From novel to screen: The adaptation of Little Children

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Godlis/Film Society of Lincoln Center. Little Children novelist Tom Perrotta and director Todd Field at the Walter Reade Theater on Sept. 22.

Already brimming with Oscar buzz, Little Children falls into a long line of critically-acclaimed films that are based on successful novels. From Gone with the Wind to Brokeback Mountain, literary adaptations have always held a celebrated place within American film culture. And with the right filmmaker, a great book seems practically guaranteed to make a great movie. But what exactly is it that draws a filmmaker to this particular kind of project?

In the case of Little Children, director Todd Field recognizes an opportunity to recreate on screen the unique emotional effect that Tom Perrotta’s semi-satirical melodrama delivers on the page. Field, who emerged onto the directing scene in 2001 with In the Bedroom, says that although he could not initially describe what it was that intrigued him about Perrotta’s novel, he instinctively realized the potential for a exploration of his reaction to it through a screen adaptation. “All I knew when I read the book initially,” he says, “was that I couldn’t stop thinking about it, that it surprised me, that I laughed, and that I was incredibly affected in a way that I wasn’t necessarily completely comfortable with at the end. And that interested me.”

Interestingly, though, it was Perrotta who first brought the book to Hollywood. After director Alexander Payne successfully turned Perrotta’s novel Election into the well-received film starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon, the novelist hoped for a similar achievement with his most recent publication. He took his proposal to the producers responsible for Election (1999), Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa of Bona Fide Productions, who passed the idea along to Field.

The proposal serendipitously reached Field in the wake of a futile attempt to obtain the film rights to another novel, Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. Coincidentally, the very themes that Field hoped to work with in an adaptation of Yates’ book – notions of prolonged youth, parenthood, and passing judgment on others – also figure centrally into the narrative of Little Children. Ultimately, Field found Perrotta’s manner of dealing with these ideas through a combination of subtle irony and gentle humor to be more emotionally compelling than the angry tone of Revolutionary Road, a discovery that cemented his involvement in the project.

Indeed, Little Children clearly illustrates Field’s appreciation of Perrotta’s unusual use of mood. Perrotta, who collaborated with Field on the screenplay, explains that one of their main priorities in this adaptation was to “capture the spirit of the book” and its multiplicity of tones. As a result, the film evades any typical genre classification. Rather, it contains various elements of romantic comedy, melodrama and satire as well as horror. As the novelist, Perrotta is pleased to see this aspect of his own work so well preserved. “The book had multiple tones, and the movie doesn’t try to simplify them,” he says. “It tries to do justice to all of them.”

Retaining what he saw as the unique and striking qualities of Perrotta’s work remained Field’s top priority in adapting the novel. For example, his admiration for Perrotta’s writerly voice led to the implementation of a third-person omniscient narrator – an unusual move in contemporary film. Field explains that, during the beginning of the project, “I kept trying to figure out what struck me about his writing – not the story necessarily, not the characters. But what struck my about this man’s voice. And it was in his third-person passive observation. That was so rich and so funny and so affecting to me that I thought, why should we lose this?”

While the screenplay sustains many of the abstract qualities of Perrotta’s work, the film does make a few significant departures from the story of the novel. Most notably, Field made changes to the character of sex-offender Ronnie J. McGorvey, adding a certain amount of ambiguity to his version of the story so as to enhance the themes of perception and judgment in the narrative of the film. While Perrotta’s novel ultimately provides the reader with a full account of Ronnie’s offenses, Field allows the viewer to wonder, largely because he feels that “you want the audience to participate in this conversation. You want the audience to become a part of the community of the film and form their own opinion about how they feel about this person.”

As Field’s co-writer, Perrotta supported this change, recognizing not only that the medium of film often requires different narrative devices than writing, but also that adaptation is an art form in itself. “For me, as a novelist,” he says, “the attraction of a film adaptation lies precisely in this opportunity to re-imagine my book with someone else and explore new possibilities for the characters and the story.” For both Perrotta and Field, then, it seems that the appeal of adaptation lies in the potential to apply their creative energy toward pre-existing ideas as a way of discovering new meaning as well as invigorating the old.

This article was also published in the Washington Square News on October 6, 2006.

© 2006 Lydia Storie. All rights reserved.

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