by Paula Martinez
5, 2006 So, I saw Running with Scissors.
Now, let me just say that I LOVE Augusten Burroughs' books. I've
read all of them except for his latest one, "Possible Side
Effects," which is on my nightstand, in line to be read. I
fell in love with Augusten after reading "Running with Scissors"
and immediately purchased all of his other books. I then proceeded
to read them as though I only had a very short time to live and
finishing them all was my dying wish.
That said, I hated the movie. Seriously, had I not been with a
group of people, I would have literally walked out of the movie.
The movie was written and directed by Ryan Murphy, the creator
of Nip/Tuck. I like Nip/Tuck and remember
feeling very pleased after learning that he would be adapting the
book for the screenplay. I like Nip/Tuck for all of
its darkness and complex characters, their personal inner struggles
and all the sex. Yes, the sex on show is always good. So, I felt
fully confident that Augusten's memoir would not be sacrificed to
Hollywood glitz and spectacle. Ryan Murphy, himself, worried about
protecting the integrity of Augusten's story, called Augusten's
agent and begged for a meeting with Augusten to discuss the movie
rights. After Augusten's agent finally agreed to let the two of
them meet, Ryan flew to NY and took Augusten to dinner. In the current
edition of Scr(i)pt Magazine, Ryan Murphy penned an article, "Writing
Running with Scissors," describing how he acquired the movie
rights and his dinner meeting with Augusten. He writes, "Five
hours later, I said to him, 'I am not getting up from this table
unless you give me these rights. I feel like I am the only one who
can tell this story and protect it.' Before the check was paid,
he agreed." This is where the first mistake happened. If only
we knew then what we know now.
The book covers almost 15 years of Augusten's life, so naturally
some cuts had to be made. Ryan Murphy obviously had to struggle
with which parts to cut and on which parts to focus. In his article,
Ryan describes this process and states, "In the end, after
a long talk with Augusten, I decided to tell a story of a boy and
his love affair with his mother." He goes into great detail
about all of the story's characters and how he would portray Augusten's
point of view. He writes, "He couldn't be a smart, articulate
35-year-old looking back with cynicism. For the movie to work, he
would have to be adoring of his mother so that we would, too."
Here was mistake number two--and a HUGE mistake it was. One of most
evident points of the book is that cynicism is what saved Augusten's
life. Cynicism was his therapy. It's obvious in the book that Augusten
loved and adored his mother as a young boy, but it was cynicism
that allowed him to love her as he grew into an adult. Without it,
he would've absolutely hated his mother and so would we. Cynicism
is the thread that connected Augusten to his mother and us to Augusten.
Ryan states, "I didn't want [his mother] to be a monster or
someone we didn't understand, because then the audience would turn
against her." Problem number three--pandering to the audience
instead of telling (or re-telling, rather) the story. I thought
Ryan wanted to protect Augusten's story. What happened? I think
this happens to a lot of writers. I think the writers start worrying
so much about what the audience is going to think or feel, or how
they are going to react, that the writer actually loses the audience
specifically because of that. Augusten's mother was a narcissist.
She was a narcissist in the book and she was a narcissist in the
movie. The problem was with Augusten. Augusten's character did not
match--he lacked his caregiver, Cynicism.
article states that Ryan wrote more than 30 drafts of the screenplay.
I don't know what made him stop at 30 -- more were required. He
also discusses how a lot of Augusten's stories reminded Ryan of
his own upbringing, and incorporated a couple of his own childhood
stories into the movie-a verbal exchange between Augusten and his
father (played by Alec Baldwin) where the father tells Augusten,
"I don't see myself in you," for example. That was not
a memory of Augusten's but, instead, a true story from Ryan's own
life. Ryan asserts that Augusten had a similar experience with his
dad, but that's not the point here. The point was to protect the
integrity of Augusten's story, not to bring in anybody else's stories.
In fact, Ryan even admits that, "I was going to be able to
make my life story ... but told through another person's experience.
The more I wrote, the more personal it became to me." Therein
lay mistake number four.
Once a writer starts inserting his/her own life story into the
life story of somebody else, it is no longer that other person's
life story. It's one thing to create a story and something completely
different to adapt and protect the integrity of someone else's story.
Once the writer starts to feel a sense of creation when s/he is
adapting a screenplay, it's time for the writer to disengage. Get
help. Distance yourself from the book, the characters, the writing,
whatever. If you don't, you could very well end up killing the character
and the entire screenplay -- which is exactly what happened here.
Ryan proudly describes his interactions with Sam Mendes and Warren
Beatty and discusses how both of them suggested he insert some voiceover.
He states that Sam reminded him "that if you tell an audience,
'You're going to go for a ride you'll love. Sit back and relax and
let this one person tell you his tale,' you'll be fine." I
think the message that Sam was trying to relay was one more of hope
-- the kind of "tell them they will like it and hope they buy
into it" advice instead of a "this movie is so mediocre
even a voiceover couldn't screw it up, because it definitely needs
Ryan finishes his article describing how much Augusten loved the
movie, moving him to tears. He (Ryan) describes that moment as being
"the best moment of my career." While I truly hold nothing
personally against Mr. Murphy, since we have never met, the statement
in itself lets me know to be very weary of any future Ryan Murphy
adaptations. My advice for the filmmaker: Please get back to Nip/Tuck,
Mr. Murphy -- that is where you shine. My advice for you, the reader/would-be
viewer: If you've read the book, don't see the movie. If you have
already seen the movie, you have a responsibility to protect the
integrity of the book by encouraging others NOT to see it.
By the way, the acting was great.
Note: I use the word "mistake" purposely. After reading
Ryan Murphy's article, I felt that he loved the book as much, if
not more, than I did. Therefore, I chose to use the word "mistake"
because it implies accident, or unintended consequences. I believe
Mr. Murphy made wrong decisions but I think he did so accidentally.
Although, I do wish someone would've been strong enough to tell
him so, pre-production.