OSC answers questions about achieving a successful film based on a book.
Submitted by Jon Madsen - BYU Journalism Student and Movie Enthusiast
How is the movie [Ender's Game] coming? If you still are planning on making it, what's the current holdup?
We are near the conclusion of a deal with a major studio, with an A-list director attached. The delay was that the book terrifies studios: A child lead, no roles for stars, very expensive without following standard blockbuster-movie "rules." But with the right director, they see it differently . Also, the studio we're dealing with is more creator-friendly than most, and, frankly, a little less terrified of something new.
In your opinion, what works well in making a movie based upon a book?
The most important aspect is that the book have a story that works as a movie. This seems obvious or absurd, depending on how much you know about film and print. Some people think that if you just find the right way to do it, ANY book can be filmed, but this is not so. A book that has a story spread across many generations, for instance, rarely works as a feature; nor does a book in which all the "action" consists of internal reality changes in a character, or long conversations with no visual action.
This applies even to films that are not trying to be "action" films. Something has to happen that is visually interesting and that does not require lengthy explanation. So even "intellectual" films, if they are to succeed, need to have a powerful visual component. ("Dialogue" movies can work, but only in the context of either comedy, in which case they are almost never adapted from novels, or dramas in which the dialogue is SO powerful that it becomes action - this is very rare. And even these movies still have to have something happening on the screen.)
There is also the matter of length. Gone With the Wind, for instance, was far, far too long to film, as was Dune. With GWTW, the writer opted for major compressions and deletions - Scarlett's first two children, for instance, were gone before one scene was shot. Lynch's Dune chose to present the all-climax version of the book - hitting all the high points without any kind of preparation, which of course made them laughable or confusing. It's a very hard thing to do, and some stories simply are not cuttable.
Already, I receive outraged mail from readers of Ender's Game, horrified that I could leave out this or that "vital scene." Yet I can't compress time. If I include the Stilson sequence, that chews up at least five minutes of screen time - minutes that I will need later. So the adapter has to be quite ruthless: Does this advance the story? If you don't have this, will the story still make sense and have emotional impact and be believable? If the story works without it, then it's gone. Because, of course, the movie does not ERASE the book. People can still read Gone With the Wind and Dune, and they will still be able to read Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow. Therefore I have no obligation to film every scene or sequence from the book. Rather I have the duty to MAKE A GOOD MOVIE, using such aspects of the original story as are conducive to that end.
What sacrifices and/or additions should probably be made in pursuing book-to-movie ventures?
The first sacrifice the novelist has to keep in mind is this: You can either take the money and run, in which case (a) it better be a lot of money and (b) don't go see the film. Or you have to hold out until you get the written, ironclad assurances from the producer and/or studio that the elements you regard as key to the story will remain intact. The latter course means that you have to turn down many, many offers, and resign yourself to the possibility that the film will never be made.
The consolation in all this is: There isn't that much money in it for the writer anyway. People in Hollywood are always stunned to learn that I already make far more from each of my books than I have ever been offered for the film rights. But you see, while Hollywood pays actors and directors extravagantly - far more than they are worth, frankly, to the success of the film - they pay writers very, very badly, especially in comparison to what THEY are worth. It's true that no one buys a ticket because AUTHOR X wrote the screenply, but it is also true that if the screenplay is lousy, the movie will be lousy, and even with STAR A in the lead, people will tell their friends the movie sucks and it will quickly die. How many movies starring "bankable" stars have tanked? How many movies with no stars, but a brilliant script, have gone on to be word-of-mouth successes, even classics? One thinks of Fast Times at Ridgemont High or The Breakfast Club - both intended to be low-budget teen flicks, and both turning out as the launching platforms for many, many careers.
But the only power the writer has is the power to say no. As a novelist, you have to be content with the money that comes from your books and stories, and regard Hollywood, not as the financial solution to your woes, but as a monster that wants to eat your children if it can. If you can tame the monster, then you can let it do a little babysitting. But until it's tame, keep it out of the house.
Above all, do NOT insist on writing the screenplay unless you have some idea of what a screenplay is. I was a playwright and had done many adaptations between forms, so I was better prepared than most novelists - but even then, there are myths you have to dispel and old habits you have to get rid of in order to think like a screenwriter and shape a movie. It helps to get some practice films behind you (for instance, I wrote and directed a twelve-minute comedy just to see how scenes flow and how much dialogue a film can sustain - the answer being, it can sustain a LOT more than the standard Hollywood myths would have you believe).
While I'm doing the screenplay for Ender's Game/Ender's Shadow, I am not even interested in writing the screenplay for Lost Boys. The novel is just too close to me. With this one, I'm insisting on only one provision: That they either depict the characters as NOT Mormon, or I have control over how Mormons are depicted. This is because non-Mormons always get Mormons wrong, and I hate that. So I'd rather see the Mormonness of the book disappear in the movie than see them portray Mormons in an error-ridden way. After all, the book will still be there.
Do you have any favorite films in this category that have especially pulled off the balance between literary faithfulness and film streamlining?
I don't regard "literary faithfulness" as a goal. Some books can be lifted scene for scene and put on the screen, so they're "faithful" because there's no reason for them not to be. (Rosemary's Baby and Love Story, however, began as screenplays, so the adaptation went the other direction.) Most people misunderstand what "faithfulness" is, anyway. The Olivier version of "Pride and Prejudice" elides reams of fascinating material and completely changes the character of Lady What'sHerName - but it is true to the elements I regard as essential in the story. Whereas the more recent Gwyneth Paltrow version of "Emma" was vile. While keeping the key scenes, both director and actress completely misunderstood the character of Emma, and botched the pivotal picnic scene so hopelessly that the story did not survive.
My favorite adaptation: Rebecca. Robert Sherwood et al. did a brilliant job of adapting Du Maurier's best novel. Man for All Seasons WOULD be my favorite, but it was adapted from a stage play, which is always easier, since the material has already been selected for dramatic rather than narrative potential.