Adaptations attempt to recreate theater, book magic

Adaptations are not a new trend in Hollywood. But with the summer blockbuster season winding down and the winter rush for Oscar nominations on the horizon, we find ourselves in the familiar territory of the book and stage adaptation.

This season, however, the trend has not been adapting classic novels, but more modern fare. Instead of a new “Romeo and Juliet” or “Phantom of the Opera,” we are seeing plays like “Proof” and “Rent” on the big screen.

The quickest and perhaps most unexpected adaptation of the fall is “Everything is Illuminated,” starring Elijah Wood. The story, based on a 2001 novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, focuses on a young man’s journey to the Ukraine to find the man who saved his grandfather’s life. The book, and Safran Foer’s follow-up hit, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, was greeted with critical acclaim and commercial success.

The novel was adapted so quickly because Foer’s work caught the eye of New York stage star Liev Schreiber. An excerpt from “Everything is Illuminated” was printed in New Yorker magazine before the book was published.

Schreiber, who is of Jewish-Ukranian descent like Foer, felt immediately connected to the material. From that first reading, Schreiber knew he wanted to write the screenplay.

The fast start of production was a shock for Foer, who did not expect his first novel to even be optioned, let alone produced as a film. But Schreiber and Foer’s cinematic vision was widely released Friday to strong critical reviews.

Another highly anticipated fall adaptation is “Rent,” Jonathan Larson’s Broadway hit about bohemian life in New York’s East Village. The play has been running to sold-out crowds since it opened in 1994, but was never made into a film. Though many “Rent” fans were skeptical about the project, the reunion of most of the original cast and the addition of Rosario Dawson as female lead Mimi Marquez lent it a note of credibility.

And fans will also appreciate director Christopher Columbus, best known for his work on the “Home Alone” series and the first two “Harry Potter” films, who has stated his intention to not stray too far from the time-tested source material. The film premieres Nov. 23.

Though “Everything is Illuminated” and “Rent” both focus on a very specific cultural or social class, they contain universal messages that transcend story limitations. This formula holds true for the other new stage adaptation, “Proof.” Based on David Auburn’s award-winning Broadway play, “Proof” follows a young woman as she explores the dangerous line between genius and insanity. The play was the talk of the New York theater world when it opened in 2000, winning the 2001 Tony for best play. The film was widely released Friday to favorable reviews.

If the past is any indicator, these new adaptations have their work cut out for them. Transferring a stage play or a book to the big screen is a historically daunting task. Sometimes the material just does not translate effectively. Other times, it is the production itself that falls short. But every so often the combination of material and artistic vision is a success. Modern classics like Francis Ford Coppola’s novel-turned-film “The Godfather” and David Mamet’s play-turned-film “Glengarry Glen Ross” are prime examples of stories that succeeded in multiple media.

If “Everything is Illuminated,” “Rent” and “Proof” find a way to capture their film audiences like their original incarnations, it will be a good year for the adaptation. And if not, there is always room in our DVD collections for another “Tomb Raider.”