Arts & Culture / Mosaic / April 29, 2009

Alumnus speaks on writing novels, making movies

Laughter filled the Alumni Room as author and humorist Sherwood Kiraly, ’61, read the first chapter of his critically acclaimed book, Diminished Capacity. Sherwood Kiraly, while a theatre major at Knox, wrote plays and put four on stage. After leaving Knox, he continued writing for the stage for years before writing his first comedic fiction novel, California Rush. Since its publication, he has written three other acclaimed novels and a screenplay adaptation of Diminished Capacity, the basis of a motion picture starring Matthew Broderick, Alan Alda and Virginia Madsen.

Senior Elena Gleason introduced Kiraly. Gleason said, “Two years ago, Diminished Capacity […] inspired the would-be student editors of a new Knox humor magazine to name their publication after it. In fact, they were so taken with the novel’s depiction of poetry typed by fish tugging on lines attached to a typewriter and interpreted by a senile old man that they even adopted the fish as their logo. And so Diminished Capacity became not just a novel and a film but a home for the humorists of Knox College, those who endeavor to follow Sherwood’s footsteps.”

Before and after this reading of the first chapter of Diminished Capacity, Kiraly gave some insight on what it is like to be an author and to have a novel adapted into a motion picture. After Diminished Capacity was written and critically well received, it was shown to those in the movie business and it was bought by MGM. MGM usually gets rid of the novelist because it is thought the author would be too rigid to change what was written. It was given to another writer to adapt but the adaptation did not work out, following a disastrous table reading. Another problem was that the writer who wrote the new screenplay did away with Cooper’s head injury, a major plot point in the novel.

A couple years ago, the co-founder of Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Terry Kinney, wanted to make Diminished Capacity the first Steppenwolf film.

“I did say, ‘Well, guys, if you do the movie, would I be the guy? I had a bad experience. Would I get to do the screen play?’ And Terry said, ‘We’re not doing it without you, dude.’ That’s a theatre mentality. In theatre, sometimes they will keep the writer around because they think he might turn out to be helpful,” Kiraly said. “We’ve been with this project so long that Terry got a little tired of it. He tweaked the script and he made a change in one of the main characters that it caused such a huge fight between us that we almost never spoke again.”

Just before they went to shoot, Terry showed Kiraly a script in which Cooper was to wear a band-aid on his forehead for 80 pages. Kiraly did not agree with this change because he thought this change was too drastic for the character.

“To this day, I’m getting into a rage thinking about it, I said, ‘Why? Why would you do that?’” said Kiraly. “To me, not only do I not understand it, it forfeits all sympathy for the character and it’s like wearing your arm in a sling on moving day so you wouldn’t have to move furniture.”

Kiraly spoke about the difficulties of the film and its success.

“We made it to the end. Terry put the movie together in New York. I went home. It was accepted at Sundance. And that was a great time and a great moment for me after 11 years, to see that. The movie had become my white whale and I have endangered several relationships talking about this movie, and thinking about this movie, and talking to myself about this movie and what I would say to him the next time I saw him. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted and there were places where I thought we made the wrong choice and there were other places where we couldn’t afford the right choice. But most of it was there,” said Kiraly. “By and large, there are felicities in there I never dreamed of, never intended and that are entirely due to Terry and to those actors and to the lucky chances that occur once you’re on the set, when you have to do it, you have to come up with it. It’s 87 percent of my dream come true. That’s a huge amount for a novelist to be able to say about the medium of his work.”

Sheena Leano

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