In teaching a virtual seminar for the Muse Online Writers’ Conference about “Writing the Short Screenplay from Concept to ‘Fade Out,’” I’ve read the following comment in online forums: “I wrote this as a short story/novel, but I think it would be better as a screenplay.”
I’ll talk about adaptations of books to movies in another blog post. Everyone out there has an opinion of books on film. Sometimes the movie actually improves on the book, or at least offers a true translation–by that I mean it keeps to the essence of the book without reproducing it word for word (the “Harry Potter” films, especially the last one, “Order of the Phoenix, accomplished this magic.)
What about the reverse—the novelization of a screenplay? It’s a growing business. “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry himself wrote the novelization (with curious academic-like footnotes) of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” from 1979, the one every critic has panned. Studios hire writers to novelize popular movies such as the “Batman” franchise. Then there are all those kids’ adaptations of kids’ movies such as “The Incredibles,” “Cars,” “Underdog” and ”Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” the movie that launched the new animated series on Cartoon Network.
It’s difficult enough to transmute a publicly beloved property into fiction. For a ghostwriter, the pay may be great and the challenge satisfying, especially if you happen to be a fan of the franchise, because after all, the characters are the stars. Nobody cares who transcribes the words of Anakin Skywalker (or his feisty female apprentice Ahsoka Tano), Lightning McQueen or Captain Kirk.
However, when the script in question is personal, when a ghostwriting client hopes to have both a book and movie based on characters he or she has created, the challenge is greater, and in many respects even more rewarding despite the long hours at the computer.
David Leonhardt made the announcement last week about our client Alan Truax’s novel Mercedes being published. Alan has been a delight to work with. I rarely meet ghostwriting clients, but I had the privilege of dining with Alan and his wife last December. It was a wonderful evening. Alan is a remarkable man who believed in his story enough to condense a 300-page screenplay trilogy to a two-hour movie and to transform it into a novel.
As both a screenwriter and a novel writer who has adapted my own novel to a screenplay (and award-winning short story to a play), I understood the specific demands of the project. I understood that:
- Not everyone enjoys reading screenplays—especially not producers and agents. This is because they usually have a stack of scripts to read and each year 50,000 scripts are registered with the WGA (Writers’ Guild of America). I do enjoy reading screenplays.
- Screenplays have to be minimalistic. Emotion has to be conveyed through dialogue and action, unless you have voiceover. Plot is sometimes conveyed through details—a sign, a phone call, a UFO suddenly descending. In that respect, writing a screenplay teaches you how to write fiction: show, don’t tell. However, novels can have diversions, side trips, and moments that, because of tiem constraints, wouldn’t make the cut.
- There are many times when telling/painting what a character is feeling and thinking is important. Example: Carrie Bradshaw from “Sex and the City”. What would the TV show and movie be without Carrie’s voiceover columns dishing about her friends’ adventures? In a novel, you can be Carrie Bradshaw. Nicholas Sparks and J.K. Rowling convey characters’ interior emotions and thoughts—in J.K. Rowling’s case, usually all Harry Potter’s.
- A novel gives you the opportunity to explore characters beyond the confines of a movie frame. In the case of MERCEDES, we could explore the thoughts and motives of some unsympathetic characters such as the title heroine’s first husband Dirk or another character named Helga, a Nazi supporter in 1930s Germany. We could add chapters and scenes in a point of view other than the heroine’s. A screenplay is told chiefly through the protagonist’s POV. By that I mean everything revolves around the protagonist. The screenplay is about the main character wanting something and achieving or failing to achieve it. The antagonist (not necessarily a villain) or group of antagonists (in Mercedes’ case, her ex-husband and the Nazis) acts against the protagonist, but is not the star of the story—even though the antagonist must be compelling, such as the shark in “Jaws” or Major Strasser in “Casablanca” (although you could argue Rick Blaine is his own antagonist), or even, in a comedic sense, Robert De Niro in “Meet the Parents”. Robert De Niro, as the father of the woman Ben Stiller loves, is the antagonist who threatens to keep them apart. In a novel, you can explore other POVs. Fantasy epics such as the Wheel of Time series by the late Robert Jordan excel at this.
- A novel allows you to “connect the dots” and talk about what a screenplay doesn’t express—within reason. After all, “Chinatown” says plenty when Jake Gittes confronts Evelyn Mulwray and produces the explosive revelation, “She’s my sister and my daughter!” However, many people get frustrated and think, “What was he thinking? Why did she do that? They never explored this, they never explained that,” and so on. Having sat through many movies with some of my friends, these are the questions I frequently have asked and heard. We don’t need to be spoon-fed, but some movies just defy understanding. Much of that may not be the scriptwriter’s fault. The editing and directing play a huge role. The studio certainly plays a role. In a novel, you are the producer and director—even though you may have to answer to a publisher and certainly you follow the client’s wishes. In MERCEDES, we could explore the relationship between the heroine’s father and his best friend. We could get into the head of Rick Willson, the man who wants to interview Mercedes for (surprise) a screenplay, and learn why he is doing what he’s doing.
- With freedom comes challenges. For example, we decided against a passage I had written regarding one of the characters’ experiences as a driver in post-WWII London. I spent too much time on incidental background that didn’t ehance character or story. It’s easy to get sidetracked, although explorations can sometimes yield different possibilities that a ghostwriter might pose to the client. However, the client is, as always, the one who has final say.
In a future blog post I’ll talk about “Identity Crisis: Helping the Client Decide If It’s a Novel or a Screenplay”.