A LONG time ago, I remember seeing a cartoon: People are seated in a large movie theater (remember those?), the lights are out, and the screen is filled with a black-and-white image of a large fancy party. People stand around in dress clothes, wait staff walk through with trays of canopes and champagne. In the foreground, someone is holding another tray, with a large book open to a page in its midsection. A woman in the audience leans over to whisper to the man next to her:
"It follows the book rather closely."
Reading Marilyn's post on Saturday, I was struck by a few things about the task of adapting a work from another medium to film or television. It's something I teach my screenwriting students about on a regular basis (more on that in a later post), and the one thing you can be sure of when you take on such an assignment is: Somebody's going to hate you for it.
Not, I should point out, that I've ever actually adapted someone else's material. I've had enough trouble adapting my own work. But I've read enough of it and done enough of it that I know what the dangers are. The fact is, those who worship the book will hate the movie if you change so much as a detail. Those who are indifferent or unfamiliar with the book will picket your house if you keep in extraneous material or quote large sections of the text, especially if it is done in voice-over narration.
Casting is beyond control of the writer, but people will blame you for that anyway. Marilyn said she'll have trouble with Tom Cruise as Lee Child's iconic Jack Reacher. Many share this opinion, although some are less thoughtful than Marilyn and simply grouse about Cruise being short. This, without anyone having seen as much as a foot of exposed film. Similar ire is being aimed at the casting of Debbie Reynolds as Janet Evanovich's Grandma Masur, which seems to be based on the opinion that as Hollywood's official Old Lady, Betty White should have had the part by acclimation. Forget that she was 89 at the time of shooting, and they were hoping to set up a film franchise that so far has sustained 19 books.
(Never mind, also, that Dashiell Hammett described Sam Spade as tall and blonde, and yet nobody seems to have a problem with Humphrey Bogart's portrayal, despite his being not so much on both accounts.)
But forget casting. The writer is responsible for the material that is handed to the director, who will ignore whatever s/he wants to and create a film. That's the director's job.
So if you're hoping to adapt a book, play or series of educational filmstrips into a movie on the big or almost-as-big screen, block out any idea of pleasing the masses. Simply follow the steps below:
1. Read the material you're adapting carefully and pay attention what makes you respond. If you write it well enough, the film will encourage others to respond similarly. If you lose sight of what you like about the original work--and you'll have plenty of opportunity to do so during the adaptation process--you're cooked.
2. Give up any allegiance you have to the original writer(s). If they were good at screenwriting, they'd be doing this themselves. You're here to write a movie, not a translated book.
3. Include the things that make this a good movie and only those. The subtext of the book was fine, but you'd need seventeen hours of film time to show them all, and you don't have that unless you work for the BBC and everybody wears way too much clothing. Cut down to the plotline. You're lucky if you can fit all that in.
4. You can make stuff up that's not in the book if it clarifies the plot or gives the audience a better read on the characters. You're creative; it's what you're supposed to do.
5. People who want the book will still have the book. They can read it whenever they want. People who go to the movie or watch on TV have only what you give them. Make it the best version of the story in a visual, moving medium. That's the job.
6. If you are successful at your task, some people who see your version will then go on to read the original book. They will find things that they didn't know existed in the story, and note that there are differences between the two. Some will be pleased. Others will be upset that the book is not the same as the movie, and will consider the screen version superior. They will be upset with the author of the original book for not sticking to the story that didn't exist when the book was written. There's no pleasing some people.
If you're an audience member, keep this in mind: This is a movie. It's not the book. If you loved the book and want to see it translated exactly, don't go to the movie. Read the book again. There will be differences and they'll annoy you. Avoid annoyance when you can. Life is short.