ADAPTATIONS AS WRITING INSTRUCTION
By JUDY KELLEM
Most writers have great difficulty structuring their material, deciding what to include and exclude, knowing how to cinematically dramatize the big themes, feelings, nuances and subtext they long to communicate.
Most people avoid seeing film adaptations of their favorite books for fear that Hollywood's going to destroy what was --in prose --a true work of art.
Translating a novel to screenplay is an ominous task as many of you know and more often than not it seems the process of compressing hundreds of pages of deeply complex and textured content into pure dialogue in three acts is too tall an order.
Most of the time I'd agree.
But sometimes its not. And making a study of those exemplary films is a great way to improve one's own craft!
I recently rented "The Hours" (originally a novel by Michael Cunningham..one of my favorites), which though it had its problems, was immensely impressive in this respect. There is nothing simple about Cunningham's book. His characters are deeply dimensional, the structure jumps time zones and points of view, the themes are myriad and colossal in content. How do you squeeze that into ninety minutes of scene by scene dialogue and direction without reducing the content from Yorkshire heavy cream to deli skim milk?
The answer in this case was its possible. Stark, poignant dialogue that held volumes of subtext in just a few lines. Layered scene direction, which allowed for the film to self-reference and not only build heavy moods and tones, but capture the timeless, existential feel of the book. Careful use of cinematography and the power in an image ? the old, "a picture speaks a thousand words". These were the filmmaker's efforts and it worked.
What for the novelist required chapters of interiors, character description, poetry in prose and slowly detailed plot development over hundreds of pages, the film maker brought to the frame, the simple spoken word, the glance here and silent caress there. It is impossible to escape the derivative nature of movies from books, but the work here reflected how a film can capture the nuances and texture of a serious work of literature.
Seeing this left me with the desire to remind or suggest therefore the exercise to improve your own writing:
Find a couple books that YOU LOVED and have been adapted. Do or don't you like the movie version?
What didn't work? And what did?
What did they omit that should have been included in the screenplay?
What did they include that was to your mind, superfluous?
How did the film version handle key moments in the book that touched you deeply? Was it again moving (this time to WATCH rather than READ)?
How did the movie render the characters? Was it accurate? Not accurate? Why?
How did the film handle developing the themes that made you love the book? Did the movie gloss over certain notions that in your opinion drove the pages of the novel?
Tear the film apart, understand how it was rendered from those beloved pages of the novel, and then begin to look at how YOU would have done it had YOU been paid six digits to do the adaptation J.
This exercise will force you to understand the components of screenplay writing and will give you insights that you can then bring to your own desk. For when you already know and love a fully imagined story, characters, other world and have formed ideas about HOW this fiction can work (i.e. the book version), then the example of how someone else has brought it to screenplay format (the movie) offers a controlled arena for you AS A WRITER to understand good and bad technique.
And you may very well then find that later, your own struggles with what to write next, what to put in a scene, what to leave out may then be not quite as daunting