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Why Screen Adaptations are Usually the Bane of Authors



By the time I made the leap to screenwriting, I was thoroughly conversant with visual storytelling techniques. I had been a devoted movie fan who experimented in 8mm and Super 8mm movie-making, learned the formal elements of production in college, then worked as a producer/director of industrial films. Also being an avid reader, I had somehow allowed movies and novels to coexist and intermingle comfortably in the deep dark subconscious of my creativity. It never seemed a particularly odd gift to collectively love story and cinematography and dialogue and description. But that ability has led me on a path of writing both a number of screen adaptations and a number of mystery novels. It has also given me a clearer understanding than most as to how translating novels into films so often goes awry.

With abysmally few exceptions, no one in Hollywood remembers the industry's history and when someone does, it is usually an inaccurate version used to justify present-day actions. Movie people in charge of approving scripts perpetuate two historic justifications. The first is that since Casablanca (derived and spiffied up from a stage play) was crafted almost aimlessly for the screen in bits and pieces while in production and yet still managed to become one of the very few immortal films, there is always the chance of it happening again. In actuality, one would have better odds winning the lottery. The second is that movie producers love to summon up the scene in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon in which a studio boss belittles a novelist-turned-screenwriter into telling a story in visual shorthand. The scene was inspired by Fitzgerald's personal failure in Hollywood. It has become the standard justification as to why only screenwriters should write screenplays and novelists should stick to writing novels. However, that same scene also can be used to explain why there have always been so many disappointing film adaptations of novels.

Those two mythic justifications and the largest successful body of screen adaptations spring from the studio days in Hollywood. Granted, the economics of the Studio System more easily allowed for it, but much more importantly—and most often forgotten—it was a time when screenwriters were plucked from a large rank and file of novelists and playwrights who had a foundation in how to assemble and disassemble literary plotlines.

Not so long ago, I read an article in The Third Degree (the newsletter of the Mystery Writers of America) in which an author lamented the option of one of his novels. The lament was the same one I had heard for most of my professional career. It bears repeating since so many talented authors seem so stunned when it occurs to them.

The lament went as follows: The author's book was optioned by a Hollywood production company. They paid the author quite a substantial sum of money. An adaptation was undertaken by a screenwriter. In doing so, that screenwriter went on to make composites of several of the book's characters; change the gender of several others; and the races of several more. He converted some of the book's locales and added new ones. Then he manufactured some additional subplots. The main thrust of the novel was by-and-large intact but with little of the novel's original nuance or tone. The result was not satisfactory to the author but more importantly, it was not satisfactory to the producers. A second screenwriter was brought in. He never opened the original novel but instead spun his re-write off the first screenplay. He deleted scenes and added scenes; deleted locales and added locales; deleted subplots and added subplots. The result was even less satisfactory to the author but more importantly, it was even less satisfactory to the producers. A third screenwriter was brought in. He, too, never opened the original novel but instead spun his re-write off the second screenplay. He deleted scenes and added different scenes; deleted locales and added different locales; deleted subplots and added different subplots. Characters had by now shifted in motivation and importance and relationship to one another. Like the child's party game of "Telephone," the third draft of the screenplay was by now so far removed from the original novel that it bore little resemblance to it. The author hated it but more importantly, the producers couldn't sell a studio on it. It remains unproduced. The author asked, quite reasonably, how could this have happened?

The answer is not entirely simple but unfortunately rather commonplace.

Screenplays have a linear structure for a mass audience; no matter how many subplots, they all run parallel usually within a two-hour time frame at the end of which all the loose ends will somehow be tied and all the issues will somehow be resolved. Novels are intimate affairs between an author and a reader; they can supply cerebral motivations, tangential information, and veer off in any given direction as long as the narrative is strong enough to tie the tale together. Screenplays and novels are two very similar but completely different forms of expression and therein lies the root of the adaptation problem, which is one of approach.

Reading a novel and concluding that it would make a marvelous motion picture only suggests that the author has the talent to impart to his readers strong visual imagery. That alone does not assure a satisfactory movie translation. More often than not, a novel has to be dissected and reconfigured to fit the linear structure of film (even two of my own novels, which were optioned and I adapted, had to go through this step). Some novels defy such dissection and reconfiguration altogether, no matter how powerful or entertaining or touching they are to their readership. Few novels can make an almost direct transition to the screen although genre fiction, due to its built-in storytelling devices, has always proven more successful. Only two novels spring immediately to mind as nearly verbatim translations—The Uninvited (1944) and From Russia With Love (1963). Others, based on classic literature which often rambles in form while stymied by antiquated language, have to hope that capturing the main plot points and the overall flavor of a story will prove satisfying to audiences. Hence, The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo have received so many varied screen adaptations over the generations during none of which was the author alive to dispute how things were handled. Another reality is that bestsellers more often than not get preferential treatment because of their already-generated popularity. Small novels usually only receive consideration if a producer's spouse or friend has discovered them or if a screenwriter has tackled them on spec (for which he doesn't get paid unless the movie is made).

The Writers Guild of America doesn't like the idea of scripts being done on spec for a producer because writers can be taken advantage of with little redress. That is very true. But spec scripts are not always an entirely bad thing if a screenwriter is passionate about the novel to be adapted, has the novelist's full authorization, and the result is shopped around just as would be done with an original screenplay. But in an adaptation, a screenwriter has to be willing to relate another person's creation leaving little or no discernable fingerprints of his own. The screenwriter also has to accept that succeeding means to share the spotlight with the original author and failing means to accept possibly all of the blame. Passion goes a very long way towards that end. It also helps if the author has a clear comprehension as to what the screenwriter's job might entail. Too many times is the author left unaware of the surgical intricacies about to be performed on his novel and just as many times does the screenwriter forge ahead creating an atmosphere of hostility rather than of explanation.

What undoubtedly happened to our mystery author at the beginning of this article was the usual squeeze-play of Writers Guild of America regulations and reader reports.

Whether intentionally or subliminally, part of this blind-sided approach is because of how the Writers Guild of America determines screenwriting credits. Having more than one screenwriter or one screenwriting team (denoted by two names joined with an ampersand) involved in any single script is usually a death-knell. When more than one writer or writing team is involved in a script, the guild arbitrates whether a credit is warranted and the order of that credit. This comes down to the percentage of actual dialogue making it into the final draft of the script. In the case of adapting novels, it also entails how much pre-existing material (in terms of scenes and incidents) is already supplied by the book's author. That is most probably why our mystery author watched his novel suffer through so many unnecessary changes between so many different writers. In fact, I actually had a producer take an adaptation I wrote and change all of my dialogue so that it imparted the exact same meaning without using the exact same words. He hinged his delusion on the fact that although I had restructured the novel for the screen, most of the incidents in the novel were pre-existing; since the words were no longer mine, he could then receive the sole screen credit. Thankfully, the movie never got made otherwise the litigation would have been labyrinthian.

The other problem is that everyone involved in considering a property thinks that his opinion has merit. Among screenwriter/author William Goldman's perceptive observations about the Hollywood process is that "nobody reads." Because of the sheer volume of material, reading is done by memos passed up the food chain. Initial readings are usually done by lower rung employees. Reader reports should be and can be thoughtful, constructive critiques. In the reader reports I have done, I have always endeavored to do so because it benefits both writer and producer to point out strengths or potential weaknesses or how a property might be improved. But more often than not, reader reports take on that cocktail party smugness of "how can I shoot down this idea while appearing brilliant as I do it?" At the very least, it is insufferable. It also defies all logic and common sense without using any foresight. This is because readers are often wannabe screenwriters or have hopes of rising to fledgling producers. Such individuals can prove to be the sort who always claim to have figured out the ending beforehand even when it is impossible to do so and who are always out to find some flaw or make some barb. They can actually manage to make the writer wonder whether what he wrote was in the same language in which it was read.

Readers' egos make for some pretty strange predicaments. I once received a report stressing how much of a rewrite was required to correct a "fatal flaw" which a know-it-all reader felt was imperative to point out. The so-called "fatal flaw" was a dialogue change which literally took all of twenty minutes for me to satisfactorily rectify but which somehow made the reader feel vindicated rather than embarrassed. I have also received a reader report trying to reject one of my screen adaptations because in order to fulfill a visual rationale in the novel, I invented a scene which required a casement window blowing inwards. The reader took monumental issue with the gimmick. Why? Because the casement windows in the reader's house opened outward. Instead of raising a question tactfully, the reader made the point insultingly and stopped just short of name-calling. This seemed intended only to make the reader appear knowledgeable. So I personally pointed out that half of all casement windows open inwards and I know that because I helped pay for college working as a handyman. The reader asked disbelievingly, "Why in heaven's name would half of all casement windows open inward?" When I explained that it made it easier for cleaning, the reader deflected my explanation with, "Well, I don't do windows." Always the constant one-upmanship. Such petty exchanges are why so many viable projects can get stalled at square one.

I recently adapted one of eighteen British mystery novels for a possible series of television films. The series revolves around a county historian who reluctantly solves crimes in order to get on with his passion for history. For example, his survey of an Elizabethan manor house is disrupted by the discovery of a body in the library or an archaeological dig comes to a screeching halt due to a murder on the site. There is a humanity about the stories and they are as much about character and locale as they are about plot. The series has been successful for more than twenty years and although optioned several times, a script had never been attempted. The books were suggested to me by a fellow screenwriter who saw a similarity in style and subject matter between the author and myself. It was suggested that maybe I was the one who could possibly get a handle on a screen adaptation. I read all of the novels and, deciding that casting was the real key, selected the novel whose elements made for the best premiere episode. From that, I wrote a pilot script. The author is more than pleased and British producers have been approached. My previous experience in Britain was that the script process seemed much more literate. Alas, that was more than twenty years ago and the Brits seem to have all gone Hollywood. This time out, at no point during the consideration process of my script has any producer ever checked on the source material. Something I have always done, something which I have always argued for, and something which is so elementary. It is
not unreasonable to expect that if the cost to option eighteen novels is at stake, good business would dictate having an idea of what is being purchased. Case in point: the one producer who loved the script did his own reading but had no connections to get it made; the other producers who did have connections, relied on reader reports. So far, those reader reports came back with the usual little attention-getting digs, but because the readers never went back to the source material to find out what these stories were about, they all inevitably came to parrot similar conclusions: "historian" equalled "Indiana Jones" and "crime-solving" therefore meant "the hero placing himself heroically in peril." If my script was original, the suggestions or criticisms could conceivably have some validity but if my script is based on a known successful property, the criteria set up in that known successful property cannot be changed or the core audience will be lost.

I have been asked to read novels which production companies have claimed were "brilliant" but anyone with an appetite for books would have seen the stories as nothing more than derivative. In turn, I have suggested novels which were deemed "too small" by producers because they hadn't made the New York Times' Bestseller List. There is an inherent myopia between making movies and reading books. The most reasonable response to that has been from a bestselling mystery novelist whose thug-with-a-heart-of-gold protagonist was transformed into a more palatable leading
man for television. Only when the transformation worked well with audiences and proved a boon to book sales, did the novelist feel comfortable in concluding that the producers had their version of his character and his books would always contain his original concept. By allowing both to coexist in the world, the bestselling mystery novelist was then able to laugh all the way to the bank. But he is one of the rare few who have survived relatively unscathed in the Hollywood compromise.


Copyright © 2005 by John Dandola
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Excerpts from this article appeared in the May 2005 edition of The Book Promotion Newsletter.