How 'Carol' Writer Turned a Scandalous Book Into an Oscar-Buzz Movie

Books take many paths to the big screen, but none quite like this one.

Published in 1952, Patricia Highsmith’s second novel, “The Price of Salt,” about an unlikely love affair between two women in New York City, generated so much controversy that the author, then only in her 20s, wrote it under a fake name.

But it wasn’t until this year that the book would be released as a movie, now named “Carol,” starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara — with the screenplay written by Highsmith’s longtime friend, Phyllis Nagy.

“I met the author when I was a kid working at the New York Times and I suggested her to the magazine editors as someone who could do a walking tour of Greenwood Cemetery,” recalled Nagy, in an interview Nov. 8 at the AFI Fest in Los Angeles, where the film screened. “She happened to be in town — Patricia Highsmith — and as a sort of a reward, or punishment, I’m not sure which, I was sent with her to the cemetery. And that very strange visit resulted in a decade-long friendship that ended only when she died.”

Highsmith would become famous for “The Talented Mr. Ripley” — adapted into a movie starring Matt Damon — and other books. Nagy also would pursue a successful career writing for the stage, television and movies.

But Nagy never read “The Price of Salt” when Highsmith was alive, believing the book was too personal.

“I read it after she died” — in 1995 — “and then a couple of years later I was approached by a producer completely unrelated to Pat,” says Nagy.

The producer wanted her to adapt the book for the screen. The result is what critics are calling one of the best movies of the year, on the short list for a possible Best Picture Academy Award.

So how did Nagy go about creating an Oscar-buzz script from a book by a friend?

“I tend to read something, read it again, read it obsessively, make obsessive notes, not so much about plot, but how to preserve a tone,” she says.

Then she just lets it all sink in. “I don’t really write for a long time,” she says, “and then it will all come together in a couple of weeks.”

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in "Carol"
Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in “Carol”