Aug 30, 2009

Film Adaptations – Donald Stewart

One of my diversions is comparing good stories as they are told in books versus on film. There are loads of examples of books making very successful transitions to the screen. My list of favorites includes Donald Stewart’s adaptations of three of Tom Clancy’s novels: The Hunt For Red October; Patriot Games; and Clear And Present Danger. Other people were credited with those screenplays alongside Stewart, but he is the common thread. And since Stewart stopped working on Clancy’s adaptations (he died in 1999), the film adaptations are forgettable. Think of The Sum of All Fears. Coincidence?

If you read the novels and dissect how Stewart distilled and structured the stories, how he cleaned up the narratives, you realize what an art form screenwriting can be. In Patriot Games, for example, the red wigged crack shot Annette was created for the film. Played by the painfully beautiful Polly Walker - picture of her above left after she had just knocked off a bothersome IRA brigade leader - she was also the thread that linked the various stories together and the vital clue that pushed towards the denouement. If she was in the novel at all, she was a passing mention as an arrested red headed “assassin”, but certainly not a fully developed character and a vital thread to the story.

There are hundreds of such details in Stewart’s film adaptations. He helped make the films carefully crafted works. I have read that Tom Clancy was very upset at the film adaptations of his books, but Stewart’s adaptations are tighter than the novels.

Revisited 28 December 2020: I have just read (fellow Hungarian descendant) Joe Eszterhas' The Screenwriter as God! and came across this, "Steve Zaillian wrote the script of Patriot Games that we shot... eighty percent of what was shot was written by Steve Zaillian." Attributed to Patriot Games' Director Phillip Noyce. If this is true, my apologies to Steve Zaillian. I might have gotten this one very wrong.