Once again, Lee, you do an amazing job of deciphering difficult and often abstract concepts into concrete, workable, chunks.
“Let’s see, where were we?” I ponder.
“You just dashed my Hollywood dreams into tiny pieces of tinsel,” you reply, still sulking. “Here I’d hoped to go from impoverished unknown indie-comics creator to hot Hollywood filmmaker, then you gave us a peak behind the curtain to get a glimpse of how Hollywood really works.
“It’s like Hollywood is in the sausage-story business.
“Ah, right,” I say, cheerfully. “Happy to have helped.”
“You promised to tell us something about adaptations this week, but I’m not sure my heart is in it.”
“Sure, it is!” I venture. “The more you understand about an industry and its goals, the more you’ll understand what you need to do to swim well in its waters.”
“So I don’t drown?” you suggest, completing my analogy.
“Exactly,” I say. “And this column will be a creative life preserver, the insight into the process that will allow you to assess what film folks are doing or want done, and why.”
“Well, that sounds productive,” you say, somewhat cheered up.
“It can be,” I reply. “When somebody from Hollywood wants to adapt your comic into a film, TV show, or direct-to-DVD, it’s not only important to find out why they’re interested in your work, it’s important to find out how they’re going to approach the adaptation…within the context of their goals.”
“Frankly, too many of them don’t know enough story craft to be able to how to make the transition, so, if they’re open to it, there is an opportunity for discussion and creative input.”
“Really?” you ask.
“If you know what you’re doing, handle it well, and understand who has to convince whom about whatever.”
“In other words,” you conclude, “we need to know who’s the tail and who’s the dog.”
“In all things and in all industries,” I reply. “Know this, and you’ll have a key that will unlock more doors than you can imagine.”
“Okay,” you answer, “I’m psyched. Let’s go!”
The following article appeared in Danny Fingeroth’s Write Now! Magazine. Eric Fein and Danny Fingeroth co-edited this for issue #14, which came out in 2007.
“Another %^$#@! reprint??!!” you cry. “Can’t you write anything new???!!!”
“Ah, but not just any reprint,” I say, for the third time in eight weeks. “This one gives you insight into the thinking that goes into crafting adaptations, whether you’re the one doing it, or you’re the one having it done to you.
“Also, this is a precursor to our future discussions on thematic storytelling, so it’s good to prepare you for that brain-bending part of the process.”
“What’s the big deal about creating an adaptation?” you venture. “All somebody needs to do is tell the same story over again, right?”
“If it’s so easy,” I ask, “then why do you think so many come out so badly?”
“Um….” you begin, not knowing exactly which person to blame for the debacle known as Howard the Duck, though your money might remain on George Lucas.
“Exactly,” I say.
And whether you’re creating an adaptation of some property for comics, film, short story, novel, or stage play, or you’re trying to figure out what somebody else might be trying to do to your comic, film, novel, short story, or stage play, it’s important to understand the core variables involved in…
“Adapting To the Cinematic Sandbox”
Every writer has his or her own process for determining how to best adapt material from one medium—whether it’s comics, prose, or TV—into film.
Your interest here could be as a creator whose work is being adapted, you could also be the writer looking to adapt somebody else’s work, or you might just be interested in watching the train wreck that may or may not take place. Regardless of which it is, it’s important to understand the process in which you’re participating or observing.
In adapting a property from one medium into film, some rip the heart out of the original piece and do whatever they want to do, simply because they can. There are a lot of these people in Hollywood. I’m not just ragging on writers, because directors and producers often do the same thing to screenplays, but when they’re doing it to screenplays that are from writers who just eviscerated somebody else’s work...well, on these days, I believe in karma.
Other writers try to adhere slavishly to the source material, or as many aspects of the material as possible, as was evident in the first two Harry Potter film adaptations. In this process, the results usually don’t take best advantage of the visual storytelling possibilities of the film medium, but they do manage to not offend the fan base. They may bore them to death, but they don’t offend them.
The above examples are two extremes, and sometimes these extremes produce vibrant cinematic results, but this isn’t a discussion about being so lucky or talented that you can escape the pitfalls.
Those are the extremes; now let’s discuss the two middles.
The first one is a process for figuring out how to consider what to keep and what to toss. It’s not new, in that many screenwriters have practiced and written about it before, William Goldman in his book, Adventures in the Screen Trade, being the most prominent example, but this approach is embedded at the core of most successful adaptations.
The key to a successful adaptation is getting to the heart of the story, isolating what it’s really about—not what it could be about, but what it is about, concept-wise or thematically—as opposed to how it tracks in terms of plot or in its sequence of events.
The first step to discovering what’s at the heart of a story is by simply looking at where it begins and where it ends. Then you look at the bridge between the two, examine the journey, and ask yourself, “What’s the moral of the story?”
Yep, it’s that simple. When you figure out the moral to the story, which can also be called the “moral argument,” “theme,” or “controlling idea”—the statement that the story makes about one or more things the writer wants to convince you are or aren’t true—then you’ve got a spine around which to wrap your adaptation.
My favorite example to prove this point is how one of my favorite writers, David Mamet, badly adapted an early draft of Thomas Harris’ book, Hannibal. For the uninitiated, this book was the follow-up to Silence of the Lambs, which, in turn, followed Red Dragon.
Excesses and wanderings aside, I liked the book. By the time I’d reached the climax, I’d already figured out that it was the thriller equivalent of My Fair Lady.
“Huh???” you say.
“Yep,” I say. My Fair Lady is about a woman who is refined and defined by a man, with whom she ultimately comes to a separate-but-equal understanding. Hannibal is about a woman who’s being pulled in several different directions by a number of men, each of them wanting to refine and define who she’ll be as a person. Hannibal wins, and they ultimately come to a separate-but-equal understanding.
At their hearts, they’re not much different.
Whether it was by direction from the producers or director Ridley Scott, the adaptation was re-imagined as a story of unrequited love by Hannibal for Starling. Nope, I’m not guessing, Scott says this on the DVD commentary, and it’s the best clue as to why Jodie Foster chose not to reprise her role as Starling, as well as why the finished film is episodic and unfocused. There’s so much in it that doesn’t belong in a love story between Hannibal and Starling, and, even if the events were in the book, the results are unsatisfying.
If you accept that Hannibal is My Fair Lady, then the solution to the adaptation and Foster’s possible participation should have been a simple fix.
My Fair Lady is a musical adaptation of the stage play, Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw. In this original incarnation of the story, Eliza Doolittle allows herself to be molded into a “lady” by Professor Henry Higgins. When Eliza realizes she’s been taken for granted, she leaves the professor, just as she does in the scenes toward the end of My Fair Lady. But in the original play, she doesn’t return to him at the end, and the bullying professor gets his comeuppance.
Since Jodie Foster was reported to have hated what happened to her Starling character in the book, the people shepherding the film could have easily steered the adaptation in the direction of Pygmalion, where Starling is manipulated by a number of different and powerful men, but ultimately breaks free of all their influences and regains her footing as her own woman. Pretty compelling stuff, and Foster might have been onboard for that.
After this, the next step would have been to eliminate and/or refocus the rest of the novel’s story that doesn’t work to this end.
Sure, easier said than done, but in the end it would’ve been a lot less work than trying to turn Hannibal into a love story while smoothing out all the stuff that didn’t fit, which is something they did not end up accomplishing anyway.
Conversely, Silence of the Lambs—a film that’s often referred to as a horror film, and contains many truly horrific images and sequences—isn’t structured like a horror film; it’s a buddy movie.
Ted Tally, the screenwriter, recognizing that he couldn’t condense the entire novel, established the relationship between Starling and Lecter—two characters with opposing goals who are forced to work together to achieve those goals—at the center of the story, and he only kept in whatever else was necessary to have each of the characters achieve his and her goals.
In this manner, he was able to refashion the novel into a screenplay, with considerably less story/plot than the original book contained and still have it work as a whole, making it a distant cousin of buddy pictures like 48 Hours and Die Hard With A Vengeance, but still related to them, nonetheless.
So, finding the heart of the story and staying true to it is the form of adaptation that snuggles up closely to our second example from above, the obsessively faithful adaptation, but one that doesn’t forget its cinematic necessities. As a process, it’s the one that worked for Lord of the Rings and the third Harry Potter film, and has the best chance of breathing the cinematic life of the original material onto the screen.
That said, without the right thematic lynchpin, or any consistent thematic lynchpin, it’s impossible to consistently determine what to keep and what to toss.
Two terrific examples of doing it well are the comics-to-film adaptations of Road To Perdition and Ghost World. Each latched onto the key emotional thrusts of the characters and the drama and brought the films to life with few core changes.
For those familiar with the graphic novel and the filmed version of Road To Perdition, one change of note was the ending.
At the conclusion of the book, the son, enraged, guns down his father’s killer, gets his dying father to a confessional, then is revealed to have grown up to be a priest who’s just completed his memoir about his father’s life. We know that he will suffer a life of penance for his acts, even though he ultimately chose the road of peace.
At the conclusion of the film, the son can’t bring himself to take the life of another, not even his father’s killer, not even to save his own life, but his wounded father manages to kill the killer himself and is gratified to know, before dying, that his son has been freed from the cycle of violence that drove this story.
In the book, the act of penance and commitment to a life of peace is necessary; without it, we don’t know whether or not the cycle of violence would be broken. In the film, it isn’t necessary to show what happened to the boy because we know the cycle’s already been broken. This is likely one of the contributing factors as to why Sam Mendes chose to excise this scene from the film; it became extraneous. The filmmakers stayed true to the thematic point of the novel that the cycle of violence needed to be broken, and that was enough.
Stepping back to the type of film that tries to adhere slavishly to the source material, the recent adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel, The Black Dahlia, was a critical (and financial) disaster. The novel is the first in Ellroy’s famous L.A. Quartet (the third of which was adapted into the critically and financially successful L.A. Confidential), and the screenwriter, Josh Friedman—creator of the planned 2007 TV series, The Sarah Connor Chronicles—had no moral/thematic compass by which to drive his adaptation...or not a simple enough of one to hold all of the necessary elements in balance.
With The Black Dahlia, Friedman tried to hold onto too much of the novel’s labyrinthine plot, which forced him to limit characters, motivation, and reduce the ending to the worst example of character-exposition-as-denouement that we’ve seen in a mainstream American film in many years. He packed fifty pounds of story into a five-pound bag, which reduces this particular form of adaptation to one simple problem and solution: When you’ve got too much story for the space or time that’s required, use the heart/theme/moral argument of the story to cut away the chaff that doesn’t fit.
And yes, per the Hannibal example, you still need to identify the right heart of the story.
Now, what about stories that are acquired by production companies and studios as nothing more than fodder for what they hope to accomplish?
“What??!!” You exclaim. “Does this happen???!!!”
“You bet,” I say. (2010 note: we discussed this last week, remember?)
Where there isn’t the goal of bringing millions of faithful followers of the source material into the theaters to witness a cinematic reenactment of their favorite book, comic, or TV show, the production company or studio could very likely have acquired the original property because there was something unique about a facet of the concept or plot that they wanted to use in the creation of an entirely new animal/property.
For example, the first adaptation of Farewell, My Lovely, the Philip Marlowe novel by Raymond Chandler, was for the 1942 film, The Falcon Takes Over. The Falcon was modeled after The Saint, each of which starred George Sanders, and which, like The Saint, was a long-running series of theatrical programmers. (For those of you under a hundred, a theatrical programmer was a short film, often near an hour in length, used to fill out a theater’s double-bill. There were many such series that ran as programmers in the ‘30s and ‘40s.)
A more recent example of taking what you need and leaving the rest is what the brilliant Charlie Kaufman did in his adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief. He wrote a film about himself having trouble adapting the book into a film, and it was directed by Spike Jonze under the title, Adaptation.
Some similar adaptations, which are more close to home for comics readers, include Superman Returns, Batman Begins, and the Spider-Man and X-Men franchises. There’s an added difficulty in discussing these films, because the original properties are owned and controlled by corporations, but that only means more people are getting a vote; it doesn’t change the dynamic. Even though the goal of these adaptations was to remain true to certain qualities of these name-brand characters, the companies and filmmakers recognized that the adaptations needed to cherry-pick from the properties what was perceived as salvageable, then build them from scratch in a new place that was outside the boundaries of comics continuity and company mythologies. Regardless of whether they were successful—though I believe they mostly were—this is how these adaptations were approached.
In this kind of adaptation, the trick is to figure out what and how much you need to salvage from the source material to build your new animal and keep it structurally sound, and then you should chuck the rest. Oh, and there’s no reason to feel badly if you’re the writer who’s doing that, because the author of the source material knew or should’ve been made aware that this is what was going to happen when the production company or studio acquired his or her material. Authors certainly have the right to disagree with the creative choices/decisions that are made—Ursula K. LeGuin is more than entitled to do so for what was done to her first two Earthsea novels—but these are the chances creators take when they grab the money and cede control.
This form of adaptation is a variation on the rip-the-heart-out example above, but it’s handled with the skill of a surgeon, and the heart is successfully transplanted into a new body that could never have come to life without the operation.
We’ve covered the four primary types of adaptation:
1) Completely faithful, even to the point of obsession;
2) Faithful, but flexible to the cinematic medium;
3) The isolation of useful concept and plot material in the development of similar but separate properties;
4) Rewriting whatever you want to because you can.
So, what should you do if you’re the screenwriter?
Sometimes, screenwriters are presented with obstacles in source material that makes successful adaptation a dicey proposition, at best. Sometimes the obstacles are creative; sometimes they’re commercial.
If you’re brought into a project, the goal of the adaptation will likely be made clear, or you should work to ascertain the goal.
If you’re free to make the choice, you know the nature of the options.
Okay, now let’s switch shoes.
As the creator of a comics property, and where you’re not one of the lucky ones who gets to write the film or TV adaptation of your own comic, you get to sit back and watch some version of the process I’ve just described above.
Knowing what you now know, you have several options:
1) Sign the contract, take the money, remind yourself that the comic still exists, no matter what anybody did in the adaptation of it to a film or TV show...and accept the idea what they’re going to create is a completely different animal.
2) Sign the contract, take the money, and work to make yourself a constructive advisor on the adaptation that you all agree you’re going to make...and understand that even as an advisor, your role will be limited.
3) Make certain that you get the vote you want in determining what will or won’t be done with the adaptation (even though choosing to do this will very likely limit the number of people willing to work with you to some number just above zero). Don’t count on being Frank Miller on the set of Sin City, though it’s nice to dream, and some dreams do come true.
4) Don’t let anybody adapt your material from what you originally created for whatever reasons you want. It’s okay to be Bill Watterson not allowing Calvin & Hobbes to exist in any form other than comics.
Whether you’re the writer adapting somebody else’s work or the creator whose work is being adapted, when you know what you want something to be, it’ll be easier to help it be exactly what you want.
Now, imagine you’ve been transported to the world of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and you’re standing in front of a table that’s covered with dozens of different cups. Any one of them could be the Holy Grail.
If you pick the right cup, the fruit of your efforts could live forever.
If you don’t pick the right cup, your vision for the adaptation will die.
Next week, we’re going to see how you’ve been doing on your homework from two weeks ago.
Then I’ll add some new wrinkles to the mussy bed sheets.
Happy musing! Happy creating!
Lee Nordling is the owner and founding partner of The Pack (the-pack.biz), a comics-related content provider for the publishing industry. He is also author of “Your Career In the Comics,” an overview of the newspaper comics syndication profession and industry.
If you wish to contact Lee separately from Comics Pro Prep, please write to him at lee@projectfanboy.
Last edited by LeeNordling; Tuesday, January 12, 2010 at 04:00 PM.
Once again, Lee, you do an amazing job of deciphering difficult and often abstract concepts into concrete, workable, chunks.
"Living Robert Venditti's Plan B!"
Interesting phrase; interesting title. I just might have to "borrow" that (and not give it back).
You give so much, I'm glad I could live a little something back.
"Living Robert Venditti's Plan B!"
I learned something new.
I already knew that The Falcon was based on The Saint. I love the b/w action/mysteries. I did NOT know that there was a Marlowe book adapted for a Falcon movie. (I haven't read any of the older mystery books. I just found out I have an original printing of a '43 Hardy Boys mystery.) I also didn't know that they were called "theatrical programmers." Maybe I need to watch more TCM...
Anyway, I was recently hired to do an adaptation of a Hawaiian folk story. It was my first adaptation, and I didn't want to get off the path too much of the story that was being told. I read the story several times in order to see what I needed and what needed to go, as well as how to move the characters from one place to another while being both interesting and visually appealing.
It was an interesting experience.
The story, being hundreds of years old, had problems with chronology that I had to straighten out, some mystical experiences, and not necessarily a hero's journey, not necessarily a story with a moral, but a story that explained some things about Hawaiian folklore.
In the end, I decided that I had to keep most of the things that happened, add a birth scene and some characterization, and make sure the story hung together, instead of the folklore-type story where they say things that can be taken LOTS of different ways, and move the story at breakneck speed.
Oh, and I had 22 pages (+/-) in order to do it.
I did it in 24, and the story itself was 10 pages long. As folklore, you can imagine how much story was packed in there.
So, except for some straightening out and some cutting, I remained generally slavish to the source material, because anything else, I felt, would have changed the story. I wasn't hired to change the story, I was hired to adapt it. I wanted to make sure that my adaptation was recognizable to the source material. I didn't make changes to make changes.
Remember when Spider-Man first came out? People (comics fans) were up in arms that Spidey got organic web-shooters, and I couldn't understand it that much, either. Not at the time, even though Sam Raimi explained why he called for the change. Now I see it as a good change that helped to build the character of the story.
I want to do an adaptation of a couple of novels. Doing it from prose to comic isn't that difficult, because you're basically giving visuals to the prose, and cutting to the heart of long passages of dialogue. There shouldn't be that many decisions to make, depending on the length of the book and the page count of your adaptation. But from prose to film? Lots of decisions.
This is why I think the adaptation of From Hell was a success. They kept the basic heart of the story. Watchmen? I don't know. Haven't seen it yet, although I have the movie. I keep falling asleep. That tells me something. I guess I'll try it again this week.
Thanks again for another incredible article, Lee, and for the Falcon info. I have to buy those. I thought George Sanders did a fantastic job, and the guy that followed him wasn't too bad, either. I also liked the original Saint movie, and think that the recent (HA!) movie was a credible effort, but would have done better with a better storyline.
It's interesting, but we have very different opinions about From Hell.
Oh, I kinda liked it, though I like the Holmes version of the same material, "Murder By Decree," and think it's a much better film.
Where we differ is in the nature of the adaptation.
I think the adaptation refashioned the material into a very different story, albeit one still keeping to generally accepted truths about the Ripper murders.
Now, here's the thing, I think the folks adapting the film did the right thing to take what they wanted to; what surprised me is them even bothering to option the graphic novel...which has no new information or theories in it.
They could've saved MILLIONS of dollars by starting with some of the nonfiction books that were out there...and perhaps THAT'S the value of a title and Alan Moore's brand, because they didn't need either to make the same film.
A true-to-the-heart adaptation would've needed to have a much more docudrama feel than the current thriller; and it probably would've needed to be a miniseries.
But, if it had to be a film, and if it needed to be in the two-hour range, and if it needed to be REALLY true to the heart of the source material, a more methodical and intellectual David Mamet or Kubrick (doing Barry Lyndon) or Merchant-Ivory approach would've been the way to go.
The graphic novel keeps us at a distance, makes us observers, but the film doesn't, it involves us, and that is a fundamental re-interpretation of the source material.
Doesn't make it bad, but it does make it really different.
Just my two cents on a very subjective topic.
PS. I think Watchmen, generally, tried to stay slavishly true to the source material; I liked it much better than I expected to. I'd also re-read the graphic novel a year or so before it came out, so I was able to feel their efforts to stay true to it. I didn't see the expanded version with the animated cartoon cut into it, and a lot of people felt that this inset story revealed the theme/heart of what Watchmen was about.
Interestingly, (at least to me), one of my favorite authors, Dashiell Hammett, did the same thing with his novels; he inserted little mini-stories that revealed the heart of the larger stories. I've yet to read (not that it doesn't exist) an interpretation of the Watchmen's mini-story/comic that reveals well how it reflects on the larger story. When I hear one I like/accept, maybe I'll miss it not being in the released film.
Last note: my wife, Cheri, never read the book, isn't particularly a superhero fan, and liked the movie; I think she's among the few non-superhero fans that did...bringing back the question about whether superheroes are an intrinsically mass-market genre. My general vote on that is: no.
We'll get to this later, and let's not derail this discussion with that topic. (Please)
Last edited by LeeNordling; Tuesday, January 12, 2010 at 07:17 PM.
Before finishing tomorrow's column, I see the decreasing number of people reading and participating.
This column is less about entertainment and more about being a free course in the craft of the sequential art medium, and, intermittently, a practical guide to its professional application...thus the name Comics Pro Prep.
Seriously, I wish I could more successfully take a page from The Karate Kid and get folks to Wax-On and Wax-Off, but I suspect that's not happening.
I get the sense most folks are skimming through this, and I guess that's fair enough.
So here's my question: is this working for anybody, beyond being (I hope) an entertaining or stimulating read?
There's another old saw that people don't pay attention to advice, unless they have to pay for it.
Perhaps that's true here as well.
I don't know.
So I guess I'm asking for input, and not just supportive input...because, with just over a hundred views on last week's column, and very little discussion, I am questioning the value of this...for you and for me.
Let me know.
I find your information to be extremely valuable. I'm about two columns behind because I re-read them several times--highlighting key points that stand out. Much of your perspective is eye-opening and refreshing.
My apologies for just lurking at this point and not participating more--I will jump in with feedback regularly from here on out. Hopefully you're not discouraged and you'll give more time to CPP before pulling the plug.
You've made me reevaluate my approach to the page/panel and artistic direction. And I'm not just starting out--I've been practicing comics writing for three years--I've sent out creator owned pitches to two companies in the past month. I'm very serious about my writing. AND I love to learn.
Thanks for being an online mentor. I'm grateful for the free course.
I think there may be several things going on, that might help explain a drop in views and participation.
Your last couple columns seemed (at least to me) more like thinking subjects than talking ones - something to ponder and keep in mind for future reference, in case Hollywood comes calling, rather than something to act on or dissect. I mean, any hard questions aren't going to come up unless we go out and try to adapt something (or get something adapted), and how many of us are going to do that in the next few days? So, naturally, there'll be less immediate feedback, and less feedback means less follow-up views.
It's also possible that the subject of adaptation to film simply has less widespread appeal than general comic how-to stuff does. It is somewhat far afield, if someone's primary focus is on creating comics. That might help explain fewer views on the last couple columns. (I like the variety, but I'm like a junky when it comes to learning something new & interesting, regardless of any immediate, practical application).
I think those two factors seem like pretty decent suspects, considering the start of this "comics into film" series is when views started to drop off. But I've also noticed that things seem to be quieter than usual all over (both here at PFB and elsewhere). Maybe there's still some post-holiday fallout that people are getting caught up with, too.
I think it's also worth pointing out that the article that required the most work is also the article with the most page views (arguably Timemaster- Part 2, but that whole series had pretty decent views), so I think it might be just a little bit pessimistic to assume that people are "just skimming."
Last edited by CalvinCamp; Tuesday, January 19, 2010 at 01:00 AM.
I never thought you were skimming, Calvin.
I think there were a lot of provocative topics to discuss that never got mentioned further, theme dictating story, and endings dictating theme being one.
Thus far, in eight weeks, I've been offering a series of lectures, then sometimes we discussed aspects of them, at varying lengths, mostly towards a goal of clarification.
The next one is mostly done, the first of two or three new ones, and I'm pretty sure I'm not posting it tomorrow.
I think we need to talk.
I think we need a better dialogue.
I'm considering offering up a topic for a round-table discussion, in this case, the table being as big (and round) as the world.
I'm considering setting the topic, and offering some provocative questions...then will, during the week, make certain there's no digression (and consider using the delete button when there is, because there are plenty of other places for letting posts spin out of control).
And I'm considering some alternation between the lectures/columns and discussions.
As we progress, I think it's important that I give myself a grade for how this is going...and if we're not interacting, then I'm not getting the gold star I hope for.
So...tomorrow begins a new day, and a new type of column/discussion.