The Trials And Tribulations of Adaptation
Every screenwriter has had that moment when staring at a blank page on final draft, or whatever software they are using, where they thought “if only there was a fully developed story with ready built-in audience that I could be rewriting instead.” Well there is and its not as easy to adapt as you may have first believed. Think about it for a moment, how many film adaptations of popular books are any good? How many are popular? Not lambasted as abominations and an insult to the original source material? How many are considered better than the original source material for that matter?
Its a pretty small list of ones receiving praise and the reason is simple: Audiences invest more time into a book than a film. The average film is currently just shy of two hours long but the average reader takes eight and a half hours to ten hours of solid reading to complete a novel of eighty thousand words. Those eight and a half to ten hours however are usually done over multiple nights, even weeks. That investment of time builds a relationship with the characters that you just can’t manufacture within the confines of a two hour film. Also you are competing with hundreds of thousands, if not more, avid fans who have all created what they think the characters, the buildings, streets, space docks etc look like in their heads and imparted themselves onto the characters they admire or relate to most. You are fighting an uphill battle from the start and if we learned anything from the Star Wars prequels its this, the person with the high ground in a battle usually wins.
But its not all doom and gloom. Some adaptations are incredibly successful. Think the Harry Potter series, Hunger Games, Trainspotting, Fight Club, Lord of The Rings, the Godfather, Gone With the Wind etc etc it can happen but it is just as difficult if not more so than starting from scratch with your own idea.
Now is the part where you tell us how to do it successfully though right?
- Erm no. I don’t have a lot of experience on that kind of a scale when it comes to adaptations but I can tell you of my creative journey adapting Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol.
For the festive season last year I knew I wanted to create a special audio drama for the radio station I owned. I wanted to challenge myself to create something that was entertaining but also educational about inclusion and feature strong female characters. I didn’t want to do the latter part in a ham-fisted manner though. I wasn’t shooting for a “this is why you are a POS if you believe differently than I do” or do it in an off-putting in your face way that other well-intentioned shows have done recently with regards to important issues such as climate change or equality.
I decided that Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was a timeless tale that could be adapted into being the kind of vehicle that would fit all of my goals. How do you talk about strong female characters and inclusion with a story set in the early 1800s? You may find yourself asking well, that was the first aspect of the story I changed, the story was now set in the future aboard a space station called “Port Christmas.” The second thing I jettisoned was Scrooge being a male banker. Scrooge was now the chief of police on the station. The ghosts were holograms sent by Morley to help Scrooge solve her death and discover what happened to Scrooge’s ex in the hope they would reconnect. Yes I adapted Christmas Carol into a sci-fi murder mystery whilst keeping the same framework in place of the original story; the 3 ghosts, Marley being dead to begin with, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim were all present and accounted for. The story still a redemption tale of Scrooge but now with a mystery twist and a happier ending, spoilers.
Is this a successful adaptation?
- Depends on your definition of success really and here’s why, it successfully entertained our audience. It was the highest rated show for the festive period by far. It showed powerful female characters and showcased a strong gay female lead character in particular. We received many letters about how welcoming it was to have that as part of the show. We also received a few messages from people who didn’t like that aspect at all also. You can’t please everyone but please do check it out on mixcloud the link will be below.
What did I learn from that experience?
- I learned you can take something people know like the back of their hand and make it new again. Should you? That is the question I cannot answer objectively. I love the show because of the performances and I think I gave them some fun lines and scenes to work with. I think it met my objectives well and it was a lot less ham-fisted than other shows have been. I am very proud of it if I’m honest with you, it may be one of my top five favourites of my own works.
Would I adapt a contemporary loved book?
- In all honesty if it was a book I enjoyed and was being paid well to adapt then yes I would but I know the reaction would be very different to that of Port Christmas. I think it takes a special kind of writer to bring the magic out of an adaptation and it takes one that loves the original source material like the original author but can look upon it objectively at the same time and make cuts to make it work for the screen. I don’t know if I could do that to a book I genuinely loved but I would give it a try for sure.
I have also had the opportunity to work on an adaptation of a friend’s novel but I kept putting it off as I knew I would have to cut a lot of what makes it a great novel for it to work on the screen and that process felt a lot like being a serial killer of dreams.
Have you adapted anything, plan on doing so? Let me know in the comments below and on the community pages. Maybe we could work on something together in the future.