In 1993, a screenwriter staked his burgeoning career on a movie about chess. His name was Steven Zaillian, and he might be the most important man in Hollywood you’ve never heard of: In the two decades since, he’s written (or cowritten) adapted screenplays for Schindler’s List and Clear and Present Danger and A Civil Action and Gangs of New York and Moneyball and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. His track record is not perfect (his adaptation of All the King’s Men, which he also directed, is considered a Heaven’s Gate-level Hollywood failure), but he is one of the few screenwriters capable of freeing a film from the shackles of literary tyranny — a reasonable case could be made that at least two of Zaillian’s screenplays defy the cliché and are actually better than the book (exactly which two is an argument for another day).
The first time I held Days of Grace -- tennis great Arthur Ashe’s autobiography -- in my hands, I was 13 years old. At the end of a very successful summer, my tennis coach gave me the book, almost as a trophy signaling my Mitzvah into adulthood. He looked at me and said:
It began in a Welsh train station on a "misty, sleepy winter evening." There, Bill Buford heard an announcement over the loudspeaker telling everyone to step back from the platform. Unusual, but not as unusual as the scene that followed: an approaching train full of Liverpool supporters, all singing a simple refrain -- "Liverpool, la-la-la."
"The words look silly now," Buford writes on the first page of Among the Thugs, "but they did not sound silly."