Great Adaptations: A Winning Script Doesn’t Have to be Totally Original


During cinema’s early years, much of its fare was conveniently derived from melodramas and vaudeville skits that didn’t require sound in order for the plot to be easily understood. As title cards and ambient music gave way to talkies, fledgling writers began adapting material from novels and short stories appearing in Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post. By the 1970s, cinematic adaptations of preexisting works accounted for nearly one-third of all films produced in the U.S.

Fiction and stage plays, of course, haven’t been the only sources of inspiration. Diaries, comics, board and video games, lyrics, psychological case studies, photographs and the 11 o’clock news provide no shortage of accessible fodder for big-screen entertainment.

Just because a plot is satisfying in one medium, however, doesn’t mean it will necessarily translate to box office success. Who among us hasn’t finished reading a great novel and been subsequently appalled when the film version was total drek? As producer-director Ian Lewis of The Farnham Film Company explains, “Perhaps the oft-quoted remark about bad books making the best films has to do with the fact that less literary books are mainly about plot, which is easier to mold into the story needs of a movie. Books like The French Lieutenant’s Woman or Bleak House are much harder because they play with the form and nature of the book itself. That they are written to be read is an essential part of their nature.” That said, Lewis candidly observes that a majority of book-to-film projects don’t work. “I confess that I would almost always rather read a book than see it on screen, so my first reaction to an adaptation is always ‘Why?’”

Determining what to keep and what to lose is unquestionably an angst-inducing exercise. After adapting Everything But the Groom and The Spellbox—two of my own published novels—into optioned screenplays, composing from scratch almost feels easy by comparison. Sending almost 75 percent of a 400-plus page book to the cutting room floor is like packing for a dream vacation but being restricted to one carry-on; the more superfluous the item, the more reason to leave it out… Even if it’s your favorite part. Theatrical scripts—though comparable lengthwise to movies—present additional conundrums of trading dialogue for action and moving beyond the parameters of a fixed set. No easy task for sure.

For screenwriter John Collee (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World), the challenge of adapting novelist Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring series to a film was encumbered by the sheer volume of source material. “All of O’Brian’s plots tend to meander a great deal,” says Collee. “He goes where the feeling takes him, which is not a luxury you can afford on film. This book is more focused than most: Our heroes chase a pirate ship from the Pacific into the Atlantic and the journey with all of its trials tests a lifelong friendship. Peter [Weir] and I took that simple idea and developed our own variation of the plot, jettisoning several elements from what originally existed in The Far Side of the World and replacing them with episodes from other O’Brian novels.”

Whatever is depicted, it’s essential that a film’s content resonate with contemporary audiences. Vitaly Sumin, president of VM Productions, is the writer-director-producer of Shades of Day, a feature adapted from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story, White Nights. Relates Sumin, “In transporting the essential elements of White Nights from mid-19th-century Russia to modern-day California, I have underscored the universality of Dostoevsky’s tale as well as the commonalities of the human experience. The film proposes a certain reading of the book using it as a pretext to show the conditions of existence in 21st-century Los Angeles. I’ve never been particularly interested in the exact re-creation of stories by classical authors, including the appropriate attributes of the corresponding historical time involved. With all my respect and admiration for the great writers, I believe that as human beings we’re all equal—some of us simply serve as mediums for ‘the voices’ that help to discover the laws of the universe. Each classical fiction work represents for me a patent serving as base for the explorations of our own age.”

For Mark Fergus and writing partner Hawk Ostby (Children of Men), translating the heart and soul of existing material into cinematic terms is no simple feat. Says Fergus, “P.D. James had written a beautiful and haunting novel [with Children of Men], but one that presented big challenges in bringing it alive for the screen. It was understated and largely internal; much of the action was psychological rather than physical. I don’t think everyone believed this book was a good candidate for a film… But putting the novel in a template like Casablanca, which shared some of its thematic concerns and character dynamics, started to change that perception.
Children of Men really puts you inside a world gone mad, allowing you to feel it with your gut and your senses rather than having it explained or intellectualized. Conversely, the book has more time to explore human dynamics—for example, Theo’s relationship to the character of Julian—that didn’t survive in the film. The bottom line? Film is about choices. It’s a brutal medium and the more hard choices that are made, the better the movie.” Fergus recommends that writers “let go of the specifics that don’t translate and invent ones that do. As long as every element is emotionally right, it doesn’t need to literally reflect the source material.” 

Shares novelist-screenwriter J.P. Smith, “When a book is good—when it’s literature more than just another novel—a film can never really improve upon it because a book, to some degree, is about the language. For me, the finest adaptor of literary novels is Harold Pinter. His film of Robin Maugham’s The Servant is far superior to the short novel on which it’s based; his script of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between is the equal to this very fine novel; his solution to adapting John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman is ingenious; and his adaptation of Proust’s A la Recherche du temps perdu is a model of literary adaptation—a novel that, on the surface, would defy any and all transference to another medium.”

Smith’s quest in adapting his own first novel, The Man from Marseille, was not to be literally faithful to the book, but to be faithful to the poetry of the story. “Once I understood that—and it took many months—the process was liberating,” he says. Smith’s advice to fellow screenwriters is to read the work they’re adapting three times. “First, simply to enjoy the book itself and understand what entranced enough people to bring it to print. Second, to deconstruct the book, to understand what it’s truly about and to remain faithful to that throughout the process. Third, to begin to see what you absolutely must keep for the film version and what must be jettisoned in terms of the characters and their conflicts.”

Though David Kahane’s first optioned adaptation fell just short of a greenlight, the lessons he learned from it were invaluable. “It’s a mistake to view the screenplay as an abbreviated version of the literary work, even though this is what’s expected by most authors and audiences,” says Kahane. “It’s why I think short stories usually make better film adaptations than novels. The real task is to identify the essence of the story and the key attributes of the best characters and build on that.” Working with the book’s author also honed Kahane’s interpretation and persuasion skills in convincing the writer to accept the cinematic modifications he proposed. “There were things I could have done to make it more interesting for the screen but wasn’t brave enough to.”

For Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, co-writers of Brokeback Mountain, the most significant test in penning their adaptation was acknowledging that the short story and the film were two distinctly separate entities. “Both are powerful in their own right and each stands alone,” notes Ossana. “Annie Proulx’s prose is both evocative and powerful and enables the reader to imagine the men, the landscape and the emotions. The film does the same except through visual images. Our goal was to expand the material so that it remained true to the characters, landscape and essence of the original storyline.

I felt strongly that the experience of watching the film needed to evoke the same feelings in the viewer as reading the short story did in the reader. The film version of Brokeback Mountain wasn’t necessarily ‘better’ than the short story, it was simply different. It fleshed out the domestic lives of both men and the ‘ripple effect’ of Ennis and Jack’s relationship on the people in their lives, the circumstances of their extended families, their relationships with women, the women themselves and their children.”

Planning to tackle an adaptation yourself? Ossana’s advice is golden: “Find material that triggers your emotions and stimulates your imagination. Then sit down and write a first draft. Then be relentless. Don’t lose faith. Good work will always find its way.”

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