NEW YORK – Devoted fans of literary works don't generally appreciate Hollywood's efforts to adapt those stories to the big screen.
But with the holiday movie barrage in full swing, page-to-screen transformations are proving smoother than usual.
About Schmidt, The Hours, Adaptation and, of course, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, are all culled from well-regarded works of fiction. And while those are only a few titles out of a much longer list of notable literary projects, the films have proven Tom Clancy and Stephen King aren't the only authors who can write books that translate well into screenplays.
"Big studios are looking for the Clancys, the Grishams, things that have immediate name recognition," said Lisa Hamilton, a former scout for Michael Ovitz's agency, AMG. "But more adventurous producers like Scott Rudin (The Hours) can do smaller, quirkier stuff."
Turning literary fiction into a screenplay can be daunting. The process is depicted in Adaptation, in which a screenwriter played by Nicolas Cage agonizes over adapting a book.
"My case is so unique. It's the ultimate comment on adaptation," said Susan Orlean, whose book The Orchid Thief was the object of Cage's angst in the movie. "Very writerly books present the most temptation because people feel moved by them. But then there's the problem of what do you replace the writer's voice with."
Adapting Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours was perceived by many as a particularly tough assignment.
"I was certainly convinced that The Hours was unfilmable," Cunningham said in an interview. "I actually said to my long-suffering agent … we know one thing for sure, nobody is going to want to turn this critter into a movie."
But David Hare, who wrote the screenplay, managed to create both a faithful translation and compelling movie.
"I think (Hare) did the impossible, which was to adapt this very internal, very beautifully written book to a screenplay," said Julianne Moore, an Hours co-star.
The actress, a fan of the novel before it was ever optioned for movies, said she was "very worried" about how it would translate. "Especially when you are as attached to a book as I was to The Hours, you crack the script and think, 'Oh jeez, what have they done?'"
Hare said he never understood the aversion to adapting the book, despite its stream-of-consciousness style.
"I didn't know why they said this book was unfilmable. The basic idea of it is so intensely filmic, which is you tell three different stories and you don't understand the way in which they fit together and then suddenly they all click together."
The film tackles the stories of three women in different time periods all connected by a Virginia Woolf book – including Woolf herself, played by Nicole Kidman.
But The Hours isn't usual Hollywood fare. Hamilton said action-packed page-turners like The Sum of All Fears usually make the most commercially viable films – especially for studios looking for a sure thing.
"Studios work by committee," she said. "They want big movies that are video games or mass-market, really franchised stuff."
But she added that with the right people, more "indie" books can make a successful leap. "There are good books, but they require a producer with a good eye," she said.
Even Hare said books need to be chosen carefully before they are considered for films.
"I think some books should have a wrapper saying: 'Never to be made into a major motion picture,'" he said.
The success of this season's page-to-screen translations have some predicting Hollywood may take more chances with some literary works.
"Movies are expensive. There's not a huge desire to take risks. But when you see a season when you have The Hours and Adaptation, it's an interesting comment on what kind of things people will watch," said Orlean.