There are a number of similarities between American Beauty and older screenplays. The core of Ball’s screenplay is the Burnham family and it’s descent into masochistic misery, caused by the loss of identity and abandonment. This can be directly compared to Ernest Lehman’s screenplay of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (Oscar winner for “Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, 1967).
Lester Burnham, with his misogynist ideals and his newly discovered taste for paedophilia are evident in innumerable screenplays. Shadows of his character can even be seen in stories such as James R Webb’s screenplay adaptation of James D MacDonald’s novel, “Cape Fear” (1962), and Wesley Strick’s 1991 adaptation of the 1962 adaptation. In both screenplays, the main character, Corporate Attourney, Sam, shows signs of fooling around with his sixteen year old office clerk. Later, Max Cady, a brutal paedophile rapist, terrorises Sam and his family, attempting to rape their fifteen year old daughter. The twofold influence of under-age sexual obsession in Cape Fear and its box office success has not been lost on Ball when searching for inspiration. A controversial novel adapted to a screenplay twice, both times winning awards, is the perfect place for a first time screenwriter to look for inspiration, assuring success in the transition from print to screen.
The most obvious equivalence in borrowed personalities can be drawn between Lester and Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita”, a story of a middle-aged man and his uncontrollable obsession with a fourteen year old girl. Nominated for an Oscar in 1963 (”Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium”) then adapted by Stephen Schiff in 1999, this work is complex and multi-layered and was hailed as”a masterpiece of translation from novel to screen”. The main character, Humbert, risks everything to indulge his taboo paedophile fantasies, turning them into reality at any cost. Again, when this character is compared to Lester, the originality of the American Beauty screenplay is further compromised. Ironically Lolita says: ‘Fraid someone’s gonna steal your ideas and sell ’em to Hollywood, huh?
Pushing the boundaries of Ball’s originality to the limit, he takes yet another award winning screenplay, “Sunset Boulevard”, and extracts what he can use. The similarities between Lester in American Beauty and Joe in Sunset Boulevard are bluntly apparent, with both Lester and Joe narrating the story of their death and life preceding death.
Sunset Boulevard is the story of Joe, a hack screenwriter, employed by a fading silent era star to write a screenplay to herald her return to the screen. This screenplay by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett won “Best Written American Drama” at the Writers Guild of America Awards (Film) in 1951, was nominated for “Best Screenplay” at The Golden Globe Awards in 1951 and also won the Oscar for “Best Writing, Story and Screenplay” in 1951. This is a great script to plunder due to the amount of awards it won, ensuring a winning formula for Ball by following its original style. Ball has even taken some elements of Norma Desmond and incorporated them into Carolyn Burnham. Norma alternates between dominance and defeat – two traits visible in Caroline.
After relinquishing ownership of the screenplay, Ball must now watch while his story is dismembered and emphasis realigned. The Creative team at DreamWorks now change the story, with the director cutting lines and completed scenes to rework the story as he feels it should be. Although the writer borrows heavily from great screenplays, no storyline or plot has been directly stolen. Ball has used ideas, styles and successful writing recipes of others to ensure a good outcome, although the core of his story is still his own and valid in it unchanged form. The end product, nevertheless, is not recognisable to readers of the unedited and unchanged original script, in which the axis of the entire story pivots around the deeply troubled Fitts family. The director, envisioning his own version of the story, rewrites and reassigns the Fitts Family to minor roles. It is to the detriment of the final cut that this occurred, as the Fitts family are perhaps the most interesting of the characters in this movie.
The final heavily edited script leaves Colonel Fitts and his wife unexplained, their background completely erased from the final cut. The completed, then deleted scenes tell the story of the Colonel and his homosexual relationship while at war, where he witnesses the killing of his lover at the hands of the Viet Cong. This omission changes our view of the Colonel from a man suffering unresolved pain and one that has never recovered from the violence of war and a deeply traumatic past involving the loss of his partner, to the perception of a man who is intolerant and homophobic.
In the final cut, Fitts is transformed into a man who is controlling and violent without valid reason, however if we analyse this character in the context of the original unedited script, we can more fully understand him and his concern for his son. Pain, suffering and torment are evident in every moment of the Colonel’s life, and when he witnesses what he believes to be a sexual encounter between his son and Lester, he cannot control his outrage. The homosexual experiences of his own past have scarred him and he now (mistakenly) sees his son treading the same path – a path of assured sadness. Ball has unknowingly created a deeply complex character in that of the Colonel, however the deletion of his past changes the psychology of the character completely. To simply label the Colonel as homophobic can possibly be justified in the final cut, yet the complexity of this character as written in the original is anything but the stereotypical homophobe.
Evidence of the transformation from original screenplay to adaptation is clearly evident with knowledge of the deleted opening scenes. Ball’s very different original version of American Beauty opens with Ricky Fitts in a jail cell. He watches a TV showing a courtroom scene. At the bottom of the screen we read “Teenage girl accused of hiring father’s killer”. The TV report then focuses on Angela telling of hearing Jane wishing her father dead. We then see Jane’s face revealing hatred towards her former best friend Angela. The next scene moves away from the courtroom to a police station where the Colonel is presenting the police with the video Rickie filmed of his conversation with Jane about killing her father. .
Tonight on The Real Dirt, we’ll show you an astonishing videotape in which Jane and alleged killer Fitts actually make their unholy pact”. Next is the video of Jane revealing the contentious conversation she had with Ricky (the opening scene of the final cut). We then go back to the jail cell and see Ricky staring at us. We assume the guilt of the two teenagers as there is no contrary evidence at this point. Now we go to Lester’s voice over about life and death, the second scene of the movie’s final cut. By deleting these opening scenes, the entire premise of the script is therefore altered, changing our perception of Ricky and Jane, from that of presumed guilt, to a view of two innocent teenagers that are victims themselves.
Jane and Ricky are, from the outset in the uncut version almost certainly about to be convicted of murder. The Colonel, in giving damning evidence to the police against his son and Jane, is not yet revealed as the real killer. Not until after Lester is shot do we know the true identity of the killer, at which point we learn that not only is the Colonel willing to sacrifice his son in order to escape his own conviction, but that Barbara, his wife, discovered the Colonel’s blood covered shirt while doing the laundry – and has disposed of it, thus destroying evidence that would prove her son’s innocents. Furthermore, the original screenplay closes with scenes of Jane and Ricky being convicted of murder.
Perhaps the most dramatic shift from the original screenplay and departure from the story that Ball wished to convey is that the original has Lolita-like Angela and Lester finally engaging in sex. The director changed this to the commercial safety of Lester nobly refraining from completing his seduction of Angela.
The final director’s version has Lester as an honourable character who could have taken advantage of the vulnerable 16 year old schoolgirl, but does not. Although he undresses, kisses and fondles her, he is suddenly overcome with paternal care on discovering that his schoolgirl quarry is a virgin. He refrains from acting out his fantasy, and saves the moral day. Mendes has opted for a much more predictable, less controversial (and relatively safe) outcome with this adaptation. Lester and Angela having a sexual encounter would have generated outrage and condemnation from the audience. Interestingly, Lester is not viewed as a paedophile in the final cut, although it is still clear his intentions were to have sex with a schoolgirl. Mendes calls this amendment well, as the original script would have been a huge commercial risk. Nevertheless it is still a significant shift away from screenplay originality towards director adaptation.
It is clear that, in the final cut, director Sam Mendes has effectively taken ownership of the screenplay with severe reworking of Ball’s story, changing the entire premise, body and outcome. Lester Burnham remains a misogynist who relentlessly bullies his wife and is totally disinterested in his daughter, however he somehow remains redeemable in the director’s adaptation. The original Lester, after sex with Angela is beyond salvation.
Not all alterations to the uncut original will ever be divulged, as Ball and Mendes would most likely consider that such knowledge may compromise their respective originality claims. For example, the extent of the reworking of Barbara Fitts remains unknown. Mendes has said that his editing eliminated almost all of her dialogue, which has assuredly changed the entire character, reducing her to a zombie-like broken woman that never speaks. With Mendes manipulating focus away from the edited Fitts family, he centres on the collapse of the Burnham marriage. Barbara is now almost obsolete, with no real purpose, in contrast to her original role.
The ultimate and final question raised by either a screenwriter or a director is the claim to creation and originality (and the right to credits at the end of the movie). Mendes, in this case, is responsible for the effect of the adaptation process on these claims, however it is still Ball who is named as the original screenwriter, regardless of either his approval or disapproval of script adaptation or edits.
The ability to recognise the original screenplay is the ability to identify the substance of the original story and the body and soul of the characters who inhabit it. This essence may lie anywhere within the screenplay, for example, why the Joker jokes, how Superman became super, or why Carolyn Burnham is crumbling. The director, in translating the work from written form to visual form must decide what to preserve, and what to jettison, thus ultimately determining the authenticity and quality of the final adaptation – and its credited originality.
A clear conclusion to the question of screenplay originality can now be drawn. Although Ball’s characters possess parallels to those in other screenplays, the core of American Beauty is an original piece of work. This first time screenwriter has undoubtedly formulated his own story, distinct from any other. The storyline remains original, with Ball the single author. The vision of Ball’s story is only partially compromised by comparisons with other screenplays, as similarities surely exist. It is Mendes and his changes to the author’s narrative that diminish writer originality. Ball has, after all, not plagiarised, but merely borrowed elements of other characters.
The adaptation process that occurs after the author relinquishes the rights to the story upon its sale to the studio is therefore beyond the control of the original writer. Ball must stand by and watch as his characters and storyline are disassembled, rewritten, edited and reborn as a different entity, under the creative knife of both the studio and director. On completion of the movie, although the story is transformed into something the writer may not even recognise, the credits still retain the original creator’s name. Whether the integrity of the original screenwriter is compromised in an adapted final cut, without (permission, or) input by the original writer, remains debatable.
With an Oscar under his belt for ”Best Original Screenplay”, Ball would be foolish to challenge the studio in debating the originality of the final cut. He is quoted as saying (when asked if the script evolved significantly after the first draft): “It evolved in details, but there were no major shifts in the story or tone”, however Mendes and DreamWorks did, in fact, change the screenwriter’s original forever, the original narrative never seeing the light of day. Despite this, Mendes’ version of American Beauty is hailed as original screenwriting triumph and imprinted with Ball’s name. This, in cinematic terms is what is considered an original screenplay.