Film adaptations: Is anything too controversial these days?

May 13, 2018

This month’s question comes from Elizabeth J. Church, author of "The Atomic Weight of Love" and the new release "All the Beautiful Girls."


Elizabeth: In translating a book to the screen, what topics remain forbidden?  I’m thinking of the difficulty director Adrian Lyne had in finding a distributor for his 1997 film of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita.”


Nina: The world around us is rife with controversy, so it’s no surprise that filmmakers are tackling challenging themes and subjects too, as most artists’ work reflects the society in which they live. But there are certain caveats to that general swing.


The movie business has essentially split into two spheres: the big budget, swing-for-the-fences, try-to-appeal-to-everyone model of the big studios, and the low budget, niche marketing approach of independent film. As the major studios are trying to appeal to the broadest demographic possible in order to justify investments in the hundreds of millions of dollars per film, studio films tend to take on less controversial subject matter.


Independent filmmakers and distributors spend less to make their films, knowing in advance that they don’t have to capture the entire available audience in order to see a return on their investment, and so are often more willing to risk taking on challenging subject matter.


One great recent indie book-to-film adaptation was Emma Donahue’s “Room,” which dealt with abduction, rape, unlawful imprisonment and adjustment after release. Grim material to be sure, but bolstered by the cachet of the novel and an Oscar-winning performance by the lead actress, this controversial film was able to find an audience.


The advent of what is known as “Peak TV” has also allowed for more inflammatory topics to be addressed, whether through traditional television, cable or streaming platforms. Again the question here is one of scale. The niche audience based approach of these purveyors of content means they just need to reach their audience, not all audiences, again allowing for a broader and more controversial range of material to hit the screen.


Elizabeth: As a subpart to this question, what happens when a central theme of the work is deemed “too controversial?”


Nina: I honestly wonder if anything is too controversial any more! Societal context determines what themes or topics might be too hot to handle for any film or TV show, and in a time where a porn star and the president are in daily headlines, it’s hard to see what lines couldn’t be crossed.


While this erosion of civility worries me as a human, as an artist it provides a rich playground. For example, a pilot script I wrote almost 10 years ago when I knew it would “make noise” because of its scandalous subject matter, but would also be virtually impossible to sell, is now commercially viable.


On a related note, check out this list of controversial subplots from books that were cut in their adaptations. This list definitely reflects my point about controversy and societal context.


Elizabeth: Are current filmmakers more or less willing than their predecessors to take on topics that might be deemed controversial?


Nina: I think they are more willing. Look at the subject matter of some of last year’s Oscar nominated films. They tackled such diverse and complex topics as racism, rape, murder, vigilantism, the cost of war, gay love and interspecies sex! I can only imagine where we will go from here.


Hollywood Decoded is where I answer your questions based on my 20 years of writing and producing in film and television. My answers will be included in my monthly newsletter and on my blog.


Submit your questions here.


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