How to Adapt a Michael Chabon Novel for the Big Screen
When we first heard that Rawson Marshall Thurber — the same man who directed Dodgeball — was adapting Michael Chabon’s debut novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh , we were slightly incredulous. But in an odd way it made sense: the silly comedy was all about a team of underdogs, and you could argue that the book’s protagonist Art Bechstein, the son of a powerful mob man, was kind of in the same boat. And as Thurber explained at The Mysteries of Pittsburgh press day, it was a project that he’d been dying to take on even before he knew he wanted to make movies for a living.
“I first read it when I was a student, back in the summer of ’95. Then in my first week at film school at USC, I gave it to my friend Jason Mercer, who ended up being one of the producers,” Thurber explains. “At the time, I think he thought I was trying to tell him I was gay.” According to Mercer the pals wrote it down on a list of their top three dream projects. Eight years and a box office success later, they were able to pursue the passion project — after securing Chabon’s blessing.
“The novel had a wrap for being unadaptable,” Thurber says. “Even Chabon had tried and run straight into a tree. The fact that it’s a first person narrative poses a real challenge — it’s inherently solopsistic. You’ve got Art observing things with Chabon’s limitless powers of description. But you can’t have a film where your lead character is leaning against a wall and watching a bar fight.” Thurber wrote Chabon a fanboy letter and proposed the two men have coffee. “When we met, I was basically like, ‘Here is how I’m going to destroy your baby.’ I knew it needed a radical take in order to work, but I’m sitting here talking to my favorite author about my favorite book like, ‘Hey, I’m the guy who did Dodgeball! Let me make this movie!'”
Long story short, Chabon gave his blessing and Thurber went off to work on the treatment: “What was so refreshing was that even though he’s a Pulitzer Prize winner, he wasn’t precious about the text — he was almost cavalier. I think he saw more flaws in his book than I did. He wrote it when he was 21. I felt like as long as we captured the spirit of Mysteries, no element was sacred. There was no secret text.” A few months, and a lot of supportive back and forth later with Chabon, they had a screenplay. “It was an email and it had just one line, ‘I’m halfway through and I’m digging it.’ I couldn’t contain my excitement,” Thurber has said. “Two days later I got the next email and it said, ‘It’s great, I love it. Let’s do it.”
The final product, which stars John Foster, Sienna Miller, Peter Sarsgaard, and Nick Nolte, and opens in limited release today, might not gel for diehard fans of the novel (the character of Arthur is completely eliminated), but that was never Thurber’s intent. “They are like apples and hubcaps in my mind,” he has said. “To me the best adaptations are the ones that are personal, even when they’re based on something else. I don’t want to copy someone’s work. Instead, I want to put into it what’s interesting to me or what I find funny or heartbreaking. It truly is a process of transmorgrifying, or putting myself into it.”