About Schmidt

By Warren Adler

I note with interest fellow writer Louis Begley’s article in the New York Times on the movieAbout Schmidt adapted, allegedly, from his novel. It reminds me in some way my own piece in the New York Times about the badly flawed adaptation of my novel Random Hearts which starred Harrison Ford.

I loved the movie About Schmidt. Jack Nicholson’s performance was compelling and believable and surely should win the plaudits of his peers and quite probably vote him another academy award.

I have not read Mr. Begley’s novel but fully intend to now that he has admitted that while the movie captured to some degree the theme of the novel, it seemed to have changed just about everything else, locations, characters, names, employment venue and on and on. According to Mr. Begley, his novel is about a rich Long Island lawyer, afflicted with lifelong loneliness who finds comfort in the regenerative power of Eros. There are also side issues dealing with anti-Semitism. Both Eros and anti-Semitism have been extracted from the story along with, admittedly, lots more. Apparently About Schmidt is not about Begley’s Schmidt at all, except for the similarity of last names.

The movie About Schmidt is about a retired insurance executive in a white bread Omaha city with a boring overbearing wife and an ungrateful daughter who marries into a dysfunctional family of downwardly mobile fools.

While he tried his damndest to justify the moviemaker’s meat axe changes on mostly flimsy technical grounds and went out of his way to compliment the movie makers, Mr. Begley’s sub-text is: while the film makers thoroughly emasculated his novel, he is now overjoyed and humbly grateful that they created a hit movie about Schmidt, although not his Schmidt, but the moviemaker’s Schmidt, while retaining his title and credit. I might have done the same if my own butchered novel Random Hearts had been a hit. In fact, I did, when The War of the Rosesbecame a classic hit, although in that case, the producers made only minor surgical changes in the story.

I can only imagine Begley’s torment as he saw his original creation being savaged in script after script while he listened to the film makers babble on about the so-called incompatibility between novels and movies, as if the story changes were justified on the basis of “it’s a different media” baloney. It’s the story, stupid. But then a genuine critical and money-making hit mollifies all carping, almost all.

Mr. Begley confesses that he sold his book at a bargain because of the possibility getting Jack Nicholson to star. Poor fellow. That is a classic act of Hollywood rape. Hollywood is about money and only money. I doubt Nicholson went for cheap or the other so-called creative “artistes” cut their price. And I wonder how far down in the money chain, the novelist will fall when Hollywood accounting totes up any shekels due.

I’m sure Mr. Begley will be a lot smarter next time.

There are, of course, ancillary reasons to genuflect and kiss the ring of the executioners. After all, they got the movie made, widely distributed, critically acclaimed and made it a hit with a first class star and, above all, absolutely above all, they kept the title intact, which will help sell the “movie tie-in.” Also, he got to write an article in the New York Times in which he told the real story of his novel with a little lecture on irony being the novelist’s, not the movie makers, long suit. He got to plug his next novel, got some great name identification and might even get a mention on the Academy Award television program.

I’d call that a home run for a novelist who sold what amounts to a title to the movies. It will, of course, help his career in the near term enormously and I salute his good fortune and forgive him for fawning. Now I intend to rush out and buy a copy of the real novel About Schmidt. Having been written by a kindred spirit, I know I’m going to love it.

Oh yes, one last point. Mr. Begley’s hero’s first name in the novel was Albert. In the movie the name was changed to Warren, which naturally caught my attention. I wonder how much this change had to do with “irony” or “artistic license” or something about movies being a “different medium.” Why “Warren?” Did they think it was more descriptive of the movie character, more nerdy, or a secret tribute to the movie maker’s favorite Uncle or a jibe at some ex-wife’s lover. Or perhaps somebody named Albert pissed off the writer or the writer’s girlfriend. Go figure.

        – Warren Adler