That's not a bad thing, as JLB does have a knack for character driven narratives(developed well during his days as a TV writer/producer for the likes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show,Taxi and Rhonda) and when it came to film, was a distinctive hallmark of his style.
One of the challenges presented in turning the book into a movie was setting up the whole emotional dynamic between Aurora(Shirley MacLaine) and Emma(Debra Winger). While a novel has the luxury of dropping the reader right into a ready made reality, a film needs to build up that connection ahead of time before diving into the deep end of the plot pool.
Then, a brief montage of scenes traces their lives from Aurora's widowhood to Emma's teen years right up to the point where Emma marries Flap(Jeff Daniels) a budding college professor with little ambition, which causes Aurora to remark to her daughter on the night before the wedding "You are not special enough to overcome a bad marriage." Way to be encouraging, Mom!
Then the narrative shifts to Aurora's love life and here is a major change from the book. While she does have a number of love struck men trailing about her,similar to the novel, Aurora's main man is a character created solely for this film and played by Jack Nicholson. Garrett Breedlove is a former astronaut who spends his time boozing it up and hitting on younger women(and who happens to live right next door to Aurora).
I suspect his character is loosely based on Hector Scott from the book, who was a former Army general who lived nearby(and while not mentioned in this film, is part of both the book and later film version of The Evening Star, the TOE sequel). Since Nicholson and MacLaine do have chemistry and her uptight character is in need of a footloose and fancy free counterpart, this works out for the best:
Emma does get her share of screen time, as her turbulent marriage and hectic mothering manages to allow her a brief love affair with a middle aged married banker named Sam(John Lithgow).
The scene where Emma and Sam meet up is completely invented for the film and it turned out to be one of those talked about moments that audiences loved. Most of us can identify with being caught short at the cash register, a minor event that can become major when the clerk decides to get nasty as the supermarket checker does in this instance.
As a former cashier myself, this lady's attitude was totally out of line and when Sam snaps at her "Then you must be from New York!", it's an insult that is still pretty funny and slightly truthful even today. Not to mention a great way to set up an adulterous romance that makes both people involved seem like nice enough folks who just happen to need an emotional break from their regular lives:
To me, the best scene from that section is not the infamous Aurora freak-out at the nurse's station("GIVE MY DAUGHTER THE SHOT!!), which is another Brooks invention, it's the scene where Emma says goodbye to her sons.
That sad and totally heartfelt realism comes straight from the book and keeping that portion of the story intact was a good move on Brooks' part. Winger delivers that small speech to her angry boy Tommy about not having doubts about her love for him just right, in a simple manner that's truly touching to behold:
Terms of Endearment did well with both audiences and critics, earning 11 Oscar nominations that year and winning five of them.
James L. Brooks cleaned up nicely, with wins for Best Picture,Director and Adapted Screenplay while MacLaine snagged a Best Actress award and Nicholson Best Supporting Actor.
The movie does hold up well, I'm happy to say and while Brooks did have a couple of equally well received follow-up films(Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets), his last big character driven comedy-drama Spanglish, was a true miss instead of a hit.
He mainly works as a producer these days( The Simpsons Movie) and his last directorial turn,How Do You Know, vanished at the box office which is a shame. I don't think his best days are behind him, Brooks just needs to find the right material to reconnect with audiences again. Movie writers who are unafraid to allow screen characters to be fully developed are a rare breed nowadays and we need them now more than ever:
As to being a good translation of the McMurtry novel, Terms of Endearment is a fine example of blending both mediums for better and worse. The imprint of TOE was a major factor towards the less than enthusiastic approach to The Evening Star,in my opinion, as more people were familiar with the original film than the original book. Nevertheless, TOE is one of those films that if you haven't seen it, you should for the richness of the characters onscreen. Also, it's fun to see Nicholson act the little devil to MacLaine's less than divine diva: