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The Abstinence Teacher

October 18th, 2007

What are your top five favorite movies?

Chances are at least one of them is based on a book.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Some of the greatest movies of all time were originally books—“The Wizard of Oz.” “The Godfather.” “Schindler’s List.”

My mom taught me that movies are never as good as the books, but I’m not so sure that’s entirely true.

Great books can become bad movies (“Bonfire of the Vanities”) just as easily as bad books can become great movies (“Mrs. Doubtfire”).

Of my top five, only “Election,” a 1999 comedy directed by Alexander Payne, was a book. I didn’t even know it was a book until a couple years after I fell in love with the movie—a blistering satire of high school politics that doesn’t give a damn about the prom. (Or, on another level, it’s a spoof of the 1992 presidential race).

I discovered the book—and its author, Tom Perrotta—a couple years later. It probably took me an hour or so to read it.

I loved it—maybe not as much as the movie, but I loved it. The movie was slick and funny—each of the characters reminded me of someone I knew from high school. The book was much more tender to its characters—even Tracy Flick, who Reese Witherspoon played with such butt-kissing perfection—comes off as sympathetic and even likable in the novel. The ending is different. I don’t want to spoil it, but if you’re a fan of the movie, it’s worth reading the book to compare endings. I prefer the book’s sweet-but-not-sentimental ending, but it would have never worked with the rules director Alexander Payne built into the movie.

Perrotta’s books have fared unusually well for Hollywood. Two of his books have been adapted to the screen, both received Oscar nominations for “Adapted Screenplay.”

I wasn’t as much of a fan of “Little Children” (the movie, not the book). It was dark and depressing. Much of the humor from the book was cut—and Perrotta can be blamed, he co-wrote the screenplay. Still, it served the material—it would have been much harder to squeeze on-screen laughs out of a story about a pedophile and suburban moms.

His latest book, “The Abstinence Teacher” seems to be on the Hollywood fast track. It comes out this month. Mensvogue.com reports that Perrotta is already adapting it for Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who directed “Little Miss Sunshine.” Imdb.com lists a 2008 release.

“The Abstinence Teacher” splits the difference between “Election” and “Little Children.” It’s just as much about the politics of sex education as it is about lonely, divorced parents.

I enjoyed the book. It’s certainly the most complex thing Perrotta’s written, flashbacks are layered within flashbacks, the slimiest characters occasionally come off as sympathetic—his books might even score an Oscar nomination hat trick. 

But… it was really two books in one. The directing team gives me confidence that this won’t be a bad romantic comedy where a liberal teacher falls for a born-again soccer coach (Perrotta’s clever enough to acknowledge this cliché within the story). But, will it be a movie about the classroom or the bedroom?

I hope it’s about the classroom. The funniest bit is when human sexuality teacher Ruth Ramsey attends a “Breakfast Club” type detention for teachers who’ve run afoul of the new abstinence curriculum—really the only part of the book where the supporting cast might have stepped out of an Alexander Payne satire instead of a Tom Perrotta novel. But, what works on the page might not necessarily work on screen—and this bit might have to go because it’s not terribly essential to the plot.

Go back to that list of your favorites. If one is based on a book, is it better, worse, different or just as good as the source material? What made—and didn’t make the cut? Chances are, the movie’s better for what was cut.

That’s really the trick with adapting movies and Perrotta knows this. He cut the funniest scene in “Little Children.”

As much as I’d hate to see it go, I’d expect the same with “The Abstinence Teacher.”

Staff writer Josh Eiserike can be reached at 703-878-8072

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