“‘Need I say this is a privilege and an honor to announce this winner: Miss Vivien—’ Deafening applause drowned out the rest of Spencer Tracy’s preamble. Having anticipated the victory moment, Leigh glided gracefully to the podium… ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ she began, ‘if I were to mention all those who have shown me such wonderful generosity through Gone With the Wind, I should have to entertain you with an oration as long as Gone With the Wind itself.’ Before departing the rostrum she thanked ‘Mr. David Selznick, all my coworkers, and most of all Miss Margaret Mitchell.’…  Later she claimed to be unnerved by the experience of departing from the podium and making her way through the Cocoanut Grove with her Oscar. She likened the route to the perilous journey she’d witnessed on the night she’d landed her part in Gone With the Wind—Scarlett and Rhett’s harrowing horse-drawn-buggy ride through burning Atlanta. ‘Only instead of flames,’ she said, ‘it was people reaching out to touch me.’” -Bronwyn Cosgrave

David O. Selznick and the Maxims of Adaptation

We talk about adaptations a lot here on Fandom Following, mostly horrible failures of adaptation. One in particular….

In any case, as Wendy, Kylie, and I mentioned on a recent episode of The Fanwankers, it’s probably worth the time to look at successful adaptations and ask ourselves what made them “good”, both as adaptations and as works in their own right.

It’s fair to say that the gold standard for book-to-film adaptation, even almost 80 years later, is Gone with the Wind, the novel by Margaret Mitchell that was turned into a film starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, and produced by David O. Selznick.

Selznick was undoubtedly the driving creative force behind the production. He already had two successful adaptations under his belt,David Copperfield in 1935 and A Tale of Two Cities in 1936, so by the time he got to Gone with the Wind, he could claim to know what he was talking about.

Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for posterity, Selznick was also an amphetamine addict who was rather famous for dictating long, sometimes rambling memos while high as a kite. These memos were later compiled into a single volume.* One memo was written quite early in the processes of producing the film and was addressed to the screenwriter, Sidney Howard. In it, Selznick discusses various concerns and gives advice, mostly based on his experience with his previous films.

Selznick never intended this letter to be some kind of list of maxims for those attempting adaptations, but I would argue that all adaptors could learn something from him.

Seven basic points or principles emerge.

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David O. Selznick (producer), Joan Fontaine (actress), Alfred Hitchcock (director), and Judith Anderson (actress) at the 13th Academy Awards, 1941. All 4 were up for Oscars for Rebecca, which had eleven nominations but only won for Best Picture (Selznick) and Best Cinematography (George Barnes).