Thursday, August 9, 2012

Adaptations: Sideways

So maybe I’m putting a little too much on my plate, and I am neglecting work (which is going to bite me in the ass soon, I’m sure) but I had another idea for a series and since I’m excited about getting ‘A Closer Look’ off the ground I might as well throw this one out there and see what you think.  My ‘Adaptations’ series is going to take a look at the differences (good and bad) between novel to film adaptations where I’ve actually read the novel.  This way I can comment on my reason for either applauding the film, or tearing it a new one.

I’ll start with some praise.

The first film up for discussion is ‘Sideways’.  The idea for this series came from a poll idea at the Awards Daily Forums.  It asked what the best ‘book to film’ adaptations were, and quite honestly I instantly thought of ‘Sideways’.  This was only fueled by the open letter released a few days later by Rex Pickett, the author of the novel, to the film’s Oscar nominated star, Virginia Madsen.  The man is a complete prick and obviously full of himself.  What he fails to realize is that the reason ‘Sideways’ worked so well as a film was because Alexander Payne basically gutted his horrible novel and wrote an original screenplay.


Pickett’s novel feels like a young boy’s fantasy trip, a trip where booze falls from the shelves and women fall at your feet.  There is no emotion; no depth.  One major difference between the novel and the film is that in Payne's adaptation the characters seem real. They look like you and me.  Miles is overweight, balding, depressed; eccentric.  Maya, while beautiful, is not stick thin and is older.  Jack looks washed up. He has some charm and a certain extent of good looks but he's also human.  Tara is not your typical blonde bombshell.  But here, in this novel, everyone is made to appear perfect.  It was a turn off.  But above all else, this novel fails because Pickett is just not a good writer.  His dialog in particular is dreadful to get through, with his characters (especially Miles and Jack) talking as if they were high school students in a poorly written play by some fellow student who thought exaggerating common teenage speech was the only way to get a point across. 

Reading a novel like this helps me appreciate how much time and effort goes into adapting a novel.  Payne had a lot to muddle through, and he was able to spark life in an intriguing concept that was completely obliterated by its conceptualist. 

I’ll be honest; ‘Sideways’ has not aged as well as I would have liked.  Of Oscar’s VERY unimpressive lineup (2004 was such a lazy mess with Oscar), I said with confidence that it should have taken Best Picture.  I don’t agree anymore.  In fact, ‘Million Dollar Baby’ has grown vastly in my estimation and I consider it one of the better Best Picture wins of last decade, despite the fact that I personally don’t even nominate it for Best Picture.  That being said, the difference between Pickett’s novel and Payne’s film is so large that one cannot help but openly praise Payne for the work he put into making this film as enjoyable as it was.  Payne was able to create real characters and find a balance between immaturity and actual growth of character.  As the film progressed we are enlightened as to the reasons behind these characters interactions and we are helped to appreciate who they are becoming and what it took to get there.  Pickett doesn’t offer us any of that in his book.  Instead, he presents us with vapid characters who lack any real substance.  There need to be layers, or at least subtle hints to those layers, strung throughout a novel (or film) in order to make change feel relevant and realistic.  Pickett attempts at the end of his novel to give Miles some sort of revelation and it doesn't fit, doesn't mesh and ends up coming short of meaningful because he doesn’t understand how to build a realistic turnabout.

Pickett seems to think that he deserves major credit for the film being a success.  He’s angry that none of the actors acknowledged him when they accepted awards for their performances.  He’s bitter that Madsen was skeptical of the play, since it was written by him.  I just wonder if Madsen read his novel.  If she did than I understand her concern completely.  Pickett, you have every right in the world to do what you want with your original concept, but don’t for one second think that you helped create the film.  Everything that made that film great was most certainly NOT taken from the pages of your self-indulgent, amateurish, tactless, tasteless, trashy novel.

End rant.


  1. Great post! Glad I didn't read the Sideways novel then. :)

  2. UGH, I wish I hadn't, but I'm very glad that I saw the film first, for if I had read the novel first I most likely would have avoided the film.