Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson in Little Children. Photo: Robert Zuckerman
Denis Faye spoke to both writers for the Writers Guild of America, west.
Why did you feel Little Children needed third-person narration?
Todd Field: When I read Tom's book, what initially attracted me more than anything was his voice and his finely-tuned passive observation about these characters. When I started, I found myself really laughing out loud and thinking this is going to be a rip-roaring comedy. Then, slowly, it began to turn and that was through his prose. It wasn't through the characters' exchanges, it wasn't through the settings. It was through his observational skills, so it seemed very natural to do that.
Having said that, in the abstract, if I hadn't read that book, and if you'd asked me would you ever do a film that has some kind of narration, I'd say you're out of your mind.
Tom Perrotta: When I first talked to Todd, it may have been the first thing that he told me that he wanted to do with the film. So I will credit him with the idea. I don't think it's a matter of “needed to do,” I think it was an attempt to capture something about the tone of the book, which is hard to do in movies. At times, the book looks at characters with a kind of clinical, skeptical eye, and at times it gets kind of close into their heads. The effect of the narration is to try to recreate that a little bit. When the narrator's talking, you see the characters from afar in a kind of skeptical, ironic commentary on them -- and when he goes away, you see the characters in their own reality. It gives you a kind of duel perspective on them.
Are there ever times when a third-person narration is just sloppy writing?
Todd Field: Of course, but most of the time it's not the screenplay. They've added it in post because people don't have the shots or something's not understandable. I've been in those films. I started out buttering my bread as a young actor in Roger Corman movies where they bring someone in to say, “And then Bob and Cathy went up the canyon to see the old cave and there was a prospector there. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Grannie's beating off the Indians.”
We all have those things we think of as cinematic truths, the dos and don'ts, what's considered sloppy or hackneyed work and what isn't, but there are plenty of examples of films I admire that use third-person narration that are effective.