The Art of Adaptation

An adaptation written by Charlie Kaufman and his fictitious twin brother Donald Kaufman.

Ever tried to write an adaptation of a novel? Ever wanted to? Hollywood loves a good adaptation. Just look at the history of cinema and you’ll see thousands upon thousands of great movies that were adaptations. They even made a movie called Adaptation, written by Charlie Kaufman and his fictitious brother Donald Kaufman. It starred Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, and Chris Cooper. Good flick. Cooper won an Academy Award for best supporting actor and the Kaufman brothers were nominated for best adaptation. Weird.  Some of your favorite movies were adaptations and I bet you don’t even realize it. Go ahead and look. I’ll wait.

Yeah! Amazing, right?

There are a couple of reasons as to why Hollywood likes a good adaptation. The most obvious is that the story is already there, ready for the taking. If it is an already published book, then it has a ready made audience and, most importantly, a proven market. I know some of you are shaking your heads thinking, But Hollywood ruins books! Really? Go back to one of your favorite movies again. You know the one that was an adaptation. Or, let me bring to your attention one of the greatest adaptations in the history of cinema – The Godfather. If you haven’t read the book, allow me to fill you in on a little something. The film is waaaaay better than the novel. The book is good, but the film… fugetaboutit.

Another reason that Hollywood loves an adaptation is that the hard work is done. I’m talking about character development, plot points, scenes, and the ending. Admittedly,  endings are usually changed, but at least they are there to change, doggone it! All a screenwriter has to do is take a 500 or so paged novel and break it down to cinematic gold and 120 pages. That’s all? Fugetaboutit.

Ah, yes, but what does it mean to mine gold from a novel in the form of an adaptation? It means being open to anything. It means that there is a blueprint, but feel free to add a balcony or two on the house. It means that a screenwriter is basically starting from scratch. Why? Because a book and a screenplay are two completely different forms of art. How do I know? Simple. I wrote a book then I wrote the screenplay adaptation of the book.

In March of this year, I published my first novella, There Is A Season. It was a monumental occasion… for me, not you. I had the idea for the book in the summer of 2011. I’ve always wanted to write a book, but had spent all of my time working on screenplays and other writings. I was a screenwriter. I still am, actually. Only now I write books, too. Anyway, I sat down and began writing in October 2011.

There Is A Season is a novella, meaning it’s too short to be a novel and too long to be a short story. It makes sense, as I come from a screenwriting background. When writing a screenplay you have to get as much across in as little space as possible. It’s a hard habit to break, but one that served me well… I think. Aside from a few typos, the book was well received by readers. Well, there was one lady who told me it wasn’t really her kind of story. She’s missing now.

I learned a lot about writing during the There Is A Season time of my life. One, I really enjoy writing prose; two, I really hate editing. Editing 50,000 words is a bummer and much different than editing 20,000 words (typical word count of a screenplay). The third thing that I learned was that I would want to make this into a movie. Not sell the film rights, but adapt the novella, raise the funds, produce, and direct it. All movies start with a script, so I started the adaptation process.

The first thing that I did was read There Is A Season. But, why, Gary? You wrote it! Because I needed to see what moved me as a reader, not as a writer. During the writing of the book, I loved certain parts, but not because they were moving scenes. I loved them because they were so hard to get to. They were eureka moments after hours of struggling at my computer. They were “now what” moments answered with “this is what” moments. It was very exciting. There were times that I actually jumped up and down, hooting and hollering during the writing of the book. I’m serious. I lost my mind; a good portion of it and I didn’t have much to spare at the start.

After reading the book, I still liked it. Bonus! Also, I had a way to open the script and, surprisingly, it was not how the book opens. I also had visual cues for scene transitions. I had an idea for a musical score, too. But, here’s the kicker. I had a different ending! Can you believe it? My own book! Change the ending? Are you nuts? Do you know how long I struggled with that ending while writing the book? I rewrote it at least a dozen times. Sacrilegious, I tell ya! Literary blasphemy! You see! Hollywood ruins literature! You see!

I’m sorry, but the book’s ending just wouldn’t do. It didn’t work for film. It ends when it ends and that’s that. Just like the book ended when it ended. Everything eventually ends. It is the writer’s job to pick an ending. And for an author and a screenwriter, it is very different. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it is the decision. There is some truth to being a slave to the story. A writer serves the story and he should serve it well. Sure, a writer plays God while writing it, but even God understands the importance of servanthood. Besides, it’s my world that I created. I can do whatever I want with it, so get off my back!

I wrote the first draft in two weeks. It reads well, but needs some tweaks. The second draft will be done shortly. Mainly, I’ll work on scene transitions and dialogue. The idea is to tighten up the story. The book is loose. It is, because it’s a book. There’s time to expound, reflect, paint, and set up. As I said, a script must deal with the nitty-gritty. Get in and get out. Say what you need to say and be done with it! I think I’ve done that. Some scenes have changed; some have been removed entirely. Subplots have been removed, too. The book has a couple. The script only has one.

Since I have decided that I will produce, as well as direct this film, the next thing that I will do after completing the final draft will be to break down the script. I’ll get more into that once I’ve started, but basically, you break down a script in order to figure out the cost of the film. It is my desire to keep the cost under $1 million. I don’t think it will be a problem. After the breakdown and the budget is set, I will then go out to find investors. I’ve worked as a producer for several years in addition to writing, so I have a pretty good head for the business. Again, I’ll get more into it once I started.

All in all, the adaptation process has been both satisfying and surprising. The biggest lesson in adapting a story is not to be married to the story. I would have thought that being the author, in addition to the screenwriter, I would have had a problem with that lesson. However, I did not. The art of adaptation is just that – it’s an art. And being artists, writers should have no problem in adapting.  I’m very proud of the screenplay. I’m just as proud of it as I was of the book. This is a monumental occasion… for me, not you.

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