Exercise in Literal Transation III

In the last entry, I listed a series of questions that I wanted to answer by way of breaking the novel Ordinary People — and not yet the film — into scenes, recorded on color-coded index cards.

The cards turned ideas into objects with heft and weight; they pointed me toward a material discovery: The number of cards (that is, scenes) assigned to the teenaged Conrad (73 out of 115 total) helped me to recognize him as the story’s clear protagonist.


In contrast, reading the novel had left me with the impression that Conrad’s father, Cal, (with 27 cards) might be a dual protagonist — Judith Guest tells her story in the intimate third-person, but she alternates between Conrad’s and Cal’s points of view.

On the flipside, while Conrad takes the lead in the overwhelming majority of scenes, his mother, Beth, takes the lead in only 15 of 115, and his psychiatrist Dr. Berger appears in only 9, yet both characters’ actions make the story’s arc possible.

Ultimately, it seemed like a good idea to approach any story as a potential ensemble piece because the amount of screen time characters receive doesn’t necessarily determine their importance and shouldn’t limit their ability to make a deep impression, no matter how transitory.

When you strip away description and narration from a novel — even those so-called “plotless” ones — you’re left with what my dad and I call the story’s golden thread. And, no, it’s not just another name for the “barebones central plotline”:

Unique to each story, it defines not just what happens but why it happens.

By finding and following the original story’s trajectory, adapting screenwriters will stay true to their source material.

The cards connected me with the golden thread of Ordinary People, and helped me to identify the inciting incident, turning points, and midpoint (of the novel):

Inciting Incident:    Conrad’s agreement to call Dr. Berger once he’d spent a month at home, after returning from the hospital.
First Turning Point:    Conrad’s decision to quit the swim team, marking his growing willingness to accept that he must change in order to grow.
Midpoint:    Conrad’s budding romance with Jeanine and the new closeness he finds with Cal.
Second Turning Point:    Conrad’s discovery that Karen has killed herself, forcing him to finally confront his own role in the accident that killed his brother.

The novelist and the adapting screenwriter may (and often do) make different decisions as to which events to include in their versions of the story and how to order them, but the key events listed above have the best chance of surviving the leap from one medium to another, because they define the story to which both writers are committed.

That said, new scenes, new events may be required to ground the key events in the ecosystem of the film.

A novel, in contrast, possesses its own ecosystem, one strongly influenced by the authors’ choice of narration. Ordinary People plants the reader in Conrad’s and Cal’s minds and emotional lives. We see Beth — mother and wife, respectively — only through their eyes.

We may not understand the choices Beth makes, but we share Cal’s and Conrad’s perspectives on them and her; because they don’t hate her, we’re more likely to accept her as a flawed human being.

As presented by the cards, however, the literal translation of the novel into film starkly exposes Beth, who takes little initiative in much of the novel yet has a disproportionate effect on Conrad. Such a film, if manifest on screen, might easily distort the delicate balance achieved by the novel. It tells a story of “ordinary people” doing their best, if not always the best, to cope with tragedy.

In this series’ last entry, I’ll compare the artistic translation — the film itself — with the literal translation suggested by the cards and consider how screenwriter Alvin Sargent dealt with the challenges presented by Beth.