BY DENNIS KING
NEW YORK – A cynic might suggest that the script for “Winter’s Tale” seems to have been written on a doily – all curious curlicues and fanciful filigrees – and that the film looks as if it were shot inside a snow globe of frosty, fantastical New York City tableaux.
But Oscar-winning screenwriter and first-time director Akiva Goldsman (“A Beautiful Mind”) is certainly no cynic, and in adapting Mark Helprin’s sprawling, 1983 novel of magical realism and romance he admits he was aiming for something that could unabashedly be called an adult fairy tale.
“I think this is very pointedly a fairy tale for grown-ups,” Goldsman said during a press conference hosted by Warner Bros. at the Crosby Street Hotel in SoHo. “The reason it’s a fairy tale for grown-ups is that life isn’t simple, that life includes loss. And life doesn’t end with loss. Life requires life beyond loss. And this movie is a ‘hail Mary’ to faith.”
“Winter’s Tale” is set in a mythical New York City and spans a century – from the early 1900s to 2014 – as it follows the star-crossed love affair of raffish young burglar and safecracker Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) and the tragically consumptive Park Avenue newspaper heiress Beverly Penn (“Downton Abbey’s” Jessica Brown Findlay). Hovering like a cold shadow over their romance is demonic Irish mobster Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), who took the orphaned Peter under his wing and now wants to extract deadly revenge as the lad tries to go straight.
The novel was acclaimed for its deft blending of realism and fantasy, and the movie attempts to do the same – featuring nitty-gritty scenes shot on location in all five boroughs of New York interspersed with fanciful scenes of miracle-dispensing beams of light and appearances by a winged white horse.
“‘Winter’s Tale’ starts off as this very elusive genre of magical realism, which is not something we typically do as Americans, you know, the co-existence of serious dramatic scenes and a flying white horse,” Goldsman said. “That is either delightful to you or aversive. To me it has something remarkable in it. It divided people and drew people in from the moment the book was published all the way through this project. For me, what it finally became, is kind of a secret message, a decoder ring and a nod to people who have had loss and the need to believe in magic.”
Adapting Helprin’s complicated, nearly 800-page novel for the screen was no simple matter. But, then, Goldsman has proven himself a master of that particular craft – having produced scripts for such literary works as “A Time to Kill,” “The Da Vinci Code,” “A Beautiful Mind” (for which he won an Oscar) and others.
“Adaptation is always the same process for me,” he said. “It’s some version of throwing the book at a wall and seeing which pages fall out. Trying to imagine, remember the story, and then put it down and write sort of an outline without the book in front of you, with some hope that what you like about it will be filtered and distilled out through your memory.
“This one was easier than it appears to be because there are 300 or so pages in the middle dedicated to a character named Hardesty Marratta, who existed in one draft (of the screenplay) but never made it past that first draft,” he continued. “And so really the book was smaller than it might have seemed to be when it came to adaptation.”
Although some elements of “Winter’s Tale” will undoubtedly be construed as heavily sentimental and cloying by harsher critics, Goldsman boldly embraces those assertions and calls the film “insanely romantic.”
Furthermore, he refuses to be cynical.
“I love the novel, which is not cynical, and I love entertainment that is not cynical. I choose not to be cynical,” the director said. “I’ll go toe to toe with anyone in the room over reasons to be cynical. So it’s a choice. And for me it’s a worthwhile one and a worthwhile communication. Because the other is too easy. There are too many reasons, I think, to give up or to not care. It’s my choice. I don’t say it’s right or wrong, but it’s mine. To then convey cynical ideas would be not true for me.
“Doesn’t mean that I can’t be as old and tired and begrudging of the universe as anyone at the end of a long day,” he said. “I try to practice the belief that there is reasonableness and meaning. Some days it’s a lot harder than others, but I’d like that message to be what I do. It kind of always has been. It’s not that life has given me less reason to be cynical. It has given me more, but I choose to push back.”