Adaptations have long been a mainstay of Hollywood and the television networks. Indeed, most Academy Award- and Emmy Award-winning films have been adaptations of novels, plays, or true-life stories. Linda Seger, author of two acclaimed books on scriptwriting, now offers a comprehensive handbook for screenwriters, producers, and directors who want to successfully transform fictional or factual material into film. Seger tells how to analyze source material to understand why some of it resists adaptation. She then ...
Adaptations have long been a mainstay of Hollywood and the television networks. Indeed, most Academy Award- and Emmy Award-winning films have been adaptations of novels, plays, or true-life stories. Linda Seger, author of two acclaimed books on scriptwriting, now offers a comprehensive handbook for screenwriters, producers, and directors who want to successfully transform fictional or factual material into film. Seger tells how to analyze source material to understand why some of it resists adaptation. She then gives practical methods for translating story, characters, themes, and style into film. A final section details essential information on how to adapt material and how to protect oneself legally.
Linda Seger has been a script consultant since 1981, working with writers, directors, producers, and companies throughout the world, including Tony Bill, William Kelley, TriStar Pictures, and the New Zealand Film Commission. She has given seminars for ABC and CBS television networks, Embassy Television, the “MacGyver” series, and for producers and writers in Rome, London, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Dr. Seger is the author of Making a Good Script Great and Creating Unforgettable Characters.
Art of Adaptation, The PART ONEWHAT'S THE PROBLEM?1WHY LITERATURE RESISTS FILMThere is something delicious about reading a good book. I have been an avid reader since the age of seven. Having begun with the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew, I moved to the richer fare of Jane Eyre and Little Women, Gone With the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird.Because of my frequent airplane trips, I have recently been reading a number of best-sellers. On my way to New Zealand I found myself stranded in Honolulu for a day because of airplane troubles, and spent the time mesmerized by Presumed Innocent. Curled up in a wicker chair at the Sheraton Hotel I read for hours, fascinated by the unfolding of the story, by the rich characters, and by what the book was telling me about obsession and marriage, politics and power. When I watched the film the story came to the forefront. I wanted to be able to follow every clue, to watch it unravel, and to clarify some of the parts of the book that I'd forgotten. When the film worked well, the story was clear and involving. At other times I was confused and bewildered, which lessened my enjoyment of it.But the experience of reading a novel is quite different from watching a film. And it's exactly this difference that fights translationinto film. When we read a novel, time is on our side. It is not just a chronological experience, where someone else determines our pacing, but a reflective experience. Rarely do we read a novel in one sitting. In fact, part of the joy of reading is going back to the book. The reading, putting it down, thinking about it, sometimes reading a page twice is part of the pleasure. It is a reveling in the language as much as reveling in the story.THE IMPORTANCE OF THEMENovels, unlike films or plays, communicate all their information through words. The words express much more than story and events, images and character--they express ideas. Occasionally you do see a novel that is purely story--usually a short novel that's not particularly known for its literary merits. All of the great novels, however, and most of the good ones, are not just telling a story but are pursuing an idea. They are about something significant, and this theme is just as important as the story line, if not more so.The best films also have strong themes, but in a film the theme serves the story. It's there to reinforce and dimensionalize the story, not to replace it. In a novel, the story often serves the theme.The book Gone With the Wind is as much about the lost South as it is about Scarlett's relationships and struggles. The theme gives depth to the story. When I watch the film, however, the story sweeps me along. The story becomes the most important and the idea about the lost South is not what I remember best. I remember Scarlett and Rhett and the burning of Atlanta and Melanie and Ashley.The novel gives me many more layers. It follows its thematic line by building up detail after detail, page after page, about the manners and rituals and parties and hierarchies of the South. Even the characters reinforce the theme. In passages such as thefollowing, the characters are defined thematically, in terms of how they relate to the Old South.Although born to the ease of plantation life, waited on hand and foot since infancy, the faces of the three on the porch [Scarlett and the Tarleton twins] were neither slack nor soft. They had the vigor and alertness of country people who have spent all their lives in the open and troubled their heads very little with dull things in books. Life in the north Georgia county of Clayton was still new and, according to the standards of Augusta, Savannah and Charleston, a little crude. The more sedate and older sections of the South looked down their noses at the upcountry Georgians, but here in north Georgia, a lack of the niceties of classical education carried no shame, provided a man was smart in the things that mattered. And raising good cotton, riding well, shooting straight, dancing lightly, squiring the ladies with elegance and carrying one's liquor like a gentleman were the things that mattered.As the book unfolds, we see the disappearance of this way of life and how the characters react to the New South. Scarlett, through many compromises, is able to bend with the new era of Reconstruction. The book-loving, less practical Ashley is not. Rhett finds his integrity in the New South. Frank Kennedy becomes a hero while trying to preserve certain values of the Old South. In the beginning of the film Gone With the Wind, words on a scroll sum up this important theme from the book:There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South ...Here in this patrician world theAge of Chivalry took its last bow ... Here was the last ever to be seenof Knights and their Ladies Fair,of Master and Slave ...Look for it only in books, for itis not more than a dream remembered,a Civilization gone with the wind ...As the novel explores the idea of the lost South, it also takes its time giving us other layers of the story.BUILDING UP DETAILHave you ever noticed that a book may take fifty or one hundred pages to give you the information that you get in three minutes of film? In Bonfire of the Vanities, the events in the first fourteen minutes of the film take up about eighty-nine pages in the book. When I worked on the adaptation of Christy by Catherine Marshall, the first image we created for the film corresponded to thirty-two pages of the book. Even in a short novel such as 58Minutes (the basis of the film Die Hard 2), it took forty-six pages in the book to create what we see in the first few minutes of the film. In Gone With the Wind, what happens in the first one hundred twenty-seven pages of the book is presented to us in less than thirty minutes of film.Film is much faster. It builds up its details through images. The camera can look at a three-dimensional object and, in a matter of seconds, get across details that would take pages in the novel. Film can give us story information, character information, ideas and images and style all in the same moment.When we read a novel, we can see only what the narrator shows us at that particular moment. If the narrator puts the focus on action in those pages, then we follow the action. If the narrator talks about feelings, then we focus on the feelings. We can receive only one piece of information at a time. A novel can only give us this information sequentially.But film is dimensional. A good scene in a film advances the action, reveals character, explores the theme, and builds an image. In a novel, one scene or an entire chapter may concentrate on only one of those areas.In the process of building up details, the novel is also communicating other information. When the novel Gone With the Wind takes several paragraphs to describe Ashley Wilkes, it is giving us important character information. But it's also using words to convey ideas about the kind of life Ashley was meant for--a gentleman's life in the Old South. It is building up details that will pay off in the last half of the book. Read this descriptive passage in which Gerald O'Hara describes Ashley:Our people and the Wilkes are different ... . They are queer folk, and it's best that they marry their cousins and keep their queerness to themselves ... . And when I say queer, it's not crazy I'm meaning. He's not queer like the Calverts who'd gamble everything they have on a horse, or the Tarletons who turn out a drunkard or two in every litter, or the Fontaines who are hot-headed little brutes and after murdering a man for a fancied slight ... . But he's queer in other ways ... . Now, Puss, tell me true, do you understand his folderol about books and poetry and music and oil paintings and such foolishness?Later, Ashley laments his lack of skills as he says to Scarlett:I don't want allowances made for me. I want to stand on my own feet for what I'm worth. What have I done with my life, up till now? ... I've been thinking. I don't believe I really thought from the time of the surrender until you went away from here. I was in a state of suspended animation and it was enough that I had something to eat and a bed to lie on. But when you went to Atlanta, shouldering a man's burden, I saw myself as much less than a man--much less, indeed, than a woman. Such thoughts aren't pleasant to live with and I do not intend to live with them any longer ... . This is my last chance ... . If I go to Atlanta and work for you, I'm lost forever.This character information connects ideas in various parts of the book. It builds up details and ideas about the Old South and the New South, about the world that has gone with the wind, about a man who can't adjust to the new world, and a woman who can.THE WORK OF THE NARRATORAs we read a novel, someone is taking us by the hand and leading us through the story. This narrator is sometimes a character (if the novel is in the first person) or the storyteller (usually the writer's alter ego), who explains to us the meaning of the events.When the narrator in Gone With the Wind tells us about the "pleasant land of white houses, peaceful plowed fields and sluggish yellow rivers ... a land of contrasts, of brightest sun glare and densest shade," the white columned house isn't there just as descriptive image; rather, the narrator is slowly giving us the details to help us understand what the world was like, and what the world would be losing. The cinematographer might show the exact same detail, but there is not the explanation with it to help us understand its deeper symbolic meaning. The narrator, however, is explaining and clarifying the connections.In many eighteenth-century novels, the narrator made him-or herself known to the reader. It was not unusual for the narrator to interrupt the story to lecture the "dear reader" and to tell readers what they are supposed to learn from the book. Henry Fielding, the author of Tom Jones, published in 1749, spends some time giving us insights into human nature. He then compliments himself on his astute observations by writing:As this is one of those deep observations which very few readers can be supposed capable of making themselves, I have thought proper to lend them my assistance; but this is a favour rarely to be expected in the course of my work. Indeed, I shall seldom or never so indulge him, unless in such instances as this, where nothing but theinspiration with which we writers are gifted can possibly enable any one to make the discovery.The narrator of A Room with a View, by E. M. Forster, has a less obtrusive function, as he continually keeps us informed that this is a novel about the theme of identity. He makes comments such as "It so happened that Lucy, who found daily life rather chaotic, entered a more solid world when she opened the piano"; and later, "She was accustomed to have her thoughts confirmed by others or, at all events, contradicted; it was too dreadful not to know whether she was thinking right or wrong." The narrator of Gone With the Wind reminds us of character details by telling us that "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm." In these cases, the narrator is calling attention to what we're supposed to notice, clarifying the issues, explaining the ideas, and telling us what is happening in the story.A narrator can move in and out of a character's life, even going inside a character's head to let us know how the character thinks and feels. This technique helps us understand even a negative character, eliciting our compassion because we have an inside view of motivation and emotions. We identify with the character psychologically, emotionally, and in terms of the action she or he takes.In a novel, the narrator stands between us and the story to help us understand and interpret events. When we watch a film, we are an objective observer of the actions. What we see is what we get. Even if characters tell us their feelings through a voice-over in a film, we may not believe them. Without the narrator to guide us, we may not know whether characters are lying or not.Does it matter? Yes, because we can trust the narrator in a novel, but we don't always trust the character. The narrator is omniscient. If the narrator of A Room with a View tells us that Lucy is really in love with George, we believe him. After all, he knows her better than we do, probably even better than Lucy knows herself. But in the film, if Lucy tells us that she doesn'tlove George, we don't know for sure whether to believe her. Perhaps she doesn't understand her own motives. Perhaps she's lying. Perhaps she only thinks that she doesn't love George in order to justify her engagement to Cecil. Lucy is not a trustworthy source. The narrator is.Any attempt to translate this interior understanding into film usually meets with failure. Film doesn't give us an interior look at a character. A novel does.THE REFLECTIVE VOICEWhat else do we discover by going within a character's head? A character, as well as the narrator, is able to give us insights into the human condition. The narrator can help us understand the character's psychology and help us understand all types of characters--from the inside out.In the novel Ordinary People, by Judith Guest, the character of Conrad (the young man who tries to commit suicide after the drowning of his brother) discusses the tension and unspoken problems in the family:This house. Too big for three people. Straining, he can barely hear the early-morning sounds of his father and mother organizing things, synchronizing schedules at the other end of the hall. It doesn't matter. He doesn't need to hear, and they would certainly not be talking about anything important. They would not be talking, for instance, about him. They are people of good taste. They do not discuss a problem in the presence of the problem. And besides, there is no problem. There is just Phase Two. Recovery. A moving forward.Note how the author carefully uses words as "synchronizing schedules" and "anything important" and "the problem" to build up the idea that the family avoids facing problems. There is no way to get across this type of detail in a film.THE NOVEL AS INFORMATIONDetails in a novel build ideas, but they also give us information that is useful and often fascinating in itself. This may be pages of information about whales (as in Moby-Dick) or information about outbreaks of contagious diseases (as in Robin Cook's novel Outbreak) or information about plantation life.In Gone With the Wind, one of the most exciting scenes is the burning of Atlanta. It occurs shortly after the memorable image of Scarlett walking among the wounded as she searches for Dr. Meade. In the book, the narrator describes this scene:Lying in the pitiless sun, shoulder to shoulder, head to feet, were hundreds of wounded men, lining the tracks, the sidewalks, stretched out in endless rows under the car shed. Some lay stiff and still but many writhed under the hot sun, moaning. Everywhere, swarms of flies hovered over the men, crawling and buzzing in their faces, everywhere was blood, dirty bandages, groans, screamed curses of pain as stretcher bearers lifted men. The smell of sweat, of blood, of unwashed bodies, of excrement rose up in waves of blistering heat until the fetid stench almost nauseated her. The ambulance men hurrying here and there among the prostrate forms frequently stepped on wounded men, so thickly packed were the rows, and those trodden upon stared stolidly up, waiting their turn.That is a brilliant image. Most of the image is easily translated into film (although not, perhaps fortunately, the sense of smell). In the film, it also gains meaning as the camera draws back, stopping as the Confederate flag frames the shot. The scope, complexity, texture, sights, and sounds of the scene are particularly well translated into a strong cinematic image.In the book, however, we get much more information about the meaning of this scene. Why were there suddenly so many wounded? What was happening during the Civil War at this time? Why did Melanie and Scarlett need to leave? What wasSherman's plan? What was the Confederates' plan? Why was the Atlanta victory essential to the North if it was to win this war? What was in the city that was so important to both North and South?In the book, we also learn information about the generals' strategy: the seventy-six-day battle of General Johnston, as he tried to defend Atlanta; his replacement by General Hood, and the Yankee advance on Atlanta as they tried to cut off the railroad; the thirty-day shelling of the city, and the silence that followed. And we learn that September 1, the day Melanie had her baby, was also the day that Atlanta fell.When I watch the film, I get a sense of the sweep of the story, the excitement, terror, fear, panic, hysteria, desperation. When I read the book, I get this same sense, but I also gain new understanding of the historical period--the context, the meaning of the battles, and the strategy of both Sherman and the Confederate generals Johnston and Hood. Since the book has taken longer to build up details, it also has taken longer to make its impact. And the impact is emotional, historical, and informational.TIME MOVEMENT IS FLUIDAs the narrator leads me through the book, she or he is also able to help me understand the connection between details, ideas, and information that may appear in different chapters. The narrator can help me connect the past, present, and future.Most novels and short stories are written in the past tense. Authors write "she said," "he went," "she thought," and only rarely write "she says," "he goes," "she thinks." In most cases, the narrator is looking back on events that have already happened and is both telling and interpreting the events to the reader.Occasionally an author emphasizes the relationship of the event in the past to future events. In Stephen King's Dead Zone, the narrator sounds as if he is speaking about events that have just taken place. Then he surprises us, sounding almost as if hewere looking into the future by telling us, "It was four and a half years before she talked to Johnny Smith again." In this case, it becomes clear that the narrator is not talking about a story that unfolded in the immediate past, but a story that happened at least four and a half years ago.In a novel time is fluid. It moves back and forth among past, present, and future. A character in the present can give us information about the past. In Gone With the Wind the narrator tells us about Ellen's backstory, and her love for a man who left her long ago. On the rebound she married Gerald O'Hara. Years later, when Ellen died, it was not Gerald's name that was on her lips, but the name of Phillippe, her love of long ago. In itself, this particular detail is not highly important, nor is it necessary to know in the film. But backstory enriches a novel. Rather than proceeding chronologically, through words the novel moves deeper and deeper into an event, showing how any one event has meanings that encompass both the past and the present.Fiction surrounds the event with a certain amount of reflection and context. It uses a fluid sense of time to put the action into perspective. Fiction can move back and forth from backstory to frontstory. One event can remind a character of another in the past. The narrator can describe an event by bridging the past and the present. In Bleak House Charles Dickens gives a description of Esther Summerson, who is recovering from a near-death illness. Notice the smooth transitions between past and present in this quote (I've marked them to show this movement back and forth):My hair had not been cut off, though it had been in danger more than once [past] ... . I put my hair aside and looked at the reflection in the mirror, encouraged by seeing how placidly it looked to me [present]. I was very much changed--oh, very, very much ... . I had never been a beauty and had never thought myself one, but I had been very different from this. It was all gone now [past]. Heaven was so good to me that I could let it go with afew not bitter tears and could stand there arranging my hair for the night quite thankfully"[present].In novels, this movement between the past and the present is fluid and not disruptive. The flashback is part of the movement of a story.In film, this kind of flashback to a backstory can stop the flow of a story. Film takes place in the present. It's immediate. It's now. It's active. A novel may be reflective--emphasizing meaning, context, or response to an event--but a film puts the emphasis on the event itself.Film works in the present and drives to the future. It's less interested in what's happened than in what's going to happen next. In some films this movement to the future is a slow unfolding. In others we almost feel ourselves catapulted forward toward the inevitable and important climax. When we watch a film, we are in the same position as the characters. We, like they, don't know what will happen next. There's no time to think about what's happening. There's only time to experience, to be involved in the unfolding of events.Since film is immediate, we observe the story without needing a narrator's help to interpret or tell us what we're seeing.POINT OF VIEWThe novel also focuses our attention by telling the story from a certain point of view: Whose story is it? Through whose viewpoint do we see the story unfolding?Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is really the story of McMurphy, who thought he could make his prison sentence easier by finishing it out in a mental institution. It's about what he does, what happens to him, how he affects others. But the novel tells the story through the viewpoint of Chief Bromden, the seemingly deaf and dumb Indian who observes the events, reflects on them, gets scared about them, worries over McMurphy, and tells us what he's noticing. Although thefocus remains on McMurphy, the point-of-view character is Chief Bromden. We read about his internal thoughts and feelings as well as the external reality that he observes. This splits the emphasis in the novel. Although we focus on McMurphy's actions, we are always mindful about how we are seeing the story. We never see anything in the novel that Bromden does not personally see. We see scenes without McMurphy, but we don't see scenes without Bromden.Ordinary People is essentially Conrad's story, as he struggles to put his life together after his brother's death and his own near suicide. This novel is not told in the first person, but by a partially omniscient narrator, who chooses to tell us about what goes on inside the head of both Conrad and his father, Calvin, but doesn't go inside the head of Beth, or other characters. Since the point of view is broader, we can see scenes without Calvin, scenes without Conrad, and scenes without either of them.In both these examples, the story has subjective, internal elements that bring us into the thoughts and feelings of characters, rather than just telling us about external realities.Many writers like to bring the narrator from the book into the film to give the film a more "literary" feel or to help convey information or transitions in time. Out of Africa, Bonfire of the Vanities, GoodFellas, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Julia (among many others) all used narrators. Although there are times when this technique is used to add a reflective dimension to the film, it's more usually applied to give information that could be conveyed in more dramatic ways. In many cases, the technique works against the immediacy of film, separating the audience from the action by putting the emphasis on what is said, not on what is happening.The narrator in the novel tells us about a subjective experience, but the film, through its visuals, shows us an objective experience. In a film the voice-over narrator may tell us how someone is feeling. But this voice-over may be disruptive because we're trying to concentrate on the objective expression on a character's face. If the narrator's words contradict what wesee, it may confuse us. If they tell us what we're already seeing, then we don't need the words.I found this particularly bothersome in Bonfire of the Vanities, where I questioned the use of the narrator, who often dissipated the emotional focus of the film by putting the emphasis on words, not action. I was more intrigued with watching the action than with listening to someone interpret it for me.Sometimes film uses a narrator to provide transitions. Although this is a helpful technique, there are more dramatic and imagistic methods available. In Driving Miss Daisy we got through twenty-five years of transitions without the use of a narrator, proving it can be done.A film, like a novel, also presents a point of view, but to determine whose point of view the screenwriter asks different questions than the novelist. The screenwriter asks, "To what extent do I focus only on one character's world, thereby only showing scenes that contain that particular character? To what extent do I work as a more omniscient teller of the story by spreading the focus among several characters?" In the film Ordinary People either Conrad or Calvin was in every scene. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest McMurphy or Chief Bromden was in every scene.A filmmaker might decide to broaden the point of view by showing us some scenes of a villain planning a crime, of the protagonist trying to solve the crime, and perhaps of the love interest reflecting on why her sweetheart spends so much time solving crimes instead of paying attention to her.Sometimes the point of view is the same in both novel and film, as with The Color Purple, Shane, and Rear Window, and sometimes the point of view changes. The novel Deliverance is told from Ed's point of view, but as there are scenes without Ed in the film, it splits its point of view between Ed and Lewis. Although the novel A Room with a View focuses on Lucy, the film spreads the point of view. Most scenes include Lucy (as would be expected, since she's the main character), but there are some scenes without her, such as the one between Miss Lavish and Miss Bartlett, a scene of George walking home inthe rain, a scene of Cecil putting on his shoes, and even a flashback scene when Cecil describes meeting the Emersons and telling them about the house for rent. This last scene, however, seemed to me to spread the point of view too much, since it meant going inside Cecil's head to show us Cecil remembering the experience. We do go inside Lucy's head several times, as she flashes back to the kiss, and that's appropriate because she's our main character. It's less appropriate to go inside Cecil's head for a flashback about his experience. You may want to watch the film again to see what you think about this change in point of view.SUMMARYNovels and films express themselves in different ways. Fiction uses words to tell a story, describe character, and build ideas. Films use image and action. They are essentially different mediums that resist each other as often as they cooperate.CASE STUDY:Field of Dreams