For 'Up In The Air' Writer, Book, Film Different

The movie Up in the Air is based on author Walter Kirn's novel of the same name. Kirn had no part in writing the screenplay for the film, and he says the movie is understandably different from the book. Kirn says novels tend to come from the inside of a character, while movies look at them from the outside.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

This week, we're hearing from writers whose books have been made into movies recently. The movie "Up in the Air" stars George Clooney as a consultant who flies so much, he only feels at home in airplanes and airports. He has an affair with a woman who leads a similar life, and he has a young female colleague who questions his lifestyles and his values. Clooney's character, Ryan Bingham, also gives speeches on the virtues of traveling light through life. No house, no relationships, no family, no possessions.

(Soundbite of movie, "Up in the Air")

Mr. GEORGE CLOONEY (Actor): (As Ryan Bingham) How much does your life weigh? Imagine for a second that you're carrying a backpack. I want you to feel the straps on your shoulders. Feel them? I want you to pack it with all the stuff that you have in your life. You start with the little things on shelves, the drawers, the knickknacks, the collectibles. Feel the weight as that adds up. Then you start adding larger stuff.

SIEGEL: Walter Kirn created this character for his novel "Up in the Air." But Kirn says the movie, which he took no part in writing, is understandably different from the book.

Mr. WALTER KIRN (Author, "Up in the Air"): There are two different forms of storytelling: Novels tend to come from the inside of a character and movies tend to look at them from the outside in relation to others in their world. And so, I fully understood that for this book to make it onto film it had to be sort of opened up, unfolded. And for me to worry over that process, scrutinize it too closely or take it personally would only retard the freedom with which the writer/director was able to do that. So I sat back, let it happen. And the finished product, though it bears the distinct genetic imprint of the book, is quite different in some details and yet I am entirely pleased with it.

SIEGEL: You used the word unfold. You wrote an article in which you invoke the image of the piece of paper and the paper airplane.

Mr. KIRN: Yes. Yeah. I said the novel is a sort of a piece of paper and the movie has made it into a paper airplane. That suggested the movie is more complex than the book, which I don't think it is, actually. I mean, you're able to do things in novels: introduce subplots, other characters, thematic layers and so on, in a way that you simply can't in a movie. A movie really has to choose its battles. And most adaptations end up having to really edit out a lot of the book and bring forward those elements that they think play dramatically.

In this case, a whole new character had to be introduced. A sort of sidekick had to be given to a lonely hero who spends most of the time in the novel observing and thinking about his world. But now we had to give him a chance to talk about his world.

SIEGEL: You mean, the young woman is introduced for the very reason that the, I guess you're saying the same reason that the son of the creator of the Lone Ranger explained Tonto to me last year, which is that if he really were a lone ranger there'd be no one for him to talk to and hence, no dialogue.

Mr. KIRN: Exactly. Well, yeah. I think, you know, if they'd filmed the novel completely faithfully, it would've been a lot of voiceover and a lot of the shots of planes crossing the sun. But, yeah, they did give him a sidekick, and they give him someone to explain his life to sort of dispute with. And it sounds as though it was a device, but it ended up in the movie being one of the richest and, I think, most amusing and potent elements of the script.

SIEGEL: When you first saw the film "Up in the Air," based on your novel "Up in the Air," was it a win-win experience, or if it was good movie, that's good, it's your novel? And if it wasn't a good movie, who care? It's their movie.

Mr. KIRN: Well, you've hit it on the head. You have plausible deniability, as they say in politics, as an author with movies. Because if the movie is terrible, you simply say they failed to catch the genius of the book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KIRN: And if the movie is good, you say, well, it was such a good book, how could it not be the basis of a wonderful film? But I saw the movie in a private setting in a screening room at the director's house with him, his family and a few of his friends, all of whom I knew were going to applaud and like it. And I felt terrible pressure because all eyes were on me. I was the only one who wasn't pre-certified as a happy audience member.

About 10 minutes into the movie I realized everything was going to be fine. In fact, everything was going to be quite wonderful. And it was a great experience. It was like watching your child grow up and become successful and then support you after you thought they had gone away. I mean, to have a piece of work have a second life like this, and you really didn't have to do the work, it's miraculous.

SIEGEL: After I went to read your book, person I went to the screening with to see your film, began - I told them - you know, they're very different. And he said, well, for example, the knapsack speech, that must be in the novel.

Mr. KIRN: It's not at all in the novel.

SIEGEL: I said, it's not in the novel, not at all, no.

Mr. KIRN: You know, here's how adaptation works - almost everything in the movie is in the book in some form. But it's as though the deck has been completely reshuffled and some of the cards have been assigned different values, some of the fours have been made into jacks and some of the jacks have been made into twos. And it's as though, you know, a new poker hand has been made out of these cards that were dealt in the book.

And yet the book and the movie to me are both obviously members of the same family. They're like non-identical twins. You see the nose. You see the ears. You see the stature and the voice in the way of moving, and you go, yes, these are the same creature in some respect, but they are two different versions of the creature.

SIEGEL: Now, since the movie came out, have you been able to write fiction without thinking at all about the movie that might be made of what you're writing?

Mr. KIRN: No. I've heard writers discuss this and say: I completely banished from my mind any notion of how this might be turned into a movie. And I'm not able to do that. I now in my journey through life have to fold in the possibility that there might be a cinematic version of what I'm writing. I can't help but do it. I think it's natural and it's not something I'm inclined to fight.

SIEGEL: Walter Kirn, author of "Up in the Air." Thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. KIRN: Thank you.

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