The ultimate question in adaptation is whether something that is successful in one medium can be as successful in another. And there is no way of ever knowing the answer without going through the process.
There is no formula. There is no reasoning. It all comes down to chance with a lot of skill on the side. And sometimes it can come down to chance with no skill on the side at all. There are numerous examples of great films adapted from great source material, terrible films adapted from great source material, great films adapted from terrible source material and terrible films adapted from terrible source material. Sometimes the novelists themselves are great at adapting their own books. Sometimes the adaptation needs the touch of someone who can step away from the book a little. So what is the key to a great adaptation?
Respecting the Source Material
At a Melbourne Writers’ Festival session I attended over a decade ago to hear Michael Connelly speak, he discussed his experience having his novel Blood Work adapted for the screen. Prior to its publication, in fact prior to the manuscript even being edited, Connolly received a telephone call from Clint Eastwood, who praised the work and told Connolly he wanted to adapt it into a screenplay. Connolly put aside his concern that Eastwood had managed to get his hands on a draft copy (apparently, poorly paid editorial assistants often copy and distribute texts amongst Hollywood producers prior to publication to supplement meagre incomes) and agreed to meet with Eastwood to discuss the proposition.
Both came away from the meeting happy, although Connolly politely declined Eastwood’s suggestion to change the ending of the book to suit filming budget constraints. Eastwood told him he would have to change the setting of the end of the movie but it didn’t faze Connolly too much. He understood that while it was easy for him to have all the characters jet off to Mexico in the book, it was much more difficult to physically accomplish whilst shooting the movie.
Eastwood also suggested that the stakes weren’t big enough at the end of the book and Connolly agreed with that assessment. Connolly rewrote a portion of the book and acknowledges that the final product owes something to Eastwood in this respect.
However, when the film eventually came out, not only had the filmmakers changed the ending as it occurs in the book, they had also changed the bad guy, making it barely recognisable as the book Connolly published.
However, Connolly was philosophical about the experience. As Donald Leslie said in responding to questions about what the film adaptations had done to his books, “What are you talking about? My books are all still there on the shelf, exactly the same as when I first wrote them.”
Disregarding the Source Material
Whilst respecting the source material is just a common courtesy from one writer to another, there is going to come a time when aspects of the source material just don’t work in the adaptation to another medium. This is particularly relevant to length in book to film adaptations. A page to page adaptation of a book into a film will often result in a seven hour film. Slightly outside the generally accepted length of time people are prepared to sit in a dark room and give you their undivided attention.
Adapting Others’ Source Material
One of the great benefits of adaptation to the writer is that you may choose to adapt anything you see fit. You don’t need anyone’s permission. Until you wish to actually do something with it, of course. But until then, it is a great way to practice form without having to struggle for ideas yourself.
Everybody has read a book and upon finishing it thought to themselves, “Boy, that would make a great film!” And vice versa, film companies often take advantage of the success of a film by having a writer turn it into a novel or prepare a tie-in. One of my personal favourites was The Blair Witch Project: A Dossier. The film was interesting as a piece of cinematography but the story behind it, expanded on in the tie-in book and “documentary”, was far more engrossing.
And, of course, the film Adaptation is a must see for any student of writing and a huge insight into the process of adaptation, remembering that it’s just as important to be able to recognise the texts that will prove an impossibility as it is to be able to recognise those that will prove an exquisite success.
Adapting Your Own Source Material
All writers experience the pain of knowing that a piece of their writing just isn’t working. I toiled for over a year on a novel about a teenage boy who is constantly overlooked by his family in favour of his older, golden child teenage sister even when she falls pregnant to a man she has no intention of marrying. I’d almost made the decision to abandon ever getting that story onto the page when in desperation I condensed it into its purist form: it became a poem. “My Sister” is the longest poem I have ever written at just over 1,100 words and even though I wasted an entire year trying to write it as a novel, the poem contains all the emotion of the story I was trying to convey and I consider it a great success.
There are so many written forms to take advantage of that it would be shame to lose a great idea because you’re stuck on a medium that may turn out to be the wrong one. So don’t be afraid to reconsider the form you’re attempting to mould your idea into. Instead, maybe it should be:
*First published in Project December: A Book about Writing