The Art of Adaptation
By Toby Osborne
So, you're a screenwriter. And you think to yourself, why not take a crack at adaptation? Perhaps it's a novel that you wrote yourself, or you've secured the rights to a suitable book, or you've been hired to adapt a story into a script. How hard can it be, right?
As Nicolas Cage's Charlie Kaufman discovers in the movie Adaptation, the process can be more than a little daunting. Where to begin? What are the essential elements; what is the "soul" of the novel? All of these questions flit through the mind of a writer perusing a good book with a view to making it a good movie.
Of course, everyone has read a novel one time or another and thought, 'wow, this would make a great film.' In fact, research has shown that 85 per cent of movies are adaptations.
If you've read a book by a Clancy, Grisham, or Crichton, then there is a high probability that the manuscript is already on a screenwriters' desk, somewhere, waiting for adaptation (and before long the movie will be "coming soon to a cinema near you"). Yet, Hollywood occasionally attempts to turn supposedly 'unfilmable' novels into blockbusters. The Hours, Fight Club, American Psycho, and even Adaptation, were all based on what were said to be unfilmable books; although all were adapted into critically-acclaimed movies.
Thus, consider this - not only does the screenwriter start out the adaptation process with a thick wad of paper that must be cut-down and edited into a sleek, hundred-page script (whilst still keeping the essence); the novel may also be difficult to translate to the screen. It's not looking too good at this point, but, take it from Roger L. Simon, a master of adaptation, adapting novels into scripts can be a "pleasure... although it is scary to adapt a Nobel Prize winner."
As a screenwriter and novelist, writer of the Moses Wine series of mystery novels, Simon has written screenplays from scratch, adapted his own novel into a script, and adapted another writer's novel into a screenplay. His 1989 script Enemies: A Love Story was even nominated for an Academy Award, Best Adapted Screenplay. He also wrote the 1991 film Scenes from a Mall (starring Woody Allen and Bette Midler), Bustin Loose in '81 (starring Richard Pryor), and the Richard Dreyfuss vehicle The Big Fix in '78, an adaptation of one of Simon's own mystery novels.
It was back in 1971 that Simon's first novel was turned into a motion picture. Heir became Jennifer on my Mind, featuring a young Robert De Niro. Simon admits that the experience may have made him "unconsciously" write his subsequent novels in a more cinematic way.
However, The Big Fix was Simon's first screenwriting experience; bringing his famous detective character Moses Wine to the big screen. But, the myth that it is easier to adapt your own work - because you know your plot and characters inside-out - doesn't ring true for Simon. In fact, knowing the plot and characters too well can prove to be a hindrance. "I prefer to adapt other people's work, because I am usually bored with my own by the time it is ready for screen adaptation. Still, you have to take a crack at it to defend your work. Others may have no interest in preserving it." And Simon notes that it is more important that the novel has a clear dramatic structure than whether or not he wrote it. "It depends on the novel itself," he says.
Certainly, each screenwriter has his own individual methods but, for Simon, the mechanics behind the adapting-novels-into-scripts process is simple. "I start by reading the novel," he explains. "Of course, if it is a submission for adaptation, it is difficult to get that out of your head while reading. It would be a lie to say otherwise."
While reading a novel, one thing is often apparent to screenwriters; cuts are inevitable. When faced with a labyrinthine book of epic proportions, take for instance the adaptation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, there are going to have to be some cuts to condense thousands of pages down to just over one hundred (for a hundred-minute movie). So, how do you begin to edit dialogue, irrelevant sub-plots..etc. without losing the soul of the original work?
"I like to remember Paul Schrader's rule," says Simon, quoting the Taxi Driver scribe: 'A film scene should be like a party. You arrive late and leave early.' Simon agrees that "that helps to get to the crux fast and know what to lose."
Indeed, with all the cutting in the world, a handful of novels can still present impossible hurdles. Take the work of Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk, for example. Despite many of his books being deemed unfilmable by critics - with ambiguous narrators, splintered-personalities and temporal back-and-forwarding - according to Ain't It Cool News, four Palahniuk novels are currently in production.
So, is it simply a case of, if the writer adapting the book is creative enough, there's no such thing as an unfilmable novel? "Well, if 'unfilmable' means no dramatic story; sometimes you have to make one up against the atmosphere of the novel," says Simon. "Think of it this way - that's better than having a bad story."
Not since The Big Hit has Simon adapted another one of his own novels, so he is genuine in his appreciation for a good story. When working on the script for the comedy Bustin Loose, Simon found himself writing a screenplay based on a story by the film's star, comedian Richard Pryor. Simon quickly learnt that, in a collaborative screenwriting situation, the people you work with can make all the difference. "Richard Pryor was one of the most talented people, if not the most talented, I have ever met. His instincts were always remarkably good and he was always supportive of my work." Nevertheless, "you never knew who would be there when you showed up at his house - good Richard or stoned Richard," says Simon. "With stoned Richard, it was best just to turn around and go home. He was crazy and self-destructive. It had nothing to do with the work and everything to do with his own demons."
Following Bustin Loose, Simon's subsequent film scripts, My Man Adam, Enemies: A Love Story, Scenes from a Mall, and Prague Duet, all involved working with another writer. "When working with Paul Mazursky (writer, producer and director of Enemies: A Love Story and Scenes from a Mall), I did all the original work and he would polish. In the case of Enemies, that was almost nothing," Simon says. "In Scenes, somewhat more. With Prague Duet, I collaborated completely with my wife Sheryl Longin (who wrote the 1999 comedy Dick). We sat in the room together and wrote. It is hard to tell where one began and the other ended - like a good marriage."
Simon's adaptation of Nobel prize winner I.B. Singer's novel, Enemies: A Love Story, received an Oscar nod, thus proving, if you aren't adapting your own novel, it helps if you are adapting "one of the greatest writers of the Twentieth Century and a master dramatist," Simon concludes. "Singer's books are not difficult to adapt."
As well as writing, Simon has stepped into the director's chair twice, for My Man Adam in 1985, and Prague Duet in 1998. "Directing is about protecting the script - and you had better have a good one," notes Simon, "because almost never can you fix it during production." Furthermore, if you can put up with the "constant criticism," Simon says that directing is "more fun than writing; less lonely and easier."
It may come as no surprise that Simon's latest mystery novel is called Director's Cut. The book sees private eye Moses Wine investigating a crime in the movie world; a setting now all too familiar to Simon. "This was one of the most autobiographical novels I ever wrote. Virtually everything about the film world in the book is true from my own experience. The terror crime, obviously, is not."
Simon currently has no plans to adapt Director's Cut into a screenplay, but offers some last words of advice to authors considering turning their novels into scripts, and to screenwriters considering adapting an author's work: "Pick something good and something you care about." Of course, one assumes anything by a Nobel prize winner wouldn't hurt either...
Visit Roger L. Simon's website at http://www.rogerlsimon.com.
Toby Osborne is a freelance writer, and screenwriter.