Archive for Adaptation

Have a great idea for a screenplay? Congratulations! You are one step closer to having a great screenplay…but only one step. No less an authority than George RR Martin, author of the saga, A Song of Ice and Fire, which includes Game of Thrones, testified to this in a recent interview in Rolling Stone magazine:

“Ideas are cheap. I have more ideas now than I could ever write up. To my mind, it’s the execution that is all-important.”

He also downplays the importance of having a totally new idea:

“I’m proud of my work, but I don’t know if I’d ever claim it’s enormously original. You look at Shakespeare, who borrowed all of his plots. In A Song of Ice and Fire, I take stuff from the Wars of the Roses and other fantasy things, and all these things work around in my head and somehow they jell into what I hope is uniquely my own.”

Martin suggests that history is a great starting point:

“History is written in blood, a gold mine – the kings, the princes, the generals and the whores, and all the betrayals and wars and confidences. It’s better than 90 percent of what the fantasists do make up.”

Perhaps the moral is to steal your ideas wisely and apply your creativity not only to the story but how you tell it. One final encouraging word note from Martin:

“The big secret about writing screenplays and teleplays is that it’s much easier than writing a novel or any kind of prose.

Of course even if he’s right, that doesn’t mean writing screenplays is easy…

For more about this fascinating writer, here’s a twenty-one minute interview:

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There’s a good interview on with Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the two guys who wrote the Captain America screenplay, as well as the three Chronicles of Narnia films.

They give eight tips for writing a superhero screenplay. There are two that stand out and that I think apply to some other genres as well:

  • When you’re writing a superhero movie, don’t write a superhero movie. Markus explains: “Write a movie, and in a movie you are beholden to that guy in the first scene and you have to take him through it, and he can’t just turn super and then just lose his personality traits and be awesome for the rest of the movie. It’s got to be, to use the dreaded word, an arc.”
  • Treat the fantastic realistically. Markus, again: “Those obstacles — going from 98 lbs. to 200 — treat those incidents as if they actually have an effect on his head. ‘What would it be like for me to go from 98 lbs. to 200 lbs.? What would it be like to go from no woman in the world looking at me to many women looking at me?’ What does that do? We don’t take the audience for granted. We don’t think because it’s a superhero movie we can give characters short shrift at all.”

I haven’t seen Captain America so I can’t comment on how well they’ve achieved these two points but they’re both worth consideration. I had a recent experience with the second point. In a horror/comedy film I’m writing, my protagonist’s best friend is badly injured and it looks like he may not make it. When I read my first draft I realized that in my haste to get on with the plot I hadn’t paid enough attention to the huge impact this would have emotionally on my main character.

You can read the rest of their tips here.

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If there’s a novel you love, odds are you won’t like the film as well; if you see an adapted film first and really like it, odds are you won’t like the source novel as much. However there’s a lot to be learned by studying the process.

The key is in noticing what changes the screenwriters made and figuring out why they made them. Richard LaGravenese gives an example in an interview he did for the Hartford Courant. He and director Francis Lawrence loved the world of the 1931 circus in Water for Elephants. The article, by Susan Dunne, says:

That was the reason, LaGravenese says, that he removed most of the book’s segments set in the present day, in a nursing home where the hero, Jake Jankowski, lives unhappily.

“We wanted to stay in that [1931] world and in those characters,” he said. “Besides, a story of the elderly set in a home, I’ve had personal experience with that, and you could do an entire movie just with that.”

Fans of Gruen’s book also will notice that LaGravenese also eliminated a major character, Uncle Al, the owner of the circus.

“My first drafts had Al in them, but we ended up combining the characters,” he said. “The reason we did that was that the movie was going to center primarily on the love story.

“The book was divided into three acts, and in the third act, August [the ringmaster] dissipated a little because the stakes of the circus’ future were not on his shoulders but on Al’s,” he said. “Combining the two keeps the dramatic stakes high on his character and the story.”

Combining elements from a novel to give the screenplay a tighter focus is a common feature of adaptations. Of course sometimes that makes a film seem oversimplified, but you can learn as much from adaptations that go wrong (e.g., most film versions of Elmore Leonard’s crime novels) as from those that work well.

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