographs; a preproduction diary by co-screenwriter Richard Curtis (the genial genius who also wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral) that actually dares to suggest some of the frustrations of constant rewriting, collaborating, and trying to please a star; an early-’80s script for a Bean prototype named Mr. Smith; and seven scenes cut from the movie. None of this compensates for the fact that, as Curtis admits, descriptions of the physical humor on which Bean relies ”are stunningly boring to read, as you can imagine”—which means Bean the book is probably best enjoyed while the movie is in your VCR.
The Ice Storm: The Shooting Script is, then, a real rarity: a published screenplay that can be enjoyed completely on its own merits. James Schamus’ graceful, literate script brims with exceptional attention to detail (from the detritus of early-’70s suburban culture to the most faintly flickering emotional reactions of its characters) and manages to provide its own pleasures while casting fresh light on both Rick Moody’s novel and Ang Lee’s film. More welcome still, the warts-and-all script includes dialogue, descriptions, and entire scenes that didn’t make it into the movie, along with Schamus’ explanations of why the most significant cuts were made. It takes humility for a writer to expose himself this way—to leave in the overstatements, repetitions, and wrong turns (not to mention the good stuff) that never made it to the screen— — but when the resulting book expands a moviegoer’s understanding of the screenwriter’s craft and the finished film, it’s a risk worth taking.
(Grades reflect the overall quality of each book, not necessarily of each script.) L.A. Confidential: B- U-Turn: C- Bean: B+ The Ice Storm: A