Monday, February 07, 2005

Writing: Adaptation, Pt. 3

The Rules of Adaptation:
(adapted from an article for CHUD)

Rule 1: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money."

Rule 2: "Don't take the gig for the money."

As we've previously seen, in the last five years I've written somewhere in the vicinity of twenty-odd projects, maybe two-thirds of them adaptations. That's first draft, revisions, notes, more revisions -- Fermi it out to 17,000 PAGES of work on adaptations alone. That's a whole lotta typing, never mind writing. If it were just for the money, I'd grow bored. I'd learn to hate these things. My hate would be ther eon the page. It's inescapable.

The first challenge in adapting something is to ask: "Why do I love this story?" You don't have to start by loving the story. Bryan Singer, as I understand it, was completely ignorant of the X-Men universe when he began his adaptation work. He grew to love it, to find the themes of alienation and acceptance he could relate to in a world of bamfing blue guys and adamantium claws.

The first adaptation I wrote was a screenplay of Matt Wagner's classic graphic novel, Mage. Strip away Matt's cool art, insanely clever Arthurian trappings and engaging characters, and the base story boils down to a familiar one: shlub - Kevin Matchstick - gets superpowers, shlub must learn to use superpowers. I was enthusiastic about writing cool fight scenes and exploring a rich fantasy world. As a fan of the series, I couldn't wait to bring Edsel and Mirth to life. I wanted the world to see Kevin's power while fighting updated evils of myth. I sat down to type.

In my first rough draft, Kevin gets his powers, is reluctant to use them, then accepts his responsibility, because with great powers comes great aggggggggggggggghhhhh...

Wait. How the hell is this not Spiderman?

Okay. I sat down. I paced. I drank. I paced. I sat back down, because I'd gotten very, very drunk while pacing. The bare framework of the story was hanging me here. I had to figure out, why did I care about this story? Slowly, I pieced it together. Kevin's not some teenager, giddy with power. He was (at the time) my age. Late twenties. I'd been thinking about that generation, an entire generation who'd never seen war, never really been tested. We're observers, keeping a sardonic distance away from clumsy emotions like faith and sacrifice and love. We're supposed to stay cool.

Kevin became that guy. Every time he succeeded, it wasn't a triumph, it dragged him deeper into a game of big damn magic-y passions he didn't want to play. He's supposed to lead a team, but he can't even run his own life. And most of all, in the end, he realizes that his attitude's crap. In the end he doesn't choose to fight and maybe die because "that's what being a hero is all about" -- he chooses to fight, knowing he'll PROBABLY die, because that's what being a man is all about. I agonized over what Mirth, his mentor and best friend, would say to push him over that final hump. I grew to love that poor, doomed bastard. I wanted him to make the speech we'd all make, do what we'd all hope we would do. I wanted to WEEP.

Annnnnnd ... it was a comic book. I mean, really, reread that last paragraph. I sound insane. But that committment got me through the brutal notes, literally a dozen drafts, the bone-breaking stupidity on the part of executives who didn't get this whole "superpowers" thing (this was two years before the comic movie boom).

By the end of the process, I was taping sharpened spoons to my wrists like a prison fighter before I went into notes sessions. Having that story mean something to me -- even though it started out as somebody else's story, started out as an assignment -- gave my life as a writer meaning. Even as I was writing swordfights with baseball bats.

How bad did it get, by the way?
True story:
Disney Exec: "You see, our current studio head doesn't like complicated characters and stories. He likes simple stories. Simple, clear characters. A bad guy ... becomes a good guy. Just one emotion. See?"
Me: "So ... BAD WRITING. What you're looking for is BAD WRITING."
Disney Exec: "Well, if that's what you call bad writing -- yes."

If you take away one thing, from this section -- just because you get paid, doesn't mean you're for sale.

Next week: Rules 3 & 4 ...


1031 said...

Paul Jenkins once asked me why I wanted to write. We were sitting at the bar in Chicago one evening, after the comic book convention, and I had offered to buy him a beer.

I answered that I wrote for myself, and he smiled, with a twinkle in his eye, in a very British manner, and I was under the impression that I had given the wrong answer.

Now, this may be because we were discussing comic books, and given the enormous fanbase of these iconic Marvel and DC characters, I can understand where my answer may have been slightly incorrect.

When dealing with such beloved figures, you do have an obligation to the fans, do you not? To stay true to the basic values of these creations. Batman doesn't kill, for example.

However, if you write only for the fans, for others, you've distanced yourself from the story. You need to write for yourself, as you did with Mage. You need to connect to the characters in such a way as to make their trials personal for you. Otherwise, you end up writing impersonal, pointless crap.

It can't be for money, and it can't be for others (at least, not initially). You have to write for yourself, because if you're not interested in what you're writing, no one else will be either.

Great story about the Disney guy, too. He probably became a vice president with that train of thought.

Anonymous said...

Batman kills, by the way.

In weekly pulp mags, the Comics Code restricted what people could do, to avoid damaging sensitive young readers. However, the Comics Code now just lives on in habit in comic books, and in graphic novels, is usually ignored. Check out the Dark Night Returns, which is one of the key things that brought back Batman from obscurity (and perhaps the main factor in the character being picked up for a movie treatment) for examples of Batman killing.

Otherwise, well said.

Benari said...

Your running commentary on the basics of writing is fantastic, man.

And, having read a draft of your MAGE script, let me tell you that you really nailed the characters and the essence of the comics. It was a great script - I hope some day we get to see it on the big screen.

Thanks for the insight.

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Markie Brainard said...

Here I am doing my views if they did "Mage" under my screen writing and here what would happen between Issues #8 and #9. Sean Knight manages to take over an indoor aquatic center where Edsel would spend the date in a "romantic" spot underwater with Kevin. This is PG rated & both have there swimwear on during the session & Kevin shows no fear of heights when he's on the diving platform with Edsel in a white swimwear. However looking at them at the underwater observation view is The Fisher King & driver. Then we have Kevin & Edsel in a vacant ballroom dressed in there street clothes doing a dance to "The Last Date" by Floyd Creamer. Edsel is business during these sessions & it's for various reasons. 1) The indoor aquatic center is off limits to Emil & his brothers.; 2) To see The Fisher King being there; 3) To reveal Edsel's status as The Lady of The Lake; 4) Another good reason why Kevin had to accept The Excalibur Bat.; 5) The biggest reason is this: In the final issue, Piet Gracklflint & The Faerie Mistress will try to ambush Kevin on the stairwell & The Faerie Mistress will try as Edsel to put the make on Kevin & it fails because Edsel makes out underwater & not in the stairwell. Edsel was business even when she did her dates with Kevin. So that's it for now.

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