I discovered what one of the problems was in the book I'm now working on: I had the character in the opening scene acting in ways that were totally wrong for her character. She was doing what I'd probably do, not what she'd do.
One of the movies on my screwball comedy weekend was Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. Although it's a recent film, it was based on a book published in 1938, at the height of the screwball era, so I figure it counts. I finally read the novel by Winifred Watson, so now I can compare the book to the film. A short summary: a down-on-her-luck middle-aged governess goes to work as a social secretary for a flighty wannabe actress and experiences a life-changing day in a world she's only experienced in movies. It's a truly delightful book, but the movie actually improves upon it (which is rare). In fact, the comparison between book and movie makes for a good exercise in seeing how you can rev up a manuscript.
The first difference is the level of tension, which comes from higher stakes. In the book, Miss Pettigrew has been fired from a governess job and is being sent out on her very last chance at a job. If she doesn't prove satisfactory this time, the agency won't send her on any more assignments. Her landlady at her rooming house is on the verge of kicking her out if she can't pay her rent soon. Those stakes seem pretty high, right? Well, in the movie, Miss Pettigrew doesn't have a rooming house, so she has nowhere to go when she gets fired. She's penniless and has all her possessions in her suitcase, and she loses those when she collides with a recently released prisoner and flees in terror. She resorts to lining up at a soup kitchen and sleeping sitting up in a train station waiting room. When she reports to the employment agency, they refuse to send her on another assignment. In desperation, she swipes the card for a job from the desk and rushes off to get hired before they can send someone else. If this job doesn't work out, she's literally out on the streets. To complicate the situation, the new employer's best friend saw her at the soup kitchen and threatens to reveal that she's a homeless tramp if she doesn't lie about seeing the friend with a man at the station and doesn't help patch things up with her fiance, to whom Miss Pettigrew is strongly attracted. So, either she's out on the streets with nothing or she lies to a man she admires and manipulates him into staying with a faithless woman. That's taking already high stakes to an even higher level.
Then there's the storyline with Delysia (the Amy Adams character). In the book, she's torn among three men -- the playboy producer who can make her a star, the wealthy man who wants to possess her (Nick) and whose allure she can't resist, and Michael, another reasonably wealthy man who loves her enough to demand a commitment from her so that she'd have to give up the other men. That's a bit of a dilemma, choosing between freedom without love and commitment with love. The movie adjusts the Michael character (Lee Pace) to give her a harsher dilemma. She's not choosing among the three wealthy men. She's choosing between the kid who can make her a star, the wealthy, alluring man who wants to possess her and the penniless pianist who's her best friend who loves her and wants to marry her. She has to choose fame, money or love. And there's a ticking clock: Michael is leaving the next morning on the Queen Mary. He needs a singer and wants to take her, but if she doesn't go with him, it's over. Miss Pettigrew's dilemma is also stronger in the film. In the book, there's no blackmail, and the man Edyth (the friend) wants her help with is a different character from Joe, the man Miss Pettigrew falls in love with.
Since the book was written before WWII, it doesn't include the specter of impending war the way the movie does, and it also isn't haunted by the specter of the past war the way the movie is, which I think adds some depth and poignance to the story. As a warning, the book is a product of its time, and so it's not at all politically correct. There's a fair amount of casual racism of the sort that was pretty common at the time but which is shocking now.
Other than these things, the movie is remarkably faithful to the book. A few of the scenes are moved to different settings and there are more meals in the book (while in the movie poor Miss Pettigrew keeps having near misses with food), but otherwise the same scenes are there, and essentially the same things happen. It's just all revved up a bit. Now I'll have to think in terms of doing a Miss Pettigrew when I take stakes, a conflict or a dilemma that I think are strong enough and find a way to make them even stronger.
The funny thing about this book is that it's pretty racy, especially for its time. There's open discussion of cocaine and illegitimate children, and one of the heroines is a kept woman who's maintaining sexual relationships with three different men. It's a very sophisticated urban novel. And yet, according to the biographical notes, this was an aberration for the author. She was best known for writing the kind of rustic romances that Cold Comfort Farm spoofs. I would love to track one of these down, just to see what it's like.