“Forget about the novel—I haven’t read the novel—my main strength is that I haven’t read the novel—the novel is killing you.”
That’s future Bourne Legacy director Tony Gilroy bellowing at screenwriter William Goldman (as reported by Goldman) about the screenplay for 1996’s Absolute Power. Goldman was badly stuck at the time, torn between his desire to remain faithful to the source material—a pop thriller by David Baldacci—and the structural constraints of a commercial movie. And Gilroy, a superb screenwriter himself (Michael Clayton, Duplicity), was exactly right. In adapting any written work to the screen, creators have to give fidelity the heave-ho at some point and craft something intrinsic to the new medium; attempting a direct translation will result in a moving FotoNovel, as Chris Columbus so unmemorably demonstrated with Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone. Often, such departures will involve eliminating entire characters and subplots, shifting locations, combining elements, condensing like mad. But they can also entail dreaming up entirely new material—material that’s (hopefully) in the spirit of the original, but with a distinctly cinematic component.
And then there’s the movie version of Glengarry Glen Ross, which as far as I know is unique in the annals of film adaptations. David Mamet’s two-act play, first staged in 1983, won the Pulitzer Prize and remains a classic of contemporary theater, soon to be revived yet again on Broadway (with Al Pacino, who played Ricky Roma in the film, now in the role of Shelley Levene). Mamet adapted the screenplay himself, and it’s almost a word-for-word transcription, though the first act’s three discrete scenes are now intercut. Yet the most famous, most quoted, most popular scene in the movie doesn’t exist in the play. Mamet was forced to create it, I believe, along with a few other additions, because the play is unusually short, even by theatrical standards. (According to legend, he sent the completed draft to Harold Pinter, with a note saying that it seemed finished, but was a wonky length, and asking for guidance. Pinter’s reply: “It’s perfect. Stage it.”) Has this happened before or since—a world-famous author upstaging his own hugely acclaimed source material with a bit of new material devised expressly for the movie? The scene is too long to show here in its entirety, but here’s the first five minutes, just in case your day needs a little sadistic invective.
All hail young, skinny Alec Baldwin. His character—inexplicably called Blake in the credits, rather than Fuck You—doesn’t exist in the play, and he only appears in this one scene. Yet he arguably sets the tone for the entire movie, providing a much more concrete sense of the pressure these salesman are under. Baldwin gives the monologue a marvelously practiced ring, as if he goes around performing it for various seedy offices around town; he’s the motivational speaker from Hell, determined to either increase productivity or inspire suicide. And Baldwin knows how to put his own arresting spin on Mamet’s famously repetitive dialogue. I read the shooting script long ago, and the line as written was “You think I’m fuckin’ with you, I am not fuckin’ with you”—quick, stabbing, emphasis on not. Baldwin transforms it into more of a slow ritual disembowelment, separating the two sentences with a curt head-shake that seems to nullify his victims’ entire existence. (I also love the way he shoots a glance at Levene’s crotch before asking, “You call yourself a salesman, you son of a bitch?”) Vocational terrorism has rarely been so delectable.
(By the way, in case you’re interested, and since I’m obsessed with looking this stuff up when watching old movies: Blake’s $970K in salary and commissions would be roughly $1.5 million today.)
Now, there’s a bit of a cheat here, though I never consciously thought about it until now. “Are they all here?” Blake asks snide manager Kevin Spacey at the outset, and is told “All but one.” The missing man is hotshot salesman Ricky Roma (Pacino). “Well, I’m goin’ anyway,” Blake decides. Truth is, Mamet had to write the scene without Roma in it, because Roma—as viewers know if they’re familiar with the play, the movie, or just Pacino in general—would never sit still for this shit. Dave Moss (Ed Harris) says he doesn’t have to listen to it, and repeatedly dismisses Blake’s insults with derisive snorts and impatient hand gestures (that passive-aggressive, get-away-kid-you-bother-me multi-finger flick is fantastic), but once threatened, he parks his ass back in his chair and endures the rest of the spiel. Roma would not. Put Roma in the scene, and it falls apart, or at least becomes something entirely different. So he has to be banished—though, to be fair, he’s doing 72 percent of the office’s volume, judging from the board, so he doesn’t really need this speech.
More interesting to me is how the addition of this scene subtly strengthens—which is to say, weakens—the character of George Aaronow, played by Alan Arkin. Aaronow never speaks in this scene, even when directly addressed. He doesn’t even give Blake a sour death glare, as Jack Lemmon’s Levene does in response to, “Are you man enough to take it?” He just sits there, a passive lump. In the play, we have no sense of the man prior to the scene in which Moss craftily manipulates him into tacitly agreeing to rob the office and steal the most valuable leads. Here, when that exchange takes place, we already know Aaronow has no spine, which nicely serves as a bit of misdirection about what occurs between act one and act two. (I won’t say more, lest I spoil it for folks unfamiliar with Glengarry, should such unfortunate creatures exist.) It takes discipline to include a character in a scene this long—it runs about eight minutes total—and have him say nothing whatsoever, with no particular attention called to that fact. Mamet gives him nothing, trusting the actor (and he got a great one in Arkin) to keep the character alive onscreen.
Because Glengarry Glen Ross is so intensely Mamet-y, director James Foley often doesn’t get much credit for the film adaptation’s success. But while Foley hasn’t made a good movie since—his subsequent credits include The Chamber, Confidence, and Perfect Stranger, none known for their dynamite scripts—he’s an underrated visual stylist, and he works wonders in this small set. Baldwin’s movements around the office have been carefully blocked and perfectly timed, allowing for smooth match cuts on action that provide a sense of dynamism and flow; at strategic moments, he steps into what I think of Sidney Lumet close-ups, which must require actors to be extraordinarily precise in hitting their marks. And he apparently worked with the art director to give the office an appropriately Mametian vibe: I never noticed before that the Always Be Closing motto, which Blake apparently went to the trouble of writing on the chalkboard before the salesmen arrived, not only appears on the sales-contest flyer, but also, hilariously, on the wall right behind the chalkboard. These guys already see it every damn day, right in that spot. A theater audience would never catch that kind of detail, apart from maybe those in the front row. This is very much a movie.