The Rules of Adaptation
(originaly published 2005, edited and cleaned up)
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. Because, trust me, when the script goes in, I'm sitting there wincing, waiting for the original author's feedback. 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. He can smell you.)
That concept of choice leads us to the last two big rules in the art of adaptation ...