Read any published screenplay, and the first thing you may see is a note from the author telling you how pointless it was to write the thing in the first place. ”Trainspotting is an incredible book…but still I didn’t see it as a film,” insists its adapter, John Hodge. ”I hope the army of admirers of Michael Ondaatje’s novel forgive my sins of omission and commission, my misjudgments and betrayals,” pleads The English Patient‘s writer-director Anthony Minghella.
To paraphrase the screenplay of Hamlet (you know, the one by Kenneth Branagh, not the one by William Shakespeare), methinks these writers protest too much. After all, like an ever-growing number of their colleagues, they were proud enough of the results to publish their work. In what’s become a book-industry boomlet, screenplay publishing is now so common that 7 of this year’s 10 Oscar contenders for writing — all except Jerry Maguire, Lone Star, and Secrets & Lies — are currently available. But are these movies really good enough to read? Here’s how they stack up.
The Book: The Crucible Screenplay, by Arthur Miller (Penguin, $12.95)
Extras: Insightful forewords by Miller and director Nicholas Hytner.
Biggest Surprise: Despite Miller’s opening comments about the differences between movies and theater, much of the screenplay is identical to his play.
Reason to Read: It’s been a long time since high school — and this time you won’t even have to take a pop quiz.
What’s Missing: Anything you haven’t seen already; Miller has snipped out all the lines that didn’t make the film’s final cut. Isn’t that cheating?
THE ENGLISH PATIENT
The Book: The English Patient: A Screenplay, by Anthony Minghella (Hyperion, $10.95)
Extras: Ten pages of opening remarks by Minghella, producer Saul Zaentz, and novelist Michael Ondaatje.
Biggest Surprise: Without lush production values and beautiful stars, Minghella’s script reads as a surprisingly lean, spare, and gorgeously constructed story of love and memory.
Reason to Read: Given the chance to go over some scenes more than once, you may find certain plot points clearer here than in the film.
What’s Missing: Any sense of the fascinating decisions that went into this adaptation. Minghella, like Miller, retooled his script to reflect the finished film. Bad call.
The Book: Fargo, by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen (Faber and Faber, $12.95)
Extras: A straight-faced, teasingly oblique introduction by Ethan that should make a skeptic of anyone who still believes that Fargo really is a true story.
Biggest Surprise: On the page, Best Actress nominee Frances McDormand has a smaller role than Best Supporting Actor nominee William H. Macy.
Reason to Read: The revelation that the Coen brothers scripted virtually every single one of those yahs, you bets, and real good thens.
What’s Missing: The laughs. Fargo‘s deadpan wit doesn’t crackle on the page the way it does on screen.
The Book: Hamlet by William Shakespeare: Screenplay, Introduction and Film Diary (Norton, $17)
Extras: A heartfelt introduction by Kenneth Branagh and a 33-page production diary by consultant Russell Jackson.
Biggest Surprise: It turns out that Branagh earned his much-derided Oscar nomination for writing; his screenplay is punctuated with hundreds of line interpretations and shrewd, witty explanations of every shift in mood and tone.
Reason to Read: Page by page, this is an invaluable look at Branagh’s creative process — and Jackson’s diary is a film buff’s delight.
What’s Missing: Not a thing, but purists will find this a very strange way to read the play.
The Book: Shine: The Screenplay, by Jan Sardi (Grove Press, $12)
Extras: A background piece on the making of the movie; perfunctory introductions by Sardi and director Scott Hicks; thumbnail bios of the cast and crew.
Biggest Surprise: A slightly different beginning and ending than moviegoers saw, and an even more melancholy tone than was evident in the finished film.
Reason to Read: You can finally find out what Geoffrey Rush was saying in those torrential-but-character-revealing word sprints.
What’s Missing: Sound. Shine without music just isn’t Shine.
The Book: Sling Blade: A Screenplay, by Billy Bob Thornton (Hyperion, $9.95)
Biggest Surprise: A couple of scenes that never made it into the movie, including a hilarious exchange about sex between Karl and his little buddy Frank.
Reason to Read: Thornton’s ear for dialogue makes Sling Blade surprisingly reader-friendly; the film itself is so minimalist that little seems to be absent on the page.
What’s Missing: Billy Bob the actor. Without the nuances of his line deliveries (and his long silences), the dramatic tension isn’t much to reckon with.
The Book: Trainspotting: A Screenplay, by John Hodge (Hyperion, $9.95)
Extras: Hodge’s witty intro; a Q&A with Irvine Welsh, who wrote the novel; asterisks that alert readers to every scene, line, and fragment cut from the film.
Biggest Surprise: The fate that leaves Renton’s drug dealer with barely a leg to stand on — a wry plot twist that’s nowhere to be found on screen.
Reason to Read: It’s your only chance to understand the lines spoken by the psychotic and (to U.S. ears) incomprehensible Begbie.
What’s Missing: Most of the detail in Welsh’s novel — which only underscores what an impressive distillation Hodge’s screenplay is.