- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2005

HBO and its pay cable brethren could be the solution for serious-minded authors hoping to translate their fiction to the screen.

Richard Russo sure thinks so.

The celebrated author of “Nobody’s Fool” and “Empire Falls” worked closely with HBO to bring the latter to the small screen.

The channel debuts its two-part “Empire Falls” starting tomorrow at 9 p.m, and for once nearly all the key elements of a well-regarded novel survive the transition.

It helps that Mr. Russo himself penned the screenplay, but just imagine how mainstream moviegoers might have reacted to a film with “Empire’s” leisurely pacing and gentle wisdom.

A potential box office dud instead becomes a prestige production for HBO, even should the ratings disappoint. HBO often seems more concerned about pleasing its talent than simply grabbing eyeballs. That helps explain why actors like Paul Newman, Helen Hunt, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ed Harris signed up for “Falls’” gold-plated cast.

“If you look at HBO’s schedule, you see the incredible diversity they’re drawn to,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning author says. “They seem to be interested only in quality.”

The medium helps his message, he adds.

“There’s a sense of dramatic fullness that they can get by not having to cram everything into two hours or interrupt every 11 minutes with commercials,” he says.

HBO and independent films, he says, are like “little oases where good work gets done.”

Even the creative process suggested cable television would be a suitable home for Miles Roby and his friends from “Empire Falls.”

Mr. Russo says he had worked up a number of potential drafts and handed the leanest version to “Falls” director Fred Schepisi. The director soon asked to see the previous drafts and actually preferred one 15 pages longer than the first he saw.

A similar experience happened after the first read-through.

“Helen Hunt and Ed Harris both came hightailing across the room to me … they had favorite scenes from the novel, reasons they wanted to play the characters, and they said they wanted to get this line and this scene back in that I cut,” he recalls.

“That doesn’t happen a lot to script writers,” he says.

The Hollywood experience has been nothing but positive for Mr. Russo, notwithstanding the received notion that the town ruins novelists. His previous novel, “Nobody’s Fool,” became a sturdy character piece for Mr. Newman in 1994.

Mr. Russo’s novels tend to spread out before the reader. By his own admission he paints on a pretty large canvas.

Working on film scripts is teaching him more about the structure behind his stories.

“When you write screenplays you have to think of it as three-act structure … in a way as a novelist you may put off,” he says.

It also means some things simply must go, no matter how dear to an author. Mr. Russo volunteers that he snipped his favorite moment from “Falls” — Miles’ first driving lesson — early in the scriptwriting process.

Even if productions like “Empire Falls” fail to evoke the source material’s emotions, Mr. Russo is content his work won’t be tarnished.

“The book is the book, and it will always be there,” he says. “Nothing I do will ever change it. It’s the movie being changed and altered, the novel just stays as is … I don’t have any feelings of loyalty to the novel.”

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