Call Me By Your Name: A Powerful Writing Lesson

As I write the Bite Somebody screenplay, I’m constantly doing “research.” Recently, my research included seeing Oscar-nominated film Call Me By Your Name and then reading the book.

Mind, blown.

If you don’t know, Call Me By Your Name (nominated for Best Picture) is the  story of Elio and Oliver, two young men who fall in love over the course of a summer in 1980s Italy. Elio is seventeen; Oliver is twenty-four. In the film version, Elio is played by Timothee Chalamet (at 22, the youngest Best Actor nominee since 1944). Oliver is played by Armie Hammer.

The movie messed me up in a good way. Watching it is a visceral, emotional experience … although it was semi-awkward watching CMBYN in the theater, surrounded by middle-aged heterosexual couples. Chalamet and Hammer do not hold back in the sensuality department. In fact, despite its lack of nudity, CMBYN is possibly the sexiest movie I’ve ever seen.

The book, written by Andre Aciman, was so much darker and more disturbing. I chalk this up to the power of movie magic. In the book, we are in Elio’s head the whole time. We are there as his infatuation with Oliver grows. We are there for his eventual heartbreak. We are present for both emotions in the film version, as well, but the book takes it to another level because we don’t hear Elio’s thoughts in the film; we see only his actions.

What an excellent reminder for me as I wrestle with the Bite Somebody screenplay. My novel is all from Celia’s perspective, so—like Elio—we’re with her through every moment of self-doubt. In the screenplay, I have little more than dialogue to work with. I am forced to simplify, as was CMBYN screenwriter James Ivory (nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay).

Simplify, simplify is exactly what occurs when Ivory translates the book into film, which worked wonderfully. Ivory cuts characters and lengthy scenes, and it’s his artistic decisions that (for me) make the movie so much stronger. Yet, he also managed to make some characters more important (like Elio’s parents and Marzia) with resounding success.

And the dialogue? Bless me, baby Jesus, I can’t even … Astounding! There’s one scene in particular in which Elio and Oliver circle a fountain and Elio tells Oliver he’s a virgin but literally never says anything about virginity. For real, I can’t even. Watch:

Don’t get me wrong, Aciman is an outstanding author. I’d like to slurp some of his sentences with a spoon. And yet, the film … Young Timothee Chalamet is a marvel as Elio. Rarely have I fallen in love with a character so quickly. He and Armie Hammer have sizzling chemistry, even as they navigate messy kisses and boyish wrestling. The two actors (both heterosexual BTW) grew very close in real life over the course of filming, and it shows.

Elio is just more likeable in the film—sweeter, softer—and although, yes, he does have sex with a peach, Ivory cut some of the more unsavory scenes from the book. Scenes so disturbing that I cringed. The most disturbing thing about the movie was that Hammer is so much bigger than Chalamet. I worried the cute, little guy might get hurt.

Chalamet: ” a skinny, little nugget.”

Ivory also chose the perfect place to end the movie, and well, SPOILER!!!! (Skip the next paragraph if you’re worried.)

In the book, we jump forward in time and watch Elio age and never get over Oliver. In the film, Elio and Oliver say goodbye when Elio is just seventeen. Sure, the final movie scene is just … sob … but there’s a glimmer of hope that Elio will someday have another great love. Maybe he’ll even meet up with Oliver again. We don’t know what will happen, and I love the openness of the film’s conclusion. It doesn’t feel as definite as the book. It’s not so damn tragic.

Seeing Call Me By Your Name and reading the novel was fun, albeit emotionally daunting. What an amazing learning tool on so many levels. For one, I usually believe books are better than film versions. Wrong in this case. I also witnessed what sorts of things to streamline in a screenplay and even what moments make a character likable. I owe a lot to both James Ivory and Andre Aciman for their unique brilliance. This movie deserves awards, and what an inspiration for a fledgling screenwriter!

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