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Bringing The Song of the Lark to film
An essay by screenwriter Joseph Maurer

Adapting Willa Cather's sprawling novel The Song of the Lark to film has proven to be one of the most challenging, enervating, stimulating, and delightful writing assignments of my life.

Though many denigrate the current status of screenwriting in America (there are ample examples of bad writing from which to make the case), most screenwriters laboring away in front of the blank page are deeply committed to telling great stories. Yet we must do this while we juggle the demands of the audience, buyer, and budget. It's not a career for the faint of heart.

And so, when I was approached in May 1998 by producers Dorothea and June Petrie and executive producers Marian Rees, Anne Hopkins, and Stephen Kulczycki, I was thrilled at the prospect. Though I was an English major in college, I had never read The Song of the Lark. A first reading raised exciting questions such as, what is Cather saying about human growth, the emergence of talent, the heritage we draw from our ancestors, and the American landscape? The producers were eager that a screenwriter be found who could not only comprehend Cather's deeper intentions, but also glean from them a story of two-hour length.

My immediate impression of Thea was that she was more bird of prey than lark, a clarification that Cather painstakingly makes in a later introduction to the novel. Thea is wild, driven, solitary, and, finally, magnificent. Yet somehow, her struggle is a universal one. The quest to make the most of one's gift -- to excel with integrity -- occupies us all.

I've likened Cather's writing to a magnificent river with many shining tributaries that you'd love to paddle up. And through the luxury of reading, one can do just that. But movies are more akin to music than to the novel form. A movie is a temporal entertainment, designed like a piece of music to be played through from beginning to end. Also like a music composition, a film has a main theme, complicating developments of that theme, and a climactic action of some sort wherein all the story elements come to their fruitful or tragic completion.

From the mammoth text of The Song of the Lark would have to come a streamlined 120-page screenplay, which would honor the novel's goals but be capable of standing on its own two feet. Thank God for zeal, because once I'd celebrated getting the job, I had to face that blank page.

My agitation sprung both from the dawning knowledge of the task before me and from my own burning desire to do the novel justice. Eighty-five years after Cather put pen to paper, Thea Kronborg was finally going to sing out loud!

I began by distilling all of the essential action into a "treatment" form. This reads much like a short story, with descriptions of characters, action, and occasionally even dialogue. It's a way for a screenwriter to work out the story before plunging headlong into the actual script. The treatment, any writer will tell you, is where the great labor resides. Though the story may change when the scriptwriting begins, the treatment gives the writer a blueprint of the direction in which the piece is headed. It also alerts producers to potential real-world production issues such as sets required, location needs, etc.

Many beautiful scenes from the novel had to be discarded. Screenwriter William Goldman speaks about the writer's need to "kill his babies"; that is, to create things you love that will then be removed in later drafts for the purposes of economy and clarity. This is always painful, because we work so hard at finding any illuminating moments. It's doubly difficult to kill the babies of a writer as revered as Cather. But the form demanded many little murders. Aunt Tilly went away, along with many beloved townsmen and incidents. We'd also decided collectively that our movie would end at a point early on in Thea's journey to opera-diva status. Much has been written by Cather and others about the "descending curve" of a quest for accomplishment. It's only interesting as long as the quest is under way. But The Song of the Lark takes us years further, deep into the trials and tribulations of Thea's operatic career. We all felt that losing that section of the novel would be an asset. Ultimately, it actually made making the movie possible.

We now had a more contained story, taking Thea from about 15 to 20 years of age, the story of her birth as an artist and as a woman. In the book, not much is made of Mrs. Nathanmeyer's "musical evening" in which Thea is introduced to musical Chicago, but I saw in it the perfect launching point of Thea's career. And if I could figure out how to break her heart with Fred before it occurred in the book, I could buttress Cather's potent theme of the artist's solitary quest.

The first draft was overlong, though, and months of rewriting began. Working closely with the producers, I was able to gel Thea's story to manageable film length, allowing for a good deal of music as well. The music part of our film was joyful to create. As a pianist myself, I have many favorites, but towering among them is Brahms. I was able to write a scene, the one in which Thea realizes she will never play like Harsanyi, using one of Brahms's magnificent passages. A friend introduced me to the heartbreaking "Rusalka" aria, which I was ultimately able to use in the climax scene. It all proved most satisfying.

Once production began, I was very involved in rewrites and adjustments to suit the demands of time and location. We had many changes. The wonderful actors, chief among them Alison Elliott, also yearned to tell the story well. They brought their own insights about specific scenes to the table. I burned a good deal of midnight oil hurrying to keep ahead of the roaring freight train of production.

One scene is telling of many like it. Originally, I created an episode to introduce Thea's singing voice to Harsanyi. It was actually an idea floated by June Petrie, one of the producers. I hoped to elevate it by having Harsanyi come upon her by accident, while she is singing at a Chicago funeral. I wrote the scene that way, but once the production locations were created, it became clear that such a scene, requiring a church, an organ, and mourners, etc., would be impractical. So I went back to Cather and streamlined the Harsanyi dinner scene that leads to Thea's "discovery." Other changes were made, too. Ray dies not in a caboose wreck but through an off-screen car-coupling accident. This evolved from a production-cost issue. Letting go of Thea's run through the sunflowers to bid farewell to her beloved Wunsch on the train was perhaps the most painful cut of all for me, along with the poignant isolation of the Kohlers after his departure. But again, the movie made demands of its own.

Another casualty was the great Indian ruins that color Thea's Panther Canyon adventure. This, too, was a result of insurmountable budget problems. The producers and director Karen Arthur made the most of their locations, and I'm especially pleased with the mountain pool scene, wherein Thea mimics the bird's flight overhead and then discovers the ancient vessel underfoot. It's a perfect film distillation of many themes.

The success or failure of my efforts will be greeted by millions of viewers. And I know, beforehand, that I will not please all comers. But I hope my own passion for the story of Thea's journey toward wholeness proves memorable. She has been a wonderful traveling companion.

If our movie stirs people in its own right and coaxes readers back to the original, then I will have helped to do something great indeed.

For more on the production of The Song of the Lark, visit the American Collection's Educator's Web site.


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