Friday, March 04, 2005

Writing: Adaptation (Pt. 4)

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

Rule 3: "Respect the source material."
Rule 4: "Don't be afraid to screw with the source material."

Even a short novel clicks in at 300 pages. A script is around 120, with lots of blank lines. Only so many people in so many locations can be paraded on the screen in two-odd hours. When a character shows up, the screenwriter can't just lay down a couple pages of backstory like the novelist can -- they have to establish character through action and dialogue. Every page spent on one plot point is a page that comes out of another. When a writer's very good, all that seems effortless. But trust me, it's all whirring away under the surface, waiting to blow a gasket.

A while ago I had a run at adapting Asimov's Foundation Trilogy. Yes, yes I am unworthy, file your complaints at the door. Anyway, fifteen hundred pages of 1950's sci fi. Stunningly cerebral and emotionally wrenching at the same time. I starter writing, well, more like transcribing like an old monastery illuminationist. Scenes transposed untouched. Whole speeches lifted ver. Just transferring the geniuis from one medium to the next.

One character, Bayta, is crucial to the arc of the second book. Her virtue inspires certain people people to fall in love with her, to change, and the fallout from this changes the course of humanity's future over a millenium. Bayta is the center of the movie.

And Bayta is, essentially, a space housewife.

Foundation and Empire was written in 1952. Oh, Bayta is a very liberated space housewife, to be sure. She worked outside the home. For 1952, Asimov was writing some pretty progressive stuff. It wasn't Mary Tyler Moore dancing in her Capri pants for Rob's drunken voyeuristic friends (what was up with that?) but it was progressive. For 1952. Yet if I transposed this character literally, I'd be making Asimov's very relevant work reek of obsolescence.

Ok, then, think. Foundation is made up of scientists. Good, let's try her as a scientist. She has a stake now, an intellect, a voice. She's not a spectator, she has an agenda with Foundation and its plans. She has personal goals LINKED to story goals. There's now a reason she seeks out Foundation's enemies -- or Enemy, if you know the book. Heresy? Maybe. Better film-making? Hell yeah. My job's to write the movie, not Xerox (tm) the book.

However, the important thing isn't to gut the source for ego's sake. I've read those scripts, where a writer's peed all over a story to make it his. That's not adaptation, that's bullying. It's usually done by someone who never solved the "why do I love this story" question we addressed earlier.

What's odd is that the one group of authors who can complain about changes to their books -- the living ones -- have never had a problem with what I've done. There I am, wincing in anticipation when the draft goes in, and what comes back is joy. Matt Wagner loved the new character in Mage. Lee Child was incredibly gracious about my adaptation of Killing Floor. Greg Rucka dug Tara's new relationship with a character who'd been a one-page cameo in the book. I had to rewrite the entire ending to Matt Reilly's Ice Station, and he was not only fine with it, he pitched out some possibilities. Hell, unless Warren Ellis lies like James Earl Ray, even he liked the Global Frequency pilot screenplay. A book' s a static thing, for better or worse. When writers get a chance to breathe some more life into the work, they tend to enjoy it. They understand that writing is all about choices. Different choices allow them to see the work that might-have-been.

(This is not always true, of course. Alan Moore hates the movie adaptations of his work. He also hates, well, all of us. Yes, you too. No, I don't know why. Just be afraid.)

That concept of choice leads us to the last two big rules in the art of adaptation ...


Pete Sears said...

I think Ellis hit it exactly on the head when he said about Moore's adaptations that Warners brothers has a positive gift when it comes to finding the hook of Moore's comic work, and then discarding that hook in favor of other stuff.

League of Extraordinary gentlemen?
From Hell?

Yeah. i think that's about right.

David Anaxagoras said...

Maybe you are unworthy to touch Foundation, but I wish you had gotten to I, Robot first.

Rasmus said...

Moore doesn't hate us. Just like the rest of us, he hates bad movies.

Crow T Autobot said...

This is the first I've read that Moore didn't like the film adaptations of his work. Most places mention that he's apathetic about most of it. I think he earned the right to be angry though.

On a side note, be careful what you write John, you may be sent to jail if there is a school in one of your scripts:

This just pisses me off.

J. said...

Did you know that there was a screenplay written for I, Robot? Harlan Ellison was trying desperately to get it sold in a movie house but was unable to sell it right. Finally he bought the rights and had it published as a book. I read it every now and then and weep, that this didn't get to the silver screen and that abomination with Will Smith did.

Anonymous said...

Technically, John Constantine ws created by Alan moore but the comic, in my opinion, should be crdited more to Jamie Delano while the film drew more from Delano and Garth Ennis loosely.

I never understood why a studio would buy the rights to an obscure comic book only to turn it into a bad movie. Why not make original material? Or are they scared after Morrison sued over The Matrix?

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Gary Farber said...

"Foundation and Empire was written in 1952."

You're confused by the publication date. The Gnome Press and subsequent editions were fix-ups of the famous stories originally published in _Astounding Science Fiction_, as bought by John W. Campbell, and written not in the Fifties, but in the Forties: "Foundation" (May 1942), "Bridle and Saddle" (June 1942), "The Big and the Little" (August 1944), "The Wedge" (October 1944), "Dead Hand" (April 1945), "The Mule" (November-December 1945), "Now You See It--" (January 1948), and "--And Now You Don't" (November 1949-January 1950).

You might want to clean out your comment spam. :-)

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