The Laws of Adaptation

(This is the first draft of a much larger piece Tananarive and I will do later this year.  You are getting it in chunks as it rolls out of my mind…)

As we announced yesterday, our “mystery project” (we’re limited until the network makes an official announcement) came another step closer to reality–our producers

LOVED the script rewrite, and to our surprise asked for no rewrites before passing it to the studio.  Wow.

So, I wanted to take a moment to give thanks for everything happening right now–it really is a blessing.  I also wanted to speak briefly about one aspect of this process that has been challenging.

Also, after the project appears on-screen, we’re going to teach exactly how we did it, navigated the system, so that you guys can follow.  I thought that it would be useful to begin that process now, with artful evasions that allow us to respect the Network’s need to control publicity.

As we’ve hinted, it is an adaptation of another work.  That means that there are MULTIPLE different levels of reality that we had to keep balanced, and I thought I’d spend some time going through these things.

  1. Respect for the original work.

The question/comment arose countless times:  “but X was THIS way originally!”

You know what?   That doesn’t matter.  Even if YOU wrote it.  The only question is: does it make sense NOW?   I’ve never, ever seen a book or novella translated directly to the screen without change, even if the original author wrote the screenplay.   Never.   Something always changes, and that is natural, normal, and correct.

Why?  Off the top of my head…

  1. You wouldn’t have written it the same way today. Every action changes you. The action of writing the book, therefore, makes you a different person at the end of the process than you were at the beginning of the process: you literally COULD NOT write the same book again, unless you just Xeroxed the damned thing.
  2. The visual medium is just different from the printed page. You cannot flow internal-external, objective-subjective with anything remotely like the same fluidity.  All you have is what you can see and hear.  THAT’S IT.   And the visual matters most.   With most successful films, you can turn the sound off, watch the images, and follow the story.
  3. You don’t have an infinite budget.   You can write things on the page in five minutes that would take five years to put on screen, and cost a five hundred million dollars.    You HAVE to take things like that into consideration.
  4. You have to ask about the standards and practices elements.  What rating is this piece?  Can you handle the same level of explicit sex, violence, or language?  I remember talking to L. Sprague De Camp after he saw the first “Conan” movie.  He was repulsed by the violence.  I had to chuckle.  Had he not read his own writing (he completed or authored many of the Cimmerian’s adventures)?   When he wrote “clove him to the teeth” or “split his spine” or “and his entrails spilled upon the ground” what exactly did he think that looked like?  In comparison to the actual descriptions, the R-rated “Conan” was rather mild.    But…what’s on the page and what’s on the screen are different things.  You MUST navigate the difference.
  5. The people you are working with will have their own ideas.   A writer can work in his basement, alone.  But the director has to work with real, live human beings. And the producer must deal with the studio. And the actors have to actually make the dialogue and actions work.   If these people are even remotely as intelligent as you, as talented and experienced, they will have thoughts and needs that are reasonable to address.   And…let alone the money people.  Do you think someone puts millions of dollars into a project without wanting some control? They might be 100% wrong, but sweetie-baby, IT’S THEIR MONEY.   And you had better be able to at least nod and smile and give lip-service to what they are saying, even if you have contempt for them.  Personally, my philosophy is to behave as if  people can read your mind.  They will KNOW if you are lying and feeling contempt. And what will happen is that your mask and their mask will bump against each other.  Everyone being polite, everyone spitting in each other’s beer when the heads are turned.  Personally, I don’t want to live in that world. So…at the LEAST (and I do this with editors as well)–I treat them like intelligent viewers/readers. They are similar to my intended audience. And if I’m not providing them with an emotional journey, I’m missing my mark.

I MUST LISTEN TO THEM.  What do they need to have the experience?  Do they empathize with these characters?  Believe in this world?  Have the information they need to understand the rules?

6) A 120 minute script MIGHT equate to a 200 page novella.  Maybe.  Max. That means that a 400+ page novel has to be reinterpreted to “fit” in the shorter format.

Robert McKee’s suggestion about adaptation is that you read the original work, and extract from it the core scenes and images that seem to tell a story that has the same thematic and dramatic weight. Then you build up from that skeleton, without referencing the book again until you have a first draft of the script. Then…go back and see if there are moments, images, dialogue, etc that strengthen this new structure.

Do not try to slavishly re-create the novel, because you cannot do it.  And brace yourself for the fact that fans of the original are going to complain about what you changed, or left out, or added NO MATTER WHAT YOU DO.

“The Watchmen” was one of the most obsessively slavish adaptations I’ve ever seen, hugely more faithful than most Biblical epics (!) and what was the most common complaint?   “Where’s the squid?”

Get over it.  You CANNOT make the readers, and viewers, and writer, and producers, and director, and actors, and yourself 100% happy.  Can’t be done.  But what you can do is create an honest piece of work that touches your own heart and taxes your own skills.

There is a famous writer who complained about adaptations of his work. “It isn’t faithful!”  Then…he got a job adapting the work of a close friend.  And…promptly proceeded to change the hell out of it.   And to my great amusement, the friend of course complained. And the Famous Writer then defended his changes, using the exact same rationalizations that he’d always rejected when applied to HIS work.

I laughed my butt off.    To this day, I am uncertain of whether Famous Writer grasps the irony.   Or hypocrisy.  Whatever.   But it was quite instructive.

Write With Passion!


One comment

  1. Loving your success. – while working albeit slowly on mine. I just love being a part (small or large) of what you and your wife have and are creating.


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