A Mighty Heart: Book, Script, and Film

My favorite genre of film is historical adaptations. True events can often be more cinematic than the created universes that dominate the box office. Knowing these events have transpired evokes a strong human reaction including giving thousands (and sometimes millions) of dollars to get a film made.

Look at stories like The Imitation Game. How many people knew about the secret life of Alan Turing before Benedict Cumberbatch exposed it to the world? And then, how many people knew Harvey Weinstein bought Graham Moore’s script for $7 million, the highest ever payout for U.S. distribution rights?

With this in mind, I decided to give Audible a try and “read” Mariane Pearl’s story A Mighty Heart: The Brave Life and Death of My Husband Danny Pearl. It was just a few years ago when news of Wall Street Journalist Daniel Pearl and his death was on every television and newspaper.

What better way to really analyze adaptations than to take the book, the script, and film and compare the three mediums.

In writing this blog, I will ask the following questions:

  • Is this book or story worthy of an adaptation for screen?
  • How loyal was the script, and then film, to the book?
  • Would I recommend the book over the film or vice versa?

A brief synopsis: On September 12, 2001, Daniel and his wife traveled to Pakistan to report on the developing war after the U.S. World Trade Center attacks. But on January 23, 2002, when Daniel and Mariane were preparing to leave Karachi, Daniel was kidnapped by members connected to Al Qaeda. He was held, tortured, and brutally murdered.

220px-Mariane_pearlI was shocked to see the audio book was read by Mariane herself. It gave a new depth to the story listening to her voice reading her words describing her experiences. However, her monotone retelling made some of the more touching and dramatic moments less impactful. Despite listening to a voice, I felt disconnected.

The book begins much like a journalistic entry stating the date and the events that transpired that day. Everything is told in chronological order with sprinkles of love letter-like moments for her husband.

But as things progress, more players are introduced and the reader goes through each day and each event much like Mariane did between January 23 and February 21, 2002. I wonder if she, at the time, felt like I did with long waiting periods of not a lot happening.

The woman who Mariane and Daniel stayed with in Karachi is named Asra. She becomes a large figure as Mariane’s counterpart and supporter. In the book, Mariane mentions that Asra becomes pregnant by a man who leaves her due to the scandal of the kidnapping.

I can understand why this is important to Mariane, but then to read it later in the film’s script was disappointing. For a film featuring a pregnant Mariane, focusing on another pregnancy steals focus and creates sympathy for something irrelevant to the screen time. In the final film, I was relieved the director, Michael Winterbottom (The Killer Inside Me, The Face of an Angel), removed the second pregnancy completely.

For Mariane’s autobiography, obviously it is impossible to know what happened between the officers like Captain (the Capital City Police Officer) and Randall Bennett (U.S. Diplomatic Security Service Officer) as well as the suspects arrested for Daniel’s murder. But this gives off a one-sided account. I missed a lot of information that could have made the book read faster.

Upon reading the script, written by John Orloff (Band of Brothers, Legend of the Guardians), a full page disclaimer detailing how the filmmakers approached the film is written out. They spoke to multiple sources including Captain and Bennett; filmed in real locations including Pakistan, India and France; and used natural lighting with hand-held camera movements to keep the audience in the action rather than the standard tripod or static shots keeping the audience at arm’s length.

This told me, as a reader, the filmmakers respected the subject matter and those affected rather than were just looking to capitalize on the political climate.

However, the script was scattered. It is too long with frequent flashbacks and unnecessary moments. Each flashback was given about forty-five seconds worth of screen time (one page equals one minute roughly) but comes across as jarring and distracting. The flashbacks seem only there to serve a humanizing purpose toward Daniel saying, “See? Danny is just like you and me, not a terrorist with a secret agenda.”

A common problem with screenwriters is when they tell rather than show. Throughout the script, I was often told through dialogue what was happening including a “let’s recap” moment. Don’t take me out of the action. I want to feel the constant tension the characters are living through. That’s what makes a historical adaptation so captivating.

Toward the middle of the script, Asra and Mariane are forced to go to McDonald’s for dinner. I can picture the production meeting now:

“How about the scene shot in McDonald’s? How expensive will that be to get the rights for the logo, let alone shutting down the restaurant for an entire day of filming?”

In the script, the reason for this scene is told to us very blatantly rather than letting the audience see why this was important.

Should we be worried about the I.S.I. bugging
the house?

As a producer I would ask, “Is the scene really necessary for the cost?” Or rather, I would approach it with some inter-cut scenes of the I.S.I. setting up microphones in between bites of a Big Mac eliminating this piece of dialogue completely.

Thankfully, either scenario did not make it in the final film.

When I watched the film, the vision completely changed again. The flashbacks were minimal, and the subtleties of the actors really brought a succinctness to the film.Angelina Jolie and Dan Futterman star as Mariane and Daniel Pearl in Michael Winterbottom's A MIGHTY HEART

One example in the book and in the script is Mariane’s need to never break down. But Angelina Jolie (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) allows herself a moment to break down alone. Am I to believe Mariane never shed a tear during her husband’s capture? Angelina owns her emotions and makes the character more believable.

However, some of the dialogue as written in the script comes across disingenuous. Take the scene where Mariane gives her first news interview. In the script, it is written as:

And how are you coping with this?

I haven’t slept in more than a week but I hope…
I am not desperate because if I stop believing
in creating this dialogue then I stop believing
in everything else. I can’t do that. I’m pregnant.

When I read this, the last line comes across flippant or like, “oh yeah, by the way, I’m pregnant. Don’t forget to add that in.”

By comparison, in the film, Angelina delivers the line like because she is pregnant, she won’t break.

And if you could speak to your husband now,
what would you tell him?

I love you.

This had the opposite feeling for me between the mediums. I read it in the script as sincere and moving like she is not just talking to Danny, but she is telling the terrorists that her love can’t be broken.

In the film, Angelina says it in a sing-songy way with a smile. I can see why Mariane was widely criticized by the media for coming across nonchalant and stoic. Her intentions behind her dialogue are not obvious in the film, but Mariane Pearl herself clearly states why she delivered her lines like this in her autobiography. She intended to show the terrorists she cannot be broken.

Peter Christelis (Fleming, Code 46), the film editor, does a fantastic job rewriting the script in the editing suite. The climax of the film is much stronger than it was written thanks to the punchy edits and a revised timeline.

Shot completely hand-held as the news of Daniel’s death breaks, we follow Mariane into her bedroom as she lets out a primal scream. We see her in her most vulnerable and raw moment, and it rarely lets up as she repeatedly shouts, “No!” The entire film builds to this, and I can’t imagine a better way to have the pure release of anger, frustration, and desperation come through.

To recap on my questions:

  • Is this book or story worthy of an adaptation for screen?

Yes. Optioned by Brad Pitt’s company, Plan B, in 2006, the story was and is still relevant to the political climate. What better way to publicize the atrocities of war than through the big screen with one of the most recognizable Hollywood starlets?

  • How loyal was the script, and then film, to the book?

The script was incredibly loyal to the book. But I was relieved to see most of it did not make it to the screen. The film came together in the editing suite.

  • Would I recommend the book over the film or vice versa?

The film is not unlike the book; it’s just better.

A Mighty Heart:




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