Thursday, December 24, 2009

RERUNS: ADAPTATION pt. 3

(Hiatus Reruns until the New Year. Merry Christmas!! This article was originally published on this blog in 2005)

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?
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: 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)

22 comments:

heronymus-waat said...

So, since you've got a gift for picking breakout actors, who's your Next Big Thing? Male, Female, or both...

Rogers said...

Not gift, curse.

jfs said...

Like Cassandra? You pick out the next big thing, but your curse is that no-one will listen?

Could be worse. If anyone turns up at the door to your house with a huge wooden horse, pretend you're not in.

CanadianSarah said...

YES!!!

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.


This...this is absolutely perfection! I am in the midst of writing the second novel in a series and I have a character like this and YES! No one understands when I go off about these things...but You.Just.Nailed.It.

Wow. I love your brain and I can't wait until March when I will have to restrain myself to keep from attacking you with questions and long philosophical discussions.

Catherine said...

I can only whimper at the thought that there's a Mage adaptation languishing out there somewhere at all. And much as I love Leverage and what I've seen of your work, it's not having your name attached that makes the languishing so sad, but what you've written here about the meaning of the work. You get it.

I just wish it wasn't so hard for the rest of Hollywood to get it. Hedging their bets I get, but there's so much good, powerful affecting work out there that they seem determined to dumb down and ruin, when they could instead be doing amazing things with it if someone had the guts to let the vision move in more of a straight line from writer to screen.

Casey Moore said...

So how much of the unused The Topkapi Affair script has made it into Leverage?

Winterman said...

Tell the Green Lantern story, Uncle John!

Jay said...

In that exec's defense, it was Disney. Their target demographic is 4 years old. Their ideal movie is more complicated than peek-a-boo, but not as intricate as Power Rangers. And if they did Hamlet, it would end happy.

The Minstrel Boy said...

wait.

hamlet.

it didn't end happy?

Sean said...

@Jay: damnit, you just upset the youngins...

@The Minstrel Boy: Of course it did, the bad man's just lying to you. Rosencratz and Guildenstern end up living on a big farm with plenty of room to run, play, and be adapted into other plays by writers generations after Shakespeare. Now drink your milk and go back to sleep.

Sean said...

@Jay: I almost forgot, they did remake Hamlet with a happy ending. It was the Lion King, if you look closely at the characters it's an adaptation starring animals with a happy ending. You've got the two goofy friends, the traitorous uncle, etc.

I'm fairly sure it was darker originally considering Thomas M Disch wrote the original treatment.

Jamie said...

Kin Jee told me about this blog. I'm really enjoying it. More war stories!!

Jamie

Richard Jensen said...

The Minstrel Boy:
"wait.

hamlet.

it didn't end happy"

Yeah, for Fortinbras.

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