Adapting a novel for film is an arduous task that some of the business’ less seasoned writers tend to shy away from. “What do I include? What can I leave out? What creative liberties can I take without compromising the original story?”
For Christopher Kyle—whose penned credentials venture from original screenplays (Oliver Stone’s Alexander), to novel adaptations (the upcoming Serena), to stage plays (The Safety Net)—these are questions whose sheer existence serve only as unnecessary constraints in an industry that survives solely through creativity. His understanding of the core storytelling differences between literature and film can largely be attributed to the diversity of his projects and their ensuing success.
Kyle’s latest screenwriting endeavor, The Seven Sins: The Tyrant Ascending is an adaptation of Jon Land’s 2008 novel of the same name. In an exclusive interview with MM, Kyle talks of his writing techniques, the invaluable relationships he’s formed and the advice he has for aspiring screenwriters struggling to find their own identity in the world of moviemaking.
Michael Walsh (MM): Moritz Borman was a producer on two of your most successful screenplays—K-19 The Widowmaker and Alexander. He’s signed on (along with Peter D. Graves) to produce The Seven Sins: The Tyrant Ascending. Is he the reason you found yourself involved with the film?
Christopher Kyle (CK): Yes, Moritz is a big reason I got involved with this. He’s a very smart producer and when you find one of those, you want to work with him as much as possible. The other thing that intrigued me about The Tyrant—aside from the material itself, of course—is the crazy determination his [Moritz’s] fellow producer Fabrizio Boccardi has to get this movie made. The best kind of movie to write is one that’s somebody’s passion project—star, director, producer. Because no matter how good the script is, you’re going to need someone to push it up the hill.
MM: This isn’t the first time you’ve adapted a novel. You’ve done so with Serena and Small-Minded Giants, too. When adapting an already successful book like The Tyrant, how do you manage to create something unique without deviating too far from the original author’s intentions?
CK: It may sound odd, but I don’t really think about the novelist’s intentions much. As much as I respect the authors I’ve worked with, what makes a novel work and what makes a movie work are just so different. I think a screenwriter has to regard the novel less as something to “translate” into the screen, and more as raw material that’s going to be refashioned into an entirely different art form. Because that’s what it is. So I comb the novel for characters, sequences and story elements that I think would work cinematically and then I craft them into a dramatic story. It may be similar to the story of the novel or it may not, but you can’t let yourself become tied to the novel’s structure because often, it simply won’t work on film.
There are many reasons for this but two of the biggest are point-of-view (a novel often puts the reader inside the character’s head and it’s very hard to do this in a film) and breadth of storytelling (a novel can have many more subplots or multiple narratives than a movie has time for). So I really do hate it when people say the movie isn’t as good as the book. It’s like saying the steak isn’t as good as the bicycle—they’re totally different things! The movie may be good or it may be bad, but its lack of fidelity to the novel is not the reason. Indeed, some of the worst screen adaptations are the ones where the book was so popular and well known that the filmmakers were afraid to deviate from it enough.
MM: You have experience screenwriting novel adaptations, original pieces and stage plays. Which style do you find the most interesting? How about most challenging?
CK: Well, I began my career as a playwright and, though I write plays less often than I used to, that is still my favorite form to work in. Audiences come to the theater primarily to listen (if they want spectacle, they can go see Avatar) so it’s really a writer’s medium. The working rules are different, too: I get to approve the director and cast, nobody can fire me—it’s much different than working on a film. For better or worse, a play is mine. A screenplay on the other hand is generally more collaborative, a work for hire. You have to satisfy the interests of the director, producer, studio, star… and when they don’t agree, you’re right in the middle of it. But I have to say, I enjoy the challenge of that. It can be a difficult needle to thread, so you really have to push yourself to find a solution that will satisfy everyone and still work within the story.
MM: What do you hope becomes of The Tyrant? Do you hope for a very faithful adaptation of the book or do you wish for a more expanded interpretation with its own distinguished identity?
CK: I think I may have answered this in your second question. What I want is something that works as movie. How faithful it is or isn’t to the novel doesn’t matter to the vast majority of the people who come to the theater to see it, because they haven’t read the book in the first place. So I think the movie of The Tyrant will expand on the ideas in the book and tell the story in a different way. The great thing this novel has is a truly compelling main character—one I can imagine as the protagonist of more than one movie.
MM: What’s the one piece of advice you’d offer to aspiring moviemakers looking to break out in today’s marketplace?
CK: This word “marketplace” is one thing aspiring filmmakers should really try not to think about. When you’re starting out, you should never try to guess what’s commercial or what the studios want. Believe it or not, what the studios are looking for is talented, original writers and directors—not hacks regurgitating last year’s hits. So don’t worry about whether it’s going to sell (very few writers sell their first screenplay anyway). Find something to work on that you have a real passion for, something you are willing to bleed for because it’s a story you just have to tell. The only way your talent is going to emerge is if you work on something that matters to you. Believe me, there will be plenty of opportunities to sell out after you’ve established yourself.
For more information on Christopher Kyle, visit http://christopherkyle.net.