Fresh Ideas: Unexpected consequences of adapting books into movies

Several months ago, I saw the movie “The Post,” not only because I like Meryl Streep, but because I admire Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post newspaper from 1969 until 1979 and CEO of the Washington Post company from 1973 to 1991. In 1997, long after the Washington Post had become a national, not merely a regional or local newspaper, Graham published her 625-page “Personal History.” It’s one of the most gripping, insightful, forthright books I’ve ever read. It’s more than biography. It’s history, meticulously recorded, supported by sources, and complete with a detailed index.

After Richard Nixon resigned office, Woodward and Bernstein had already published their book, “All the President’s Men,” and according to Graham, the movie of the book was already in the works.

Robert Redford had bought the movie rights and intended to play Bob Woodward, and Graham writes at first everyone in the Post’s newsroom speculated about who would be playing whom, including Graham who said (jokingly) she’d been assured that her “role will be played by Raquel Welch — assuming our measurements jibe.” As the movie took shape, her role was cut out. Redford said, in essence, the role of publisher was too murky for people to understand.

Although Graham wasn’t really thrilled with the idea of the movie, after it was made, she “loved” it. Nor had she been a fan of Redford, but afterward, she wrote him, “My reasoning was that the story couldn’t be laid out straight, because if you did, it would bore people. And if you had to hype it, it would hurt the paper.” But, she added, “It really does tell people what a newspaper is like,” and she is “grateful for the vision you had.”

We have all heard the statement, “I liked the movie, but the book was better.” That judgement usually derives, I think, from the fact a movie condenses action, simplifies situations and characters. If the movie is good, as “All the President’s Men” is, we typically overlook whatever had to be condensed. But in this case, I was surprised that Graham writes, “The portrayals in the movie of the roles various people had played had a negative effect on several real-life relationships.”

She explains, “The movie gave everything to Ben (Bradlee, the editor). Largely because that made for a simpler story line and because he was played by Jason Robards, but of course that wasn’t Ben’s fault. Howard Simons (deputy managing editor who worked closely with Bradlee) was made quite bitter by the movie. He was poorly treated — all for the sake of clarity and simplicity. Much of what he had actually done throughout Watergate was divided up in the movie between Ben and Harry Rosenfeld (Metropolitan editor). Barry Sussman was left out altogether.”

Consequently, Graham writes, the relationship between Howard and Ben, which had been “generous and fruitful,” was never the same again. Meg Greenfield, another reporter and columnist at the Post, observed the trust and affection among them “came apart in many complicated ways.”

Clearly then, making a movie based on real life is far more unreliable than the changes necessary in taking a work of fiction to the screen. The movie “The Post” does its share of condensing, too. In fact, the screenwriter wanted to focus on Graham herself. To show her evolution from a cautious, unliberated female to one who’s ready to take the bull by the horns. If you read her personal history, you’ll see it’s not that simple.

Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment