Interestingly, adapting fiction can cause more emotional outbursts than adapting fact. When you’re adapting a real person’s life story, you always run the chance of offending the subject, their family, their friends, and their legacy, but when adapting fiction you run the risk of offending the great malevolence itself: The Internet. A lot of people believe their favorite book was written specifically for them, and them alone, so any tampering with their book is strictly verboten.
And we all (surely) have a book we love and cherish, and are super protective of (mine is The Terrorby Dan Simmons, which was recently announced to be in development for TV at AMC). When we get the news that our favorite novel is being adapted (and that news always comes) we feel two things. One is fear that in the wrong hands our beloved book will be made into a laughing stock, possibly tainting it forever. Two is that if the adaptation is successful we’ll have to share that book with the rest of the world, specifically people who weren’t into it before it was cool, and who will suddenly be experts on it (cue nerd rage).
Ignoring my weird, bi-proxy ownership issues for a moment class, let’s remember that we’re here to talk about how to adapt fiction. The trick is to know what to adapt and what to jettison. The following examples should serve as good (and bad) ways of doing each.
First on our list, we have The Godfather. A fantastic book by Mario Puzo, that has this weird way of going off on unrelated tangents for long periods of time. For example, Sonny’s mistress (present in the movie for two scenes) has an entire sub-plot in the novel, where she travels to Las Vegas and has plastic surgery on her vagina (weird, I know). This particular narrative digression is inconsequential nonsense, and when it came time to write the script (co-written by Coppola and Puzo), I’d like to think there wasn’t even a conversation about getting rid of it. It was just never mentioned, and rightfully ignored.
Also, consider Jaws. An awful, awful novel, full to the brim with hateful characters, and so much so that when it was adapted for the screen, the writers kept the basic premise, namely that, “A shark attacks a seaside community, and three very different men must travel on a boat to kill it.” In dumping Matt Hooper’s asinine and prickish behavior from Peter Benchley’s novel (wherein he sleeps with Chief Brody’s wife), and in shortening the scenes on the Orca into one long, unbroken hunt for the film (which, in the novel, takes place over the course of three separate, nighttime journeys), the filmmakers turn Benchley’s novel into a much leaner beast, and in the process created one of the greatest movies of all time.
And for our final example (which is different from the others in that the film’s writers knew they had gold already, and just got out of the book’s way, and put it all on the big screen). No Country for Old Men is representative of the perfect symbiosis between filmmakers and author. In this film, The Coen Brothers pretty much go page-for-page with the book (and having read Cormac McCarthy’s novel afterwards, I can say from firsthand experience that it’s like reading an incredibly detailed screenplay, the movie and the book rarely diverging from one another in terms of plot, theme, and tone).
It seems like easy advice, but the best way to adapt fiction is to know what’s good and what’s bad, what can be filmed and what can’t, and the trick to each is that sometimes you have to ignore the Internet (which is a pretty tough trick to master).
Next time, we’re going to finish out the adaptation trilogy with a tiny little genre that barely gets any attention these days: Comic Book Adaptations (just kidding, of course).
Featured Image: No Country for Old Men, Miramax Films/Paramount Vintage