There is nothing harder than successfully translating a novel to the screen, unless it is successfully translating the story of the client to a lawsuit. Lawyers have a lot to learn from the team that turned a brilliant novel into an amazing film.
When I first heard that Sara Gruen’s wonderful novel WATER FOR ELEPHANTS was coming to the screen as the film WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, I was not automatically filled with joy. I had SO enjoyed reading the novel a few years back and I was afraid it would be ruined for me. I thought, “GAWD, I hate when adaptation is done poorly to something I LOVE.” The delicate dreamlike quality of the novel, the intensity of the story of trust and betrayal, the magic of the circus, the intensity of passion – how could that be accomplished in a film? I don’t know how I could forget that the filmmaker, like the trial attorney, has all the important elements of storytelling at his or her disposal.
Visually the film is stunning. I was reminded once again that films are “moving pictures” after all. The art director, David Crank, and the cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, created that magical world perfectly for us to live in it for a few hours. But then, that world stays with us for a long time after. It is very hard to get those pictures out of your mind. I started thinking about how attorneys who just blow up a few documents are so missing the boat when it comes to storytelling visually. My compatriots who do visuals for trial tell me that like an art director and cinematographer, they choose color, tone, style, and images that match the theme and story of the case.
There is so little dialogue – even though the book is filled with words (after all, it is a novel!). In the film, words are kept to a minimum. How I was reminded of the excess of words I hear so much in so many cases. What is it that Mark Twain said? “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
It took Richard LaGravenese a long time to adapt that script from Gruen’s novel. I know. I have adapted many a short story and novel to the stage. But once a point of view was chosen, that became clearer for him. There were many points of view in the novel, but only one for the film – Jacob, the protagonist, played by the great Hal Holbrook in present time, and Robert Pattinson in the past. The culling of the theme – life, like the circus, is love triumphing over cruelty through illusion – that made the way to the spare dialogue even clearer. How often have I heard attorneys again and again say, “There is so much to this story to tell…how do I choose what stays and what goes?” Don’t I always tell them “pick one point of view” and “let’s keep the words as sparse and simple as we can”?
Finally, of course, there is casting. Reese Witherspoon’s Marlena is a dream of Jean Harlow meets the Blue Fairy in Pinnochio meets the shadow of a great love is unforgettable. And Robert Pattinson’s young Jacob is funny and brave and wonderful – just the man we will root for forever. For the attorney, which witnesses are you going to need to tell the story? There are plenty of characters left out of the novel when translating it to the screen. Why do you need this witness? Even if you have made a strategic decision to call a number of witnesses, each to tell a small piece of the story – are you sure you have the right number? Are you giving the right amount and part of the story to your lead witnesses to tell?
Run, do not walk, to see this wonderful film. And if you missed the book when it came out, I hope that you are inspired to read it, too.
TIP: Are you using all the tools you have – visuals, dialogue, testimony – to bring your case to life?