For screenwriter David Magee, no story is "unadaptable."
"I don't consider anything impossible to translate to screen. You're trying to translate the emotions and the journey of the character and, if it means you tell the story in a different way to get to that… that's what you do," he says. "The challenge of a screenwriter is to find a way through the main character's journey, and finding ways to express that through the actions they go through, rather than having them turn to this camera and say, 'This is how I'm feeling right now.'"
Magee has proven more than adept at that challenge, having received Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay with 2004's Finding Neverland and 2012's Life of Pi. He is also the screenwriter behind such big screen adaptations as Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008) and Mary Poppins Returns (2018).
Most recently, Magee wrote the screenplays for Lady Chatterley’s Lover, adapted from the infamous novel by D. H. Lawrence; The School for Good and Evil, based on Soman Chainani's YA fantasy series; and A Man Called Otto, working from the Swedish novel A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman and its 2015 film adaptation. (That film was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.)
Magee is also the co-writer of Disney's upcoming live-action The Little Mermaid, adapted from both Hans Christian Andersen's original fairy tale and the Oscar-winning 1989 animated classic. "We had to rethink, 'Are there other ways that we can go into the mind of this young girl who doesn't talk? Are there ways that we can tap into what her journey is when she gets on land and she realizes it's not all she hoped it would be?'" he teases. "So, that was a lot of the exploration that we did."
Below, Magee shares with A.frame the five films that have most influenced him as a screenwriter.
Directed by: George Roy Hill | Written by: William Goldman
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was probably the first adult film I watched with my parents in the movie theater when I was seven or eight years old. It was awe-inspiring. I'd never known that there were movies about guys who were bad guys, but who were also somehow good guys. I loved [Paul] Newman and Robert Redford in that movie, and then afterwards, in The Sting. And William Goldman, who wrote that and so many other amazing films, became kind of a benchmark for many screenwriters to follow in the years since.
This is what a movie can do for your spirits — you fall in love with and it takes you away from the world. That was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for me.
Directed by: David Lean | Written by: Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson
It would be very difficult for me to choose between Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai, and Doctor Zhivago. What I loved about those movies was David Lean's ability to take a huge canvas — a huge sweeping epic story — and make it about one person, and make it about delving into that one character's personality, and his likes and his dislikes, and what drives him. I don't know exactly the running time, but it's a three-hour movie. And at the intermission break is Lawrence riding across the desert, and a British soldier calls from the distance, 'Who are you?'
That's the theme of the whole movie in one line, right at the intermission break. That's what the whole movie is about — a man trying to figure out who he is, who he represents, what he stands for. It's just a brilliant film on every level, and I would revisit that one anytime.
Directed by: George Cukor | Written by: Donald Ogden Stewart
I started in the theater and I am very well aware of how badly some plays translate over to films, because they're talky. They explain things or go through exposition that doesn't need to be said in a good film. The Philadelphia Story translates beautifully over to film — the wit, the rhythm, the pacing of it. It was an absolute joy watching it the first time. Every actor in that is at the top of their game: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, all of them are trading barbs. And yet, you're getting this incredible insight into complex characters.
It seems like you're starting a movie where these socialites and kind of high-end, ritzy, rich people whose problems are nothing like yours are having this funny jaunt through life. But, as it goes on, you realize it's about relationships, and divorce, and who the right person is to have in your life, and how they can help complete you or not. It's a beautiful film, and it's beautifully told. George Cukor's directing, I think, is fantastic.
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola | Written by: Francis Ford Coppola, John Milius, and Michael Herr
That is the most cinematically mesmerizing story I've ever seen on film. The descent into madness of Apocalypse Now, you realize it kind of reflects what the shooting process was like. And that they were able to come together and Coppola was able to create such a vision from such madness and such a singularly focused film. It's visually astounding, but all in the service of telling a story about a man's inner struggle. I could go on about that film for hours.
There's an opening scene with Martin Sheen in a hotel room with a fan blade spinning overhead, which mirrors the blades of a helicopter. You're mesmerized by that, and then, you realize he's stone drunk and he's flying around the room punching things. He breaks a glass and his hand is bleeding, and that was all real! That was all going on. And it couldn't have been better scripted. And the fact that it fit so much and so well with the story is just astounding to me.
Written and Directed by: James L. Brooks
Jim Brooks is as close to what I would love to be as a screenwriter as possible. He's someone who can move from humor to pathos to a deep understanding of character, and then, he can take you in any direction from there. It doesn't have to be rubber-stamped with, 'This is a comedy with drama.' It's so character-driven that I can laugh one minute, I can cry the next, I can be involved with the characters. I find them unique. Of course, this applies to Terms of Endearment and As Good As It Gets and so many of his films. I just think he's brilliant. And I couldn't round out my five without including him in that.