Screwtape on Screen?

Ralph Winter and Bristol Bay are bringing The Screwtape Letters to the big screen!

The Screwtape Letters is such a powerful work, one of the highest pinnacles of C.S. Lewis’s works. And in a world in which the whole idea of evil is constantly called into question, this text continues to serve as a treasure trove of insight.

Wow. Who should play Screwtape? Who should play Wormwood?

Who should direct it?

I want Charlie Kaufman to write the screenplay. Since the whole book is a correspondence, somebody will have to create a structure for the thing, and I think he could concoct something worthy of the text. He’s a genius. He’s great with dialogue. He’d revel in the possibilities. He would make sure that the film did not cheapen or oversimplify the source material. He’d come up with a story that would suit Lewis’s idea.

A plea to the powers that be: Please don’t sweeten it up. And please don’t create a story that inserts big CGI demon battles. Stick to the basics, find the wicked comedy in this material, and get Charlie Kaufman!

And directing it? We need somebody who knows how to find comedy in mischief and darkness. The Coen Brothers. Paul Thomas Anderson. David O. Russell. Martin Scorsese. I’m even tempted to say Christopher Nolan.

And it’s going to need some fantastic talent in the leads: P.S. Hoffman, D. Day-Lewis, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Greg Kinnear, Ian McKellen, Michael Gambon, Albert Finney, Sean Bean… there are so many actors I’d love to see sinking their teeth into these roles. Peter O’Toole would make a great Screwtape.

But not Jack Nicholson. No, please no.

Post your wish-list here.

And if you haven’t read it yet, well… you’re in for a fantastic time. Pick it up. It’s so affordable.

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  • Mark

    Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie?

  • Matt Davids

    I’d like to see Christopher Lee as Screwtape.

    Matt Davids
    http://www.whatmadness.com

  • Bubba

    Bono-as-Macphisto would be an excellent older devil, but I’m not sure he’d be a great Screwtape.

    I’d have to look it up, but I seem to remember Screwtape talking essentially about celebrities, that many common people could be led astray by the behavior of those with the highest celebrity status. If that idea was presented in the film, I could think of no better image than Macphisto whispering in the ears of a Justin Timberlake-type.

    IF this movie were to succeed, a compelling image would be all us humans walking around, each with his own personal devil — a contrast to Wings of Desire and City of Angels where the angels stood aloof from humanity, these devils could be very sinister in their predatory stalking of their prey. It would just need to be obvious without being cheesy who were the humans and who were the demons.

    And any scenes of the Enemy talking to the subject would — somehow — have to make clear His differences, too: His not being corporeal in contrast to the humans, and His wise benevolence in contrast with the devils.

    (If the Enemy does appear in the film, I must say here and now that I’m tired of the politically correct casting against type. Casting Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty was fine, and — to continue my DS9 fixation — Avery Brooks is very good at playing the father figure, but that also holds true for Liam Neeson. If Screwtape and Wormwood are going to be white men, and they almost assuredly will be, let’s make the Enemy different in how He conveys Himself and how He acts, not how He looks. And please, no female Canadian rock singers.)

    Going back to Bono, the reason I think Combs, Alaimo, or Robinson would be an especially good choice is because Screwtape isn’t simply evil, he’s evil in a very particular way: he must embody the vicious vanity and petty sadism of a bureaucratic tyrant.

    And, in thinking about Neeson and Batman Begins, I realize who would make a perfect Wormwood: Cillian Murphy, Jonathan Crane the Scarecrow. He would be a youthful contrast to an older Screwtape, but he can convey not only the ravenous desire of the vulture but also the fearful dread of becoming roadkill.

  • Wasp Jerky

    I think it might be interesting to see Neil Gaiman take a stab at the screenplay.

  • SolShine7

    The only people who I think could pull off this movie are this Dream Team: Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry and Zach Braff.

    Gondry should direct. Kaufman and Braff should write. And lastly, Zach Braff should star as Wormwood.

    If they can’t get them then they should love the book alone.

  • Stuart B

    Jeffrey Combs is simply amazing in anything he does. He would be perfect.

    This is one of my favorite books of all times (even did a Bible study based on it once), but I always thought it would work better as a play than a movie.

    Still, there really is only one name in my mind for who can play an aging devil:

    Paul “Bono” Hewson

    “Off with the horns…”

  • Bubba

    Jeffrey, you mention “the purpose and power of the screen to convey ideas,” but the problem is that — even beyond the technical problems that will surely come with adapting a book that’s structured as half of a conversation by correspondence — cinema tends to work well with big, broad ideas, and The Screwtape Letters is most emphatically about the little sins that add up, such as the hardly noticeable expressions of hatred and envy in the home. It’s going to be really tough both to capture those small sins and to convince the audience that, yes, these small events are significant in their impact on the human soul.

    I really doubt it can be done, and I’d rather a flawed attempt die in the studio than make it to theaters.

    But if we were casting for such an adaptation, I’d think a young, petulant actor in the mold of an early DiCaprio would be a decent Wormwood.

    But I know three actors from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, any one of whom would be absolutely perfect as Screwtape himself: Marc Alaimo, Andrew Robinson, and Jeffrey Combs. Gul Dukat, Garak, and Weyoun.

  • Adam

    But here is the other problem – do we really believe Walden can make this happen? Is there anything they have done to make us believe it is possible? I don’t think so.

    So perhaps it could be done but the problem is can it be done with the people moving it forward. I just can’t imagine them getting the write person to write the script and direct it.

    But maybe I’m just being too negative…

  • Mike Harris-Stone

    This is interesting news. But I disagree with Chattaway. The book offers lots of potential roles. Imagine the main character not as Screwtape, but as Wormwood. Imagine a sort of reversed “Wings of Desire” with Wormwood wandering around the characters he assigned to tempt, trying to do his work, while his Uncle Screwtape’s voice — John Cleese — goes on in the background, critqueing, etc. It could be a very interesting dark comedy…a lot like Charlie Kaufman’s other scripts…

  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    Adam wrote: However, I hope I’ll never say that some books just cannot be adapted as films. After all, who would have thought that Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, or Knut Hamsun’s Hunger could have been made into such superior films? And there have been many, many film adaptations of fictional works that equal, if not exceed, the quality of the excellent source material. Take the film adaptations of Peter Hedges’ What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, Graham Greene’s “The Basement Room” (Fallen Idol), Kafka’s The Trial (adapted by Orson Welles), Murakami’s “Tony Takitani,” or Hammet’s The Glass Key (Miller’s Crossing).

    Adam, I agree with you 100%. Adaptation is a challenging process. A lazy adaptation, or one that does not understand and preserve the core of the source material… that can go very badly. But sometimes, an adaptation that is imaginative and respectful can be immensely rewarding.

    Look at what Charlie Kaufman did with The Orchid Thief. He let the book remain its own thing, but he created something personal and meaningful that captured his own thoughts on the book, and his experience of adapting it. Unconventional, yes. Bold, certainly. Controversial, uh-huh. But man, I’m grateful for that movie.

    Last year’s Tristram Shandy was wildly imaginative in the way it adapted the book, and yet it still captured what the story is all about.

    Philip K. Dick fans often get the jitters when they hear another one of Dick’s books is being adapted. And many of them say that A Scanner Darkly is the most faithful and successful adaptation of Dick’s work yet. Before Linklater made that film, it had been described as unfilmable. Personally, I’m thankful for those films that captured his central ideas, like Blade Runner, even if the result bears little resemblance to the source material (like Blade Runner).

    I’d rather have an ambitious revision of the book than one that, in slavish faithfulness, merely creates a visual version of the text… one that loses sight of the purpose and power of the screen to convey ideas.

    The Screwtape Letters is full of wonderful language that could be cleverly employed (I think John Hurt as Screwtape is the best idea I’ve heard so far) as an almost musical accompaniment to various scenarios. We need a courageous writer, and one who loves Lewis.

  • Adam Walter

    Skepticism over film adaptations is a funny thing. I just hope the skepticism is brought to the theater… So many of us seem to have lost it while watching that very poor Narnia film a couple years ago.

    However, I hope I’ll never say that some books just cannot be adapted as films. After all, who would have thought that Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, or Knut Hamsun’s Hunger could have been made into such superior films? And there have been many, many film adaptations of fictional works that equal, if not exceed, the quality of the excellent source material. Take the film adaptations of Peter Hedges’ What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, Graham Greene’s “The Basement Room” (Fallen Idol), Kafka’s The Trial (adapted by Orson Welles), Murakami’s “Tony Takitani,” or Hammet’s The Glass Key (Miller’s Crossing).

  • Nick Alexander

    Count me in on the nay-sayers. The book is incredibly fun to read, but it is also very deep theologically that does not translate well for a mass audience. I fear the ironies would be lost on the paying public.

    And then there’s the thought that either the Rolling Stones and/or Carman would get Soundtrack placements.

  • a m hildebrandt

    I agree that this book will loose a lot if changed too much. Yet I am excited to see how it is done.

    A few years back I was thinking how I would do it if I had the chance. First I would cast John Hurt as Screwtape, with a similar look to what he had as the character “Trevor ‘Broom’ Bruttenholm”. I would have his setting be a dreary English office space, old fashion architecture always a rainy exterior, like Lewis explained hell to be in “The Great Divorce”.
    Then I would keep the dialog as close to the original as possible, and use a voice over of Screwtape writing the letters and montages to fit what he is writing, for most of the film. Like the way Malick did with the Private Jack Bell character scenes in “The Thin Red Line”.
    And I would use a soundtrack similar to the writing and feeling of Sufjan Stevens “In the Devils Territory” for the film to give that quirky satirical feel, yet keep a very arthouse or indie feel to it.

    There that is how I picture the “Screwtape Letters”. In my head it looks a lot better than what I can describe it in words.

    I pray it is not turned in through the Hollywood machine and destroyed. This book is supposed to be art not entertainment, something that will change the way you think, not fill two hours of your life with meaningless drizzle.

  • eucharisto

    Oops…I meant DERRICKSON with Paradise Lost. My bad.

  • Adam

    I agree with Peter. I think this book will be nearly impossible to adapt to the screen. I am not very optimistic. I don’t think anyone could get this right…

    …actually, I just think they chose the wrong book. I’ve always thought The Great Divorce would be the best of Lewis’ books to transfer to the screen. It would also take some work but the imagery is so amazing in that book – if done correctly, it would really jump off the screen.

    Sorry, I’m just very skeptical about this…

  • Tim

    I’m very skeptical that this can be adapted. Like Peter says, it’s basically a monologue. A written monologue, at that.

    I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

  • Adam Walter

    As for actors, Willem Dafoe is probably a real obvious possibility, but I like it. And John Cleese did such a wonderful job with the audio book, that I think he should at least be considered for Screwtape.

  • eucharisto

    I’d be very excited as well, as this is one of the defining works of fiction in the last century, by one of the most celebrated Christian authors of the last century.

    However, is it really plausible to think that a book, who’s brilliance is totally in extremely complex dialogue, can really translate onto the big screen? The screenplay would practically have to be verbatim to tie in all the obscure theological and philosophical nuances.

    I hold cautious optimism. I said this at A&F too, but I think this falls into the same category as Winter trying to adapt Paradise Lost into a film. Some books were meant to be maintained in one format. A film version of either story might make an interesting blockbuster, but neither, IMO, could truly do justice to it’s respective literary work.

  • Kris Rasmussen

    When Ralph told me last summer he was still working on this, I admit I thought “Right. Fat chance.” But I should know better. He is so humble and faithful, it’s no wonder God has him in the position he is in now. I am excited!

  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    By roles, I meant Screwtape and Wormwood, as they will both have to be developed in order to make the movie work.

    I think David O. Russell should direct. Or the Coen Brothers. Jonathan Demme could be interesting.

  • Peter T Chattaway

    . . . there are so many actors I’d love to see sinking their teeth into these roles.

    “Roles”, plural? I don’t think the book gives us any characters, really, apart from Screwtape himself. Everyone else is either someone that Screwtape refers to or, in the case of Wormwood, someone that Screwtape addresses directly. This isn’t like Les Liaisons dangereuses, where the letters are all written by multiple characters and thus give us multiple points of view; it’s little more than a monologue, really.

    So adapting this book will be very, very difficult. And on that level, Charlie Kaufman as screenwriter is a perversely inspired idea.