The Rules of Adaptation
(originally published on this blog in 2005)
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 (EDIT: eight, now) 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, engage it in its medium. Don't just curse the abridged plots, or the missed characters. If you're a Spec Monkey, ask yourself why that choice was made. How you would have done it differently. Maybe you'll see why it had to be that way, or at least why that was the choice that made the most sense. Or, if you made a different choice, earlier, how you would have developed the movie out along different lines. 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. Produced scripts are like old chess games, in that they are theory forced inexorably to a conclusion within a specific physical framework. A fan is allowed the luxury of a raw emotional response. Your job is to pull it apart.
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.