Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Writing: Adaptation (Pt. 5)

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


Rule 5: "This property already has millions of devoted fans!"
Rule 6: "... who HATE you."

I ruined it. I ruined it. I made all the wrong choices. That's not how the hero talks, that's the wrong part of the second book, who even cares about that character --

The point is, as we've discussed (in parts 1, 2, 3 and 4), that the sheer mechanics of Hollywood demand an enormous number of ideas, both original and adapted. The adapted properties come with some spiffy things -- ordinarily well-developed second acts, and a fan base which aids in its marketing -- and with some downfalls. Specifically, the fact that the movie already exists.

It exists in the fans' heads. That version cannot be beat. Except by Peter Jackson, but he plainly cut some sort of deal with the cinematic version of the Librarian from Gaiman's The Sandman, punched a hole into Moorcock's idea space and dragged forth each individual fan's fantasy, whereupon he burned the images onto film made from the souls of children who died because they hoped too much. So, exception that proves the rule, yada yada.

When doing an adaptation you have to settle for the fact that unless you really, really cross the strange attractor, you're going to be producing a reflection of the original material. It's even tougher if it's a property you actually love (as it should be). No, the best version is the special In-Skull Director's Cut, which clocks in at four hours and ... well, whatever the time is during red lights on the commute to work. However, what this version lacks is what makes art (and I'm hacking about above my pay grade, but coast with me for a moment) -- choice. Art is choice.

Maybe not for you, but for me. That's what a screenplay is, my friends, one gruelling choice after another, each image, each character fighting for the tiny bit of acreage on that precious whitespace. One of my favorite moments in film is in Wonder Boys, when Katie Holmes --

-- damn you Cruise, damn you monster will you LEAVE NOTHING CLEAN --

-- sorry, when Katie Holmes realizes that Michael Douglas' long awaited opus is a failure because he just couldn't make the choices necessary to elevate his scribblings from clever notes to a novel.

I recently faced this in a rewrite of a script DJ and I wrote three years ago. It's our damn story. We were getting to go back and rip out all the shitty Paramount notes. It should have been a long weekend at best.

But I knew this version will probably go out essentially unchanged to the studios. I knew each choice I made would be, in essence, final as far as my piece of art goes. And so I barely dragged myself through it, agonizing over each scene. Kicked my ass.

So when looking at an adaptation, do us (and yourself) a favor and engage it in its medium. Don't just curse the abridged plots, or the missed characters. Ask yourself why that choice was made. How you would have done it differently. Maybe that examination will lead you through the writer's process, (like studying old chess games) to a greater understanding of perhaps why it had to be that way, or at least why that was the choice that made the most sense. At the worst it'll add another wrench in your toolbox, knowing how to recognize a mistake. At best, you've advanced your understanding of your chosen field.

That's all I can contribute constructively to this topic. Hope you found it useful. As always, feel free to throw a question into the inbox. I'm never short hot air.

20 comments:

That Girl said...

If it makes you feel any better, Ive never blamed the writer for a crappy adaptation. I am a huge fan of the written word and very critical. There are few adaptations that I have felt even came close to the book. But I have never thought to blame the writer. I will consider your words however and possibly cancel the hit on Robert Goldsborough.

Jacob said...

I'm doing an adaptation now and I'm about 3 pages away from being done. The only problem is, I've been 3 pages away from being done for about a week. I hadn't really put my finger on it, but you're right--what's holding me back is that as soon as I finish, I've got to send it off to the producer and the director, and all those tentative choices I've made in writing it suddenly become THE choices. I've already lined up all those unnecessary scenes and characters against the wall and pointed a gun at them--but I hate the thought of actually pulling the trigger. I love the book I'm adapting, and it would probably be easier if I didn't--but of course, if I didn't, I wouldn't have wanted to spend all this time swimming around in it.

Davis said...

Yeah, where the hell is CARRIER anyway?

DJ said...

Yeah!!

Davis I am with you.... were the hell is Carrier. What is even scarier is that a person I have never met is more pissed off than me, about a movie I co-wrote.

More significantly, Rogers, was the last rewrite in blue ink or yellow ink.... believe me this is more important than us mere mortals think.

On a more important level had a drinky with Alex Epstein last night and there is no need for us to turn him to the “Dark side” ‘cause he’s already there. We had terrible service from the prerequisite beautiful “Hurley’s “ waitress and he still tipped her way too much. I like the cut of his jib. And he pointed out that the waitress was wearing a true “Catty Sark” and he knows how talented Mark Farrell is. If it wasn’t for the fact that he owns a bike helmet and uses it to actually bike…it would have been a perfect evening…. also Liam says Hi!

Ian said...

Well, I've seen adaptations where my response was that the writer(s) didn't make the choices I necessarily would have made but it turned out well anyways (HHGTTG was one of those for me), but there have been adaptations where no matter how much I've engaged in the medium as much as possible and the fact remains either the script or the execution of the script did so much unecessary violence to the original story that you have to wonder why they kept the property (Troy, LXG, Daredevil).

I mean, even when fans don't obsess over shit that doesn't really matter (Peter Parker doesn't have artificial web shooters? OH NOES!), there are still some really poor adaptations out there.

Rogers said...

Of course,plenty of shit adaptations. But even in the shit, it's worth asking "What reasonable choice led to this unreasonable shit?" Where did the slope become a landslide? No one ever sets OUT to make a bad movie. I didn't start my two years on CATWOMAN with "Wow, this is going to be a great two years of me trying to save this franchise, arguing with executives, then the movie gets shot by a mad Frenchman who doesn't use a line of my script, and I'll still get my name on it!" -- so how did these changes spin out of control?

1031 said...

Don't suppose we can get a peek at that Catwoman script of yours, the real one, not the crap they put up on the screen?

And ditto on Wonder Boys. Great movie, great scene. It's a really good book, too.

Did you purposefully use a film that was an adaptation of a novel for this particular example? Or was that just coincidence?

Rogers said...

Heh. Total coincidence.

josh friedman said...

As the uncredited writer of HHGTTG, I can unfortunately speak to the lose-lose potential of adaptations...when I first met Douglas Adams I told him he was an idol of mine and how sad it was that he would hate me a year from now. As it turned out, I never took the script far enough away from what he had done to engender hatred from Douglas, but I did get it from fans of the novel when one of my drafts leaked online. They tore me to shreds--never knowing that much of what was new (and loathed by them) was actually elements Douglas had introduced in earlier drafts...
josh friedman

SDM said...

There was a comment made, in regards to HHGTTG, where the studio was pretty blunt. "We're not going to make a $90 cult movie." What the fans often forget is, the studio isn't picking up a property out of the goodness of their heart, just to make a comparatively small fan base happy. They've got to make it appeal to a broader audience, and that requires some changes.

I've played with the idea of how certain properties might be adapted for film, and the funny thing is, almost every time, despite being a fan, the die hards hated my ideas, mainly because a favorite character was excluded or a plot element was changed. Yet the casually familiar(or people who didn't know it) loved it. Then again, none of this was done "for real," more just an exercise in writing, so it would be interesting to see where it might go.

Anonymous said...

"I didn't start my two years on CATWOMAN with "Wow, this is going to be a great two years of me trying to save this franchise, arguing with executives, then the movie gets shot by a mad Frenchman who doesn't use a line of my script, and I'll still get my name on it!" -- so how did these changes spin out of control?"

Well, John - how did they? In my realm of moviemaking 99% of the changes we make can be attributed to money: "Not enough time to do this right -or- not enough in the budget. Change it." On occaision we get an asshole/druggie/knowitall, but then we remind them who's writing the fuckin' check. I've dealt with people who had coke problems, insecurities, etc...by telling them to simply do their fucking job. We try and work around the production's weaknesses and turn them into strengths.

BUT in the case of CATWOMAN you had a property with a built in audience, the money (oh god, the money), and really talented people involved (you're welcome). So what was it? Did those involved try and reinvent the wheel with this one? (this was my thought watching the movie) If so, then why?

Was the production hamstrung by dictates from the studio about what the movie "couldn't be?"

Did the actors have too much "fuck you" money in their pockets so they thought they could do what they wanted?

You mention the director not following the script - How the fuck could the experienced Denise DiNovi, who arguably has earned one big set of brass ovaries, allow that to happen?

I'm NOT trying to be hostile. Rest assured of that. I'm trying to learn, to understand. I read what you write about the studio system sometimes and I really begin to believe we are on two separate planets...

In this series you write about choice - so WHEN did everyone (well maybe not everyone) make the choice to NOT serve the material?

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