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Running with Scissors

by Paula Martinez

Dec. 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.

The 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 one" advice.

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.

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