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.
(EDIT: in the four years since this article was written, add six more movies, including the adaptations of Transformers, Shibumi, the unshot sequel to Thomas Crown, the adaptation of Adieu L'ami I was going to direct, and the YA novel adaptation I'm working on now. So between rewrites, development docs, etc, add another 500-700 pages of just adaptations.)
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 there on 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 commitment 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?
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: Rules 3 & 4 ...
(EDIT: And again, the benefit of hindsight. I distinctly remember the meeting where someone said "Heath Ledger as Kevin and Paul Bettany as Mirth? Nobody knows who those guys are ..." Although if I remember correctly, there was a strong Joaquin Phoenix faction in there, too)