For those of you who haven't read it, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is quite possibly one of the greatest works of fiction ever conceived. The fact that it involves the early days of superhero comics and is so well written that it makes you feel like you need to be writing a comic makes it that much more dear to any self-respecting nerd-bot that might be reading this site.
So, let me start by saying that if you haven't read the book, not only are you a jackass, but you probably won't get much out of this piece either. Also, there will be spoilers. So, read the book and then get your ass back here.
Through means I'm not at liberty to disclose, I managed to acquire a copy of Michael Chabon's screenplay adaptation of this novel, labeled the seventh draft and dated May 19, 2002 (the week Attack of the Clones was released!). I'm including that information for a couple of reasons so you understand that was a long time ago and I wouldn't be that surprised if it's been polished any number of times since then.
For anyone who has read the book, there are a number of questions to be asked about how to adapt it into a film. Reading it for the second or third time, I tried wrapping my head around the story in those terms and it seemed to me as though it would be a bitch to adapt. Would you keep the gay love story? Would Joe join the Navy and get stationed in Antarctica? Would Joe jump off the Empire State Building in a costume? How would you solve the problem of how much time passes?
Well, let me tell you that Chabon included just about everything he could and he does it in a way that truly keeps the spirit of the story and makes you feel like you got the gist of the book.
Before I get into specific story beats though, I want to impress upon all of you how well-written this screenplay is. Chabon is a master of prose and I know first hand how much of a bastard screenwriting is compared to prose. I was very curious to see how he handled the stage direction and scene setups and they were actually a joy to read. He was also able to inject a very interesting bit of comic book style into the screenplay, going so far as to write sections of the film in comic format. The structure of this particular story is a much tougher nut to crack and doesn't exactly follow three-act structure, but feels much more like a rise-and-fall-and-rise-again arc, but it's handle with a grace that I didn't expect.
As far as the adaptation. Yes, Sammy Clay and Tracy Bacon still have a bit of a romance. The sex (same-sex or otherwise) is nowhere near as graphic in the screenplay as it was in the book, for obvious reasons, and this truly feels like the sort of love story you'd see in a film from the 40s. In fact, I can only recall one kiss between Bacon and Clay in the script total. And it was the first one, the one that seemed so accidental in the top of the Empire State Building while Sam was on Air Raid Watch.
Yes, after Thomas' death, Joe joins the Navy, goes to Antarctica and kills a German scientist. But it's much, much, more compressed. In fact, the entire timeline of the story is compressed into the time period of the war. The movie ends very close to the victory in Japan (August 1945). A story that took these characters from gangly, youthful teenagers and ends with them as old men, now starts with them as young men (18) and advances them no more than 10 years. Joe comes back to Sam and Rosa as soon he arrives back in town from his stint in the Navy.
Yes, it's very compressed, but let me explain that not for a minute did I feel like I was missing any part of the story (except, perhaps Stan Lee's cameo from the book). It was complete. And, although the ending was slightly different, it still had very much the same sentimental resonance. The film is narrated by an unnamed cartoonist who illustrates major points of the story in comic format and it turns out to be Thomas Clay, telling the story of his parents (all three of them) and instead of Sam leaving the deed to the house to Joe and Rosa, it ends with Thomas finishing a comic book illustration of the family and signing it "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Thomas Clay Kavalier".
It was really good.
And I don't think it would have worked exactly as well as it did if they had aged Thomas further than 4 years old. In the book he's much older, probably twice that age, and he wants to learn magic and escapism and so on... They didn't get into any of that. No rubber-band jumping off the Empire State, either.
But it all worked in a way that I really didn't see coming.
Bottom line? This script was a skillful and faithful adaptation of wonderful source material. My only question is this: Why the hell isn't it being made yet?
I understand a story this big can be a big financial gamble, but the way Chabon has tightened the screenplay seemed to bring the production value up while bringing the production cost down. It's written EXTREMELY economically.
My vote is that Hollywood (and Scott Rudin) get this script into a meaningful production stage before it's too damn late. Seriously. Natalie Portman (who's already been rumoured to be attached to the project) isn't getting any younger. And I think the male leads that were bandied about are already too old (Tobey Maguire, Jude Law, Adrien Brody, etc.). So, you've already missed that wagon.
This needs to get going. The story already won a Pulitzer, let's win it a fucking Oscar already.
(Join me next time when I review the screenplay for Scott Pilgrim!)