Archive for Adaptation

There’s a good interview on movieline.com 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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