Mary Agnes Donoghue on Creative License & The Alchemy of Screenwriting

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Film adaptations are like alchemy: the transformation of one particular art form, with its own strengths and limitations, into another. When they work, there’s gold. But how are successful adaptations written? Where does loyalty to the book end, and a focus on the film begin? We asked novelist, playwright, director, producer, and screenwriter Mary Agnes Donoghue to weigh in. Most recently the writer/director of Jenny’s Wedding, starring Katherine Heigl and Alexis Bledel, Donoghue penned the screenplay for Veronica Guerin, and two iconic female-driven film adaptations, Beaches and White Oleander, among others. (If you’re a woman born in the 80s or 90s, we’re willing to bet you a snap bracelet that you watched Beaches with your childhood best friend.) Donoghue characterizes the scripts as completely different experiences, and, as any writer worth her salt, has some pretty strong opinions on the subject of a screenwriter’s creative ownership.

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Mary Agnes Donoghue penned the screenplay for ‘Veronica Guerin’ (2003) directed by Joel Schumacher

CINEMA THREAD: As a writer myself, I can’t help but begin with a craft question. I have the sense that novels are typically structured differently than films: their arcs may be divided into rising and falling action, or even chapters, but not acts, necessarily. How do you adapt the pace of a novel to the pace of a film? How do you find act breaks, or even scene breaks, that suit the screen? How closely do you try to mirror a book’s mood or “texture”?

MARY AGNES: In terms of structure, most books have beginnings, middles, and ends, and that lends itself to creating three acts—they’re just not as visible as they are in plays and scripts. But they are there, or the book would lack momentum. I look for them. I never try to capture the pace of the book—the pace of the movie has to be true to itself. As for mood or texture—that depends on the book. How can I put this? If I can find the heart of the book then I can adapt it.  

CT: You wrote the adaptations for two iconic female-driven features, the cult-classic Beaches and the LA-centric White Oleander. How was the experience of adapting each film unique?

MA: I had wanted to write something about female friendship for a long time—not a subject that was of any interest to the studios. Then Bette (Midler), who was at the top of her game, had Beaches. Touchstone loved Bette and I came on board. When writing, I was more motivated by the death of a very dear friend of mine, less than a year after the birth of her first child, rather than the book itself. I really did leave the book behind. There is very little of it in the movie.

White Oleander was a gem to adapt—I saw it as Dickens in L.A.—and tried to use as much of it as I could, but to give the script a shape you have to leave a lot of the book’s content behind or at the very least reshape it to create dramatic tension. I wrote original material in that script—a lot of it—but only to transform that wonderful book into a movie. I wanted to be as true to the book as I could.

Barbara Hershey and Bette Midler sitting on beach patio in a scene from the film 'Beaches', 1988. (Photo by Touchstone/Getty Images)
Barbara Hershey and Bette Midler in ‘Beaches’, 1988. (Photo by Touchstone/Getty Images)

CT: I love Janet Fitch (author of White Oleander)… How closely do you typically work with the novelist while writing an adaptation? How involved are they (or are you) in the production itself?

MA: I didn’t meet any of the authors of the books until the adaptation was finished.

I had to own what I was writing or I couldn’t write it.

I met Janet Fitch after the script received a green light and didn’t meet the author of Beaches until the premiere of the movie. As for novelists being consulted about production issue or even about the adaptation, it rarely happens. It certainly wasn’t my experience. Once a movie receives a green light, directors run the show, but I write a lot into my scripts—direction, staging, what the character is feeling, gestures; even descriptions of clothes sometimes, locations, etc. The dress Bette wears at the end of Beaches was written into the script. I said she was wearing a dress similar to Sargent’s Madame X, and, to my dismay, they went for it.


CT: Why was it to your dismay?

MA: I was dismayed because I write in a great deal of detail that I expect to be ignored. When I’m directing it saves a lot of time. Department heads know what I want and where I’m coming from even before we meet. But I never expect any of it to be acted upon when someone else is directing. It’s nice when it is.

CT: I read that Gary Marshall (RIP) ordered a punch-up job with more comedic elements to your script for Beaches, but that your initial adaptation was reinstated when that punch-up didn’t go over so well with studio execs. Is that true?

MA: It wasn’t a comedic punch-up that Gary wanted, the script was funny already. He wanted dramatic changes that I felt would destroy the material so I chose not to make them and brought in a writing team to write what he wanted. I was horrified. Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was then president of production, said to me, “Do you think they’ll write a better script?”  I said “No.”  He said, “Then relax.” The team was given a month, they turned in a terrible script that not only didn’t meet with the approval of the studio but also horrified Bette.

Gary had been given his shot, it failed, and my script was reinstated by Katzenberg. It was a wonderful moment. Writers are never given that kind of control.

Then, the Writers’ Guild went on strike and they had to stick to my script fairly religiously because movies made during strikes are monitored very carefully. There were some changes, but very few.

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Robin Wright and Alison Lohman in White Oleander (2002)

CT: Speaking of changes, at what point does your loyalty to the novel end, and creative license in the name of writing a great script—and making a great movie—begin? Do you add dialogue or scenes that didn’t appear in the original text, for example? What sense of ownership do you feel over the work?

MA: You feel great ownership over what you write just as an actor feels ownership of a character, even though the basis for the character is created by someone else. If you don’t feel ownership you can’t do it—you have to take the material and do something completely different with it for it to work as a movie. All you can feel loyal to is the premise, the heart of the book—if it’s a good book you use as much as you can, if it’s a bad book, you leave it behind and create original material. And yes, of course, you add dialogue, scenes that didn’t appear in the book, characters that weren’t in the book if you need them. So much of Beaches was not in the book! And as far as I know only three people complained – the author (only before it became a hit,) a woman with a drinking problem whom I met at a party, and a guy who wrote for a really cheap movie magazine, can’t remember the name.  

CT: That’s funny. (And terrifying: ah, to be a cheap movie magazine, name lost to history, referenced only in passing during an unrelated Q&A.) You said you feel loyalty to the premise of the book: do you also feel a sense of loyalty to the book’s readers? With a book like White Oleander that was already a huge commercial success did you worry about disappointing its fans? Do you think of the books and their subsequent films as having the same audience?

MA: No matter what I’m writing I never cater to the audience. I try to communicate something to them, but I don’t try to please them. So I never had any fear of disappointing the book fans when doing an adaptation. I never thought about them. All I thought about was the book and the script.

CT: I know that you’re currently working on a novel. How did you know the story wasn’t a script? If it were to be adapted, would you want to write the screenplay, or would you want another writer to do it, and why?

MA: I don’t know if I can answer that. I like writing prose and the prose just seemed to take off. I wanted a new experience creatively.

CT: What makes a great adaptation?

MA: I don’t know what makes a great adaptation. Maybe starting with a great book, and being true to it, and maybe not. I’ve done both.

CT: Meaning that you’ve started with a bad book and made a great movie? Do we dare ask —are you referring to Beaches here?

MA: “White Oleander” is a wonderful book.

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