What draws storytellers to explore a unique and specific high-stakes world? In the case of ADMISSION the pull of Ivy League academia, according to producer Kerry Kohansky-Roberts, provides "the perfect setting for blending deftly nuanced comedy with drama."
Novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz thought so too, writing her 2009 novel Admission as a multilayered exploration - not only of the intensely competitive world of the college admissions process but also of the attendant emotions at the center of the experience.
Korelitz reveals, "I'm married to a Princeton University professor, and had myself worked for a couple of years as an outside reader in the university's Office of Admissions. There were about 10 of us each year, and although we did not make the acceptance decisions we commented on the applications after reading them. I was fascinated by the intense emotion surrounding the applications, and very curious about what it must feel like to have to make these decisions.
"I'd watched a generation of Princeton students come through my house and my husband's classes. They're fantastic young students - but they're not the only fantastic young students out there. I remember going through a very competitive and intense college admission process myself; from what I've observed, it's only gotten crazier."
The author felt that the protagonist should be neither a student nor a professor. She notes, "I wanted to look at the kind of person who becomes an admissions officer, someone whose job it is to fend off the anxieties and loathing of all of us on the outside. Who does that, and what's it like to be them?"
Since that latter question of self-knowledge is at the heart of many of Academy Award nominee Paul Weitz's movies, his longtime associate Kohansky-Roberts recognized Admission as material that the director would gravitate towards. She reflects, "While Jean's novel pulled back the curtain on the college admissions process, it delved into themes of rediscovery, family, and parenthood - all of which Paul is always addressing in his films.
"I loved the concept of an admissions counselor who has her confirmed opinions on parents and the lengths they go to in order to place their kids in the right university - and then, ironically, ends up behaving in a more extreme way than any of them."
Screenwriter Karen Croner also read and admired the book. She and Kohansky-Roberts had met years earlier, and had long been hoping to work on a project together. They met anew to discuss the book "and joined forces to bring it to Paul," says Croner.
Korelitz remembers, "When I discovered that Paul, who had made About a Boy, was interested in Admission, I was beyond elated. I couldn't imagine anyone better to direct the film based on my book."
For Croner, the novel's themes resonated. She offers, "I felt a highly personal connection to the story. One of the first things that really struck me in reading the book was, here is a woman who is on the wrong path in her life. Well, I had been writing dramas and I woke up one morning and said, 'I want to write comedy. What am I doing?'"
Croner had also recently endured a stressful admissions process. She says, "Having just gone through the process of getting my son into middle school, which in West Los Angeles is a blood sport, I was doubly curious and wanted to dig deeper into who these officers are - or might be. In interviewing admissions officers while working on the script, I found that they fell into one of two groups: people who were truly passionate about finding the right kid for their school, and people who absolutely overwhelmed, looking for any reason to say no.
"So, right there I found inspiration taking dramatic material and making it funny. I got to work straight away on the script and, right from the start, working closely with Paul Weitz on the adaptation was absolutely wonderful - a dream come true."
Croner made sure to meet with Korelitz and discuss the adaptation process. The screenwriter remembers telling the author "that I would be true to the themes of her book, although a lot was going to change with the story. For example, much of the book is told in the past tense, and the movie would play out in the present."
Kohansky-Roberts adds, "Some characters were eliminated, while others were enhanced. Quite a bit of plot was put in. What didn't change was the sense of connection to these characters."
"The essence of the story has remained the same," confirms Korelitz. "The script reflects Karen's interpretation of Portia, and the movie reflects Paul Weitz's interpretation. At this point, I'm the grandmother of the character!"
Incorporating the dramatic and comedic elements of the story, the movie's Portia became, says Croner, "a woman with a genuine desire to launch kids into their lives, yet she herself stays imprisoned in her own well-ordered life. I felt Portia's story could be universal and inspiring for anybody who has imposed limits on themselves and wonders if they have the guts to say 'I'm going to break out of this.'"
Kohansky-Roberts comments, "It's only after receiving a jolt from the past does Portia begin to reset herself and strike out on a new path, with a new outlook and a budding maternal desire that supersedes her previous way of thinking. There transpires a series of events by which she acts like a parent, something that she had openly disdained."
Croner concurs, "When she begins to behave like a mother with Jeremiah, she allows herself to have feelings that she had been afraid of."