ADAPTING NOVELS, NON FICTION BOOKS AND OTHER PEOPLE'S SCRIPTS.
I am an aspiring screenwriter, have been for decades. I studied a little Theatre Arts at UCLA, acted in films and tv, quit the biz, But one day 10 years later, I met a handsome screenwriter and we hit it off. I got to audit his classes at Loyola, Sherwood Oaks and S.C.. He was a well known industry script adapter , script fixer. He could talk 'story' structure and spot glitches til the cows came home. He adapted a play, Becket turning it into a film with O'Toole and Burton . Boston Strangler was a non-fiction book, it became a fantastic drama and cop procedural .This guy could turn your sister's diary into a great flick. He had oscars for PANIC in the STREETS, tho it was his wife's and his idea only, not a script. Who knew you could get oscars for ideas? Kazan directed that one. That film got him in the door. He had to wait a decade for the other oscar, for adapting Becket. He also adapted MADWOMAN OF ChAILLOT which starred Hepburn and A non fiction "THE BOSTON STRANGLER" and dozens of others. He rewrote JEREMIAH JOHNSON from an earlier script by its director John Milius.
So I learned a lot about story structure and the process of taking ONE media and turning it into another. This is something young scribes want to understand as 'specking' out scripts from novels IS a way in to the industry for unknowns. WGA writers , guild members cannot adapt a novel on spec. They have to option the rights to the novel. Or the producer does and he hires and assigns some scripter. But this is the way a sharp mind can spot a great novel and do it and audition at every damn film corp in the city!
One writer told me that while ADAPTING is the way for a NON WGA scribe to break in. HE DOES NOT HAVE TO OPTION the book. Another disagreed. There's the danger they'll look at your script, see it's a great idea and hire an industry writer. I say, so? It's still a great audition tape & nobody's gonna put you in jail if you are NON WGA. Say that you see a novel that has 'it!' Speck it out fast as probably that novel is making the rounds and has been since months before its actual publishing date
Do your script fast! Be motivated! This is a great 'show around' script to get you thru the usually closed doors. Who knows, they may hire you for another job they have lying around, you get to be some indie's stringer. Or 'go to.' They want financing so they get a cheap scripting by you, who've shown yourself to be competent!
Important thing is, in first meetings with producers, you show how you made novel BETTER. That it had weak elements which you FIXED. Being a story fixer is HOT! Anhalt did little else.
CUCKOO'S NEST was specked out by some kid. Kirk Douglas and Michael got hold of that script and optioned it. Had the kid do a rewrite all of this paid but I believe the final writer was WGA and don't recall what happened to the orig fellow who saw a flick in that great book. But the fact he rode that novel IN TO A STUDIO means he could take meetings on the PHONEBOOK, anywhere for years after! Whether he did or not I don't know.
The important thing is to sort out chaff in novel and 'fix it' for film. Twice I've seen movies be much better than novel. L.A. Confidential and Devil's Advocate with Pacino. The novels were a mess. Scripter sorted stuff out that you literally could not have seen in the orig novel which was CHAOTIC as in the case of LA CONFIDENTIAL. On one of the blogs below a writer says 'that movie is a master class in adapting.' Get the novel used on ABEBOOKS.com for a buck and study it. Also Devil's. That novel is sooo very blah. You read the Devil's advocate and you can barely stay awake but the ideas were in there. The scripter was just brilliant and then add PACINO! WOW! Those two films were NOT specked out but they were sorted out. By a more organized mind than the inspired (in both cases,) book-author..
However, I gotta tell you, a WRITER TOLD ME the following: You need to get an author's permission to adapt their novel whether it has been published or not if it's protected under copyright law. If you don't you're breaking the law. A screenwriter shouldn't try to sell an adaptation if they don't have an agreement in place with whoever owns the right to material. If someone is interested in your script and you can't produce a writer's agreement you're screwed and they aren't going to be very happy with that screenwriter. Also you have to make sure the author or whoever you are dealing with really has the rights to the material. Personally I would want to see every agreement the author ever entered into before I would agree to adapt the novel.
Even if a producer hires me I want to see their agreement with whoever and all other agreements. FWIW this is what a producer will want to see if they are interested in making the film.
I've been writing adaptation for a few years now and I'm currently working on my thirtieth one. I've had a little success doing them but I've had a few horror stories as well that could have been avoided if I knew better. Anyway I strongly suggest anyone that wants to do adaptations to go for it because I think it is a great way to break into the business. However a lot of things can and will probably go wrong if you don't do things right from the get go.
If a screenwriter contacts an author or publisher and finds out a producer has already secured the movie rights it could be worth contacting the producer and letting them know that you are interested in adapting the novel. FWIW that is how I ended up getting hired to write the HOT STUFF adaptation. Also if someone adapts a novel it isn't that difficult to attach a director with some good movie credits and that will really help you sell the script. Anyway this is just some informatin based on my own personal experience so I could be completely wrong about everything.
If you are interested in writing adaptatons let me know off list. Since I specialize in the I come across deals now and then. I do have WGA representation and I do have contacts in the business as well
PART II. THE NUTS AND BOLTS OF ADAPTING
Group of film buffs discussing Good/Bad examples:
ADAPTING BY THE BEST BRIT
PART III. GOOD ADAPTATION BAD ADAPTATIONOne critic I read online said that "Absolute Power" (a Novel Adaptation by prestigious William Goldman,) was a terrible film. He said "It ranks in the “why’d he bother” category of Clint Eastwood’s career. It’s not a great movie, it’s not even good, but it’s not egregiously bad either. It is just there, for better or worse, and truth be told, I’d rather watch a bad Eastwood outing than this blah nothing." Now, I liked that film, thought central idea of a burglar in closet seeing the President murder a whore was a great high concept premise.
William Goldman talks about how arduous shaping the script from David Baldacci’s novel was, how it necessitated whole-scale elimination of vital characters and plot all in the name of shifting the focus from what is essentially an ensemble piece to what would become a star vehicle for Eastwood’s part, master thief Luther Whitney.
I’m all in favor of this process–trashy bestsellers (a title for which Mr. Baldacci’s debut novel certainly qualifies) often make the best movies because you can gut the interiors and perform a total overhaul.
Problem was, Whitney dies halfway through the novel, and in resurrecting
him for the film, Goldman didn’t give him anything to do. (adapter faux pas alert!) This is the
most passive lead role Eastwood has ever had–save one (admittedly pretty
cool) murder he pulls off, Whitney spends the movie fleeing capture, and
off-screen, I might add.
Not that he’s alone. No one does anything of consequence. Eastwood
just gathered a bunch of talented actors and filmed them what appears to
be twenty minutes after an intensely satisfying meal.
Worst off is second-billed Gene Hackman, the villain of the piece, who
has maybe twenty minutes of screen time and is shot and lit the way
“Extra # 43? would be. There’s nothing distinctive about him or his
part; you wonder why they didn’t cast some random nobody.
Still, none of this is offensively bad until the last half hour of the
film. It’s here that Goldman and Eastwood’s decision to reconfigure the
film around Luther torpedoes the proceedings.
Let me break it down for you.
Goldman doesn’t kill off Luther, but he also doesn’t give him anything
of consequence to do–hence all the running. This is hardly dynamic
character work, but it makes sense (wanted men flee), and it lets
Goldman tread water while he struggles with his big problem:
“How do I have Luther save the day without writing any significant
material for Eastwood to play?”
I’m presupposing that if you’re William Goldman, your time is so
jam-packed with wistful recollections of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance
Kid delivered to anyone in ear-shot that you can’t be bothered to write
anything fresh. It’s a major issue for a film like this.
Goldman’s solution: he has Luther tell millionaire-philanthropist Walter
Sullivan the truth about who really murdered his wife. Roll Credits.
Forget that Luther is able to breach Sullivan’s defenses so easily to
stage this little pow-wow. Forget that Sullivan believes Luther
unhesitatingly, despite Luther’s mile-long criminal rap sheet and
overall thievery. Forget, even, that this move further emasculates
Luther; once Sullivan learns the President was responsible for his
wife’s death, it is he who violently confronts him, and not, you know,
the freaking hero of the picture.
No, what I have a problem with is that it takes Luther more than ninety
minutes to wrap up what could have been settled in maybe five minutes.
Assuming, of course, that Sullivan believes Luther immediately (and we
have to make that leap because this is a bad movie), then why does
Luther wait until the end of the picture to clear things up?
It’s not as if Luther is biding his time, gathering his case against the
President. None of his evasions bring him closer to the truth, or to
Sullivan, or to anything resembling satisfying thriller progression.
He knows from the jump who the Big Bad is, he’s got the key piece of
evidence that can put him away for good, and so he…runs in circles until
realizing the movie has to end at some point? This from the guy who
wrote Butch Cassidy and Misery and Marathon Man and Harper and The
Princess Bride? Are you kidding me?
It’s a special movie whose last ten minutes can render most of its
previous 110 completely irrelevant. Attaboy, Absolute Power!
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