I daydream sometimes about having a book I’ve written adapted into a movie. And that makes me wonder about the whole process and how much I would want to be involved. There are three scenarios, as I see it: write the screenplay myself; collaborate or consult with someone who will write the screenplay;or stay out of the way and let the (imaginary) filmmakers do what they will with my work.
Writing the screenplay myself is not entirely out of the question; I’ve written a few in my day. This would in no way, however, guarantee integrity in the transition from book to screen. I know enough about film making to know that every script goes through a metamorphosis – either subtle or drastic – in the process of its production. Also, I may be too close to the material to make an appropriate interpretation for the screen.
Then I wonder, does maintaining the integrity of a book to the screen really matter?
How critical is it that a movie be just like the novel? Not very, in my opinion. They are two different mediums, with their own rules of engagement; what may work in one will not necessarily work in another. We all have our own list of novels that didn’t translate well into a movie. A Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy comes to mind, for me. It’s never been recreated very well in any form – television, radio, or film – for that matter. I think it has to do with an inability to effectively replicate the cadence and voice of Douglas Adams’s prose, as well as the timing of his dry humor.
In some cases, a movie can be quite different from the book and be just as good (or better). Blade Runner, the Bourne series, and Harry Potter and [insert series title here], for example. In fact, it’s rare a film is truly…um, true…to the original. Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five are a couple of my favorites in regards to an accurate translation, as well as both versions of True Grit – each wisely sticking to Portis’s wonderful dialogue. Francis Ford Coppola was true to S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Rumble Fish (which Hinton wrote the screenplay for) while still imprinting his own artistic style to them.
However, it does bother me when a film misinterprets or flat out changes what the author originally intended their book to be about. In A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick ends the movie, like the American publication, with our poor “hero,” Alex, being cured and able to go back to the behavior of cruelty and violence he once knew. Malcolm McDowell, as Alex, gives an enthusiastic thumbs up to the camera that all will be well. (I remember internally cheering for Alex’s recovery, even knowing the horrific lifestyle to which he would be returning. A testament to McDowell’s abilities, to make the audience sympathize with someone so terrible.)
But Burgess’s novel doesn’t end there; there’s another chapter. The original version of A Clockwork Orange (the version first published in the U.K.) ends with Alex regretting all the abhorrent things he had done. On his own, without the need of scientific behavior-modification, he chooses to be a better person. Morality cannot be programmed into us, it must be a choice made from within. Thematically, A Clockwork Orange the movie and A Clockwork Orange the novel are quite different. As much as I love the former, I prefer the latter.
Other than that circumstance, I think whether or not a motion picture is exactly like its book counter-part is irrelevant. They should be considered separately.
Now I’m going to jump to the third scenario I mentioned above, which is to stay away from the production altogether. Many authors are obsessed about how their work will be represented when adapted for the screen or television or whatever, an attitude I don’t understand.
Once Gospel for the Damned was published, I was done with it; it is what it is, and always will be. Nothing is going to change that. Ever. No matter what it’s adapted into – a movie, a stage-play, an opera (O.K., that would be weird, but I’d love to see it!). No matter how bad that adaptation may be, what I’ve written will never change. A band covering another artists’ song has no affect upon the original version. Not to compare my work to Shakespeare’s, but how many different versions of Romeo and Juliet have you seen? (I once saw a production where the setting was a post-apocalyptic world – Road Warrior-meets-The Bard!)
I like the idea of just letting it go – less work for me. I mean, I’ve already labored over the material once; why would I want to do yet another rewrite in some other form?
Of course, if I consulted or co-wrote with someone else (scenario number two), it might be less work, and I would still be able to hang out in Hollywood and mingle with celebrities! (Yes, this is trite, I know. But it’s my daydream. So bug off!)
[For a great read on this topic, try John Irving’s memoir My Movie Business, about his experience with his award-winning adaptation of The Cider House Rules.]