Plenty of authors have felt burned by abysmal film adaptations of their books. Others have eked out a nice living selling stories to Hollywood and never expressed much guilt about all the dreadful movies that have resulted (that’s you, John Grisham).
Then there’s filmmaker Ali Selim and novelist Will Weaver whose collaboration (or lack thereof) on the 2006 indie hit Sweet Land is maybe a truer reflection of how such a partnership can work when the material and talents are well-matched. The two Minnesotans reunited last night for a jokey, fast-paced Talk of the Stacks discussion at the Minneapolis Central Library that was moderated by Cristina Córdova of rakemag.com and focused on the sometimes-indelicate art of film adaptation.
When Selim first read Weaver’s short story, “A Gravestone Made of Wheat,” in 1990, he knew immediately he wanted to make it into a movie. “I got to the end of the story and I cried.” At the time, Selim was a successful director of TV commercials (antacids were his specialty). KTCA owned the rights to Weaver’s story, so Selim waited it out two years until the one-hour film they had planned fell apart. The rights now his, he began collaborating with Weaver in what turned out to be an impractical attempt at co-screenwriting. “We were so nice to each other, we weren’t really making any progress,” Weaver said. “A film, like a novel, has to have a singular voice.”
Even as Selim took over sole screenwriting responsibilities, he regularly sent Weaver revisions until the author wrote him a polite cease-and-desist note telling him it wasn’t necessary. Weaver sensed that Selim’s screenplay was succeeding for all the reasons a 1989 made-for-TV movie of his novel Red Earth, White Earth had failed. Of that early experience with film adaptation, Weaver remarked, “It wasn’t pretty, that sort of contraction of the story—or dehydration, as I have come to call it.”
Sweetland, on the other hand, was an expansion, a twenty-two page story told in 110 minutes of film so deliberately paced that Weaver, upon seeing a rough cut of the movie, worried no one would want to sit through it. Selim’s screenplay retained the central premise of the short story (a 1920s Minnesota farmer and his mail-order bride-to-be are shunned when it’s discovered she’s German) but he bookended his elegiac romance with flashbacks to and from the 1960s to the present day. It was a choice Selim knew wouldn’t be easy for audiences, but it felt right creatively. “ It’s the bumpiest part of the film,” Selim admitted, “but if you can get through it, it pays off in the end.”
Whereas Weaver wrote his story from the groom’s perspective, Selim focused on the woman. He also surrounded his couple with a whole community of characters and conflicts: a best friend who is about to lose his farm, a nasty town banker, a stern Lutheran minister. And he sloooooowed down time so his camera could linger on Hopperish compositions of fields and farmhouses. The sense of life unfolding at a natural pace, something that proves so elusive in adaptations of plot-driven novels, was one of Sweet Land’s many secret weapons.
Another, no doubt, was its location shoot in Montevideo, where a lean $1 million budget and twenty-four-day shooting schedule seemed marked by serendipity. Though he was a first-time feature director, Selim tapped friendships with actors Dan Futterman, Gil Bellows, and Alan Cumming to assemble a solid cast that included Ned Beatty, John Heard, Elizabeth Reaser, Tim Guinee, and Alex Kingston.
A very small group of “Will Weaver loyalists,” as Weaver calls them, criticized the film for the liberties it took with his story, but the champions outnumbered them, especially those in rural communities who felt “authenticated by this movie.” For his part, he said, he long ago made peace with Selim’s changes.
Selim, who just finished an adaptation of Pete Hautman’s, is hoping his next project is a script based on the life of Gene Roberts, an undercover cop who infiltrated the Black Panthers. Writing an adaptation is more interesting than writing an original screenplay, he said, even if it means always being judged by how closely your work adheres to the original. “People say that all the time. ‘I liked the book better. I liked the movie better.’ It’s like comparing apples and oranges, or apples and Fords. No, you don’t like the book better; you like books better. You don’t like the movie better; you like movies better.”