Terra Nova, pr. 1977
Hooters, pr., pb. 1978
Coming Attractions, pr. 1980
Silver Linings, pr. 1981
Little Footsteps, pr., pb. 1986
White Palace, 1990 (adaptation of Glenn Savan’s novel)
The Silence of the Lambs, 1991 (adaptation of Thomas Harris’s novel)
The Juror, 1996 (adaptation of George D. Green’s novel)
Before and After, 1996 (adaptation of Rosellen Brown’s novel)
All the Pretty Horses, 2000 (adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel)
Red Dragon, 2002 (adaptation of Harris’s novel)
The Father Clements Story, 1987 (with Arthur Heineman)
Ted Tally is an important and influential screenwriter who began his career as a playwright for the New York stage. His plays continue to be performed in regional theaters. Tally grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, as the bookish son of two teachers. He received his undergraduate degree from Yale University in 1974 and then studied playwriting at the Yale School of Drama, alongside the notable future playwrights Christopher Durang and Wendy Wasserstein.
Tally’s first New York productions grew out of plays he developed as a student at Yale. The first of these was Terra Nova, based on diaries and other documents relating the story of English sea captain Robert Scott and his fatal expedition to the South Pole. This play, Tally’s master’s thesis, was first produced at the Yale School of Drama in 1977 and later the same year, after revisions, at the Yale Repertory Theatre in a production starring Lindsay Crouse and Michael Gross. Although Terra Nova was not produced in New York until 1984, its success at Yale generated interest in New York for subsequent plays, including Hooters, Coming Attractions, Silver Linings, and Little Footsteps. These plays are comedies, in contrast to Terra Nova, which is a serious and moving portrait of obsession and dedication, ending in the deaths of the principal characters. Such serious and dark themes did not return to Tally’s work until the publication of his screenplays, especially the Academy Award-winning The Silence of the Lambs. Hooters, for example, is an extended anecdote about two college-age boys trying to pick up slightly older women at the beach. Little Footsteps treats similar characters at the point in life where they are married and expecting a child.
During the 1980’s Tally wrote primarily for the stage, with productions that received mixed reviews and the occasional award (including an Obie Award for the 1984 production of Terra Nova). Tally began to experiment with writing for television and film, recognizing that such writing could bring financial security. At the request of British director Lindsay Anderson, Tally began to work on an epic screenplay set in India during the time of British occupation. This screenplay, called “Empire,” was completed but never produced. Subsequently, Tally continued to write screenplays and adaptations of his own plays. He was paid for these works commissioned by studios, yet he was frustrated because none of them became films. His first produced screenplay was a television film called The Father Clements Story, based on the true story of a priest who adopted a child.
Tally’s first screenplay to be filmed was White Palace, an offbeat love story starring Susan Sarandon and James Spader. Tally’s early plays all include romantic or erotic relationships (including Terra Nova, which weaves in the story of Scott’s marriage), and he has said that he cannot imagine writing a script that excludes women characters. White Palace, like All the Pretty Horses a decade later, shows Tally’s skill in writing about powerful romantic attachments, a counterpoint to his macabre work in The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon.
Before and After can be seen as transitional for Tally in terms of subject matter. In this project, he adapted the work of an accomplished novelist, Rosellen Brown, whose work focuses on moral dilemmas. In this novel, the ethical crisis stems from a murder apparently committed by a teenage boy and from the responses to this act by his parents. The father (played by Liam Neeson) wants to protect his son, whereas the mother (Meryl Streep) argues that the truth must be revealed. The story, then, is focused on relationships, in keeping with Tally’s earlier work, but moves toward looking at darker human motives, as he does in his next projects. Unfortunately, negative critical reaction to Before and After made Tally question the worth of writing for a medium where critics can so quickly dismiss one’s serious efforts (this problem would return after All the Pretty Horses).
Both The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon are adapted from novels by Thomas Harris about a cannibalistic serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter. By chance, Tally read the manuscript of The Silence of the Lambs shortly before its hardcover publication and was able to express his interest and be hired as screenwriter. The sensationalistic aspects of the plot are balanced by thoughtful treatment of the central character, young Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Clarice Starling (played by Jodie Foster). The film brought financial security and acclaim to Tally, who won an Academy Award for his screenplay. He chose not to work on the sequel, Hannibal (Foster and The Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme also opted out), but Tally later took on the project of Red Dragon, an earlier Harris novel also featuring Hannibal Lecter.
As Tally’s screenwriting career developed, he showed little inclination to return to playwriting. He decided in the late 1980’s to concentrate on one form of writing and found his niche in adapting novels to film. His early success with Terra Nova, a historical play based on extant documents, proved a template for his later satisfaction in using an established plot as the basis for his scripts, allowing him to concentrate on the practical aspects of structuring a story. Unlike some playwrights who turn to screenwriting for its financial rewards with the intention of using the money to fuel further work for the stage, Tally has preferred the challenge of adapting novels for the screen.