Intro & disclaimer

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There's this thing that drives me crazy at all those panel discussion-type seminars given by industry pros. Invariably someone in the audience will raise their hand and ask, "So, how do I break into the movie business?" That's the fundamental reason people attend such seminars... and also the source of that subtle, underlying tension, that feeling of resentment that permeates the room. (For more on this, check out Dan Petrie, Jr.'s Indy Pros feature, How Do You Get An Agent?) If voice could be given to that unspoken feeling, it would come out something like: "Tell me why you have such a cool job, and not me? Tell me why, EXACTLY, do you get to pursue YOUR dream at a cushy yearly salary and not the rest of us? Huh? WHAT MAKES YOU SO GODDAMN SPECIAL?"

(Okay, maybe that's a little overboard. Maybe that's only part of the audience. Maybe I attended a few bad seminars. Maybe it was just me.)

Anyway. So the industry pro typically responds to the question by telling the audience how they 'broke in' to the movie business. Which is good enough; we want to know that, we look on with anticipation. Now here's the part that drives me crazy. Invariably the pro will say something like: "It was really funny the way I broke in. I just happened to run into George Roy Hill outside one of the dubbing stages at Warner Bros. He mentioned that his assistant was looking for somebody to co-adapt a book they'd recently optioned. I met with the assistant, we hit it off and -- "

-- and I want to jump up in the audience and scream, "WAIT A SECOND. Wait-a-goddamn-second. How did you get to point where you were hanging out on the Warners lot to begin with?"

No matter how helpful industry professionals try to be, in books and interviews and seminars and such, they always seem to fall short. They make presumptions, they skip over stuff, they leave out essential details.

Me, I want all the details. I'd be happy to get this type of answer from a screenwriter, on how they wrote a hit film: "Well, first off, I needed some typing paper, so I got in my car and drove down to Kinkos. Bought a 500-sheet ream of plain white, and also bought a new pen. Not one of those dumb blue Bic jobs, but a cool Uniball. I debated for a few minutes whether to get fine point or medium point, decided I wasn't quite ready for fine point, better to work my way up..."

One of the goals of this column is to provide the actual details of the screenwriting business, in all their excruciating boredom. Like putting a JennyCAM on the writing business. Nobody ever does that, because it's too much work, and a sensible person wouldn't even try, and everywhere else, people are actually sensible.

But not here.

So for this column, I'm going to show you a contract.

An actual, executed film contract. Not just a standard contract, but a post-negotiated item, with all the numbers and time limits and little nuances you usually don't see -- like payment amounts. Only the production company name, project title and writers' names have been changed, to make it harder for the right people to know that they should be angry at me.

Think of it as your first-ever film contract. One you get to examine at your leisure. Most writers, when it comes time to review their contracts, don't have the time -- they just want to sign and get that paycheck coming.

Here you can get comfortable with the style and the language. (My personal favorite is, 'Paragraph intentionally omitted.') It will even give you a sort of benchmark to refer to when your own first deal comes through.

Hopefully, this provides a little more information on one of those details that commonly gets skipped over: "So, then we signed our contract..." Sounds so simple, when you put it like that. Here's the behind-the-scenes.

Your very first film contract. Congratulations!


A fellow screenwriter was concerned about the possible effects of turning in his rewrite 'late' to the studio. ('Late' here being defined as 'several weeks past-the proscribed six week writing period' late, not 'late,' as in, say, 'the writer has been out-of-contact in Hawaii for the last eight months boozing away his commencement money' late.) (Which is what the studio executives all assume the writer is doing during the writing periods anyway, even if the script does come in on time.) (Maybe because that's what THEY'D be doing?)

Anyway. This screenwriter was worried about what would happen if he missed his writing deadline. The danger, I told him, is that it would suggest he'd run into major story problems while writing -- and once people get that idea, they'll start to read problems into the script, no matter what.

Screenplays are pretty defenseless items. If somebody tags a screenplay as 'too complex' in a story meeting, heads around the table wag up and down, and all of a sudden the screenplay sitting there on the table has indeed become too complex. If someone comments that the script 'doesn't have enough levels,' the poor script undergoes an instant transformation and, alas, becomes simplistic and shallow. There's a wall of resistance any script must overcome to gain acceptance and be considered 'good,' and if you turn it in late, you do build that wall a little higher.

On the other hand... I told the writer what our agent, Dodie Gold at the William Morris Agency, has told us: "They'd rather have it good than have it on time."

"Well, which is it?" the writer demanded, "Am I risking my career by taking extra time, or risking my career by not taking extra time?"

"It's really simple," I said. "If they love the script, nobody will even remember there was a completion deadline, or whether or not you met it. And if they hate the script, the fact they also had to wait to get the lousy thing will make them even more pissed at you, and you'll never work in this town again."

Now, this column is actually about writing adaptations, and you'll notice I haven't said a single word yet about writing adaptations. But here's where I wrest control of the column, and bend and shape it to my will, execute an ambitious and impossible move, and force together these two disparate concepts. Stand back and watch.
Your first requirement in writing an adaptation is to MAKE AN EFFECTIVE MOVIE. Whether the original source material was a novel, short story, play, comic book, television series or whatever, it has to now work, on its own merits, in the dramatic form of a film. If you make a good film nobody will mind if you had to take some liberties with the source material. And if you make a bad film, however much you strayed from the source material will just piss people off all the more, and be used as justification for your lynching. (Just like turning in the script late. See the connection? If you blinked, you missed it.)

Your goal in writing an adaptation absolutely cannot be to 'preserve the source material onto the screen.' It must be to 'make an effective film based upon the source material.' Lorenzo Deboneventura, currently in charge of Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN project at Warner Bros., put this quite succinctly: "Sometimes keeping too true to the material results in not doing justice to the material."

In writing adaptations, we give ourselves an additional challenge: to make an effective film based on the source material, and preserve as much of the source material as possible, and write the new material in the voice of the source material as much as possible.

Now, before continuing on with some tips on how to approach adaptations, let me stress the importance of this subject for new writers. There are immense benefits in associating yourself with good material, in optioning books, plays, magazine articles, even comic scripts.

Here are a few:

You immediately separate yourself from 99% of the aspiring writers out there. If you arrive at the studio with a book in hand, you've given yourself a much better chance of signing a deal.

It's a great opportunity to 'connect.' If, say, you managed to purchase the rights to the "Dilbert" comic strip before it got famous, and you meet an executive who's a huge fan, you're well on your way to your first deal. Name recognition is a wonderful thing, and you want it working on your side.

There are immense learning benefits to be had by working with classic material. Adapt a classic work by a brilliant author and you can't help but improve your own writing abilities.

Filmmaking is a collaborative process. In doing an adaptation, the very first step involves a collaboration -- between yourself and the writer of the original material. This is good practice for later on in the process when you work with other creative people, prior to and including production.

It is a far, far easier experience when a film gets ruined if the material wasn't originally 'yours.' There's a bigger difference than you might think. You have more of a proprietary feeling about your original work, with original characters, concept, and structure, than with material you've chosen to adapt. In Hollywood, doing adaptations can be beneficial to your mental health.

You increase your chances of getting a writing assignment. When the Writers Guild sends out their awards ballots every year, writers can vote for five screenplays in two categories: best original screenplay, and best screenplay adapted from another medium. In the package there's a listing of all the eligible films from the previous year -- and you know what? The lists are invariably the same length. So fully half of the screenplays written and paid for in this town are based on previously existing material. So if you can establish a reputation for pulling off an adaptation... it's like that Woody Allen line, "Bisexuality has its merits. It doubles your chance for a date on a Saturday night."

So, now, if you're like me, when you first think about doing an adaptation, you're thrilled. Adapting a best-seller is like having a brilliant, professional, award-winning writing partner who's willing to do all the work -- characters, plot, the whole thing -- but you get complete power to change any element you want.


And you think (as you lay in your hammock at the Kauna Hilton in Hawaii, wasting that writing period away), "Hey, these fools are paying me, and all I have to do is just sit down and transcribe all that brilliant prose into screenplay form!" Just whip out the OCR software and you're on your way.

That attitude doesn't last. Turns out doing adaptations is really hard.
One of the first things to get over is awe of the material. It's often said that bad novels make good movies, and good novels make bad movies. Reportedly Howard Hawks told Ernest Hemingway (who was unhappy with the film version of FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS) that he could make a great film out of Hemingway's worst book. Hemingway took him up on the challenge. The book Hawks picked was "To Have and Have Not." Perhaps one reason bad novels make good films is that the filmmakers feel more free to manipulate the material into filmic form. It's easier to get past the awe of the material, and go about the process of fashioning a well-structured story -- and not think, "Ohmigod, I'm rewriting Mark Twain!" You're better able to focus on the specifics of just what to keep, and what to change --

Which is pretty much what it's all about. What do you keep, and what do you change? Here's a list of points to consider:


This is perhaps the easiest to get right. Detective stories should stay detective stories, romances should stay romances, etc. The essential elements that made something good in one medium rarely survive both a change of medium and a change of genre.

It's worthwhile here to look at an example that failed: the FLETCH movies. The original books, written by Gregory MacDonald, were squarely in the detective genre. They were smart, well-plotted and clever. The films adapted from turned into an excuse for Chevy Chase to do comic schtick --essentially a change of genre. They took a great character premise -- an investigator with a photographic memory who could lie instantly -- and turned him into someone who couldn't drink from a straw correctly. The results were neither fish nor fowl. The books would not sustain a broad comic re-telling, and the films left the best parts of the books -- the character stuff, the detective plots -- behind.

(As an aside, there's another famous quote having to do with adaptations. As the story goes, someone said to James M. Cain that "Hollywood ruined your books." "No," he is reported to have answered, "There they are right there, sitting on my shelf." The FLETCH movies prove this wrong. The "Fletch" books have, for many millions of people, been ruined. Chevy Chase's visage gets in the way of enjoying them, and millions of people will never pick one up, thinking they aren't something that they are -- which is really, really good.)

#2. TONE

This is another element that, in the best adaptations, does not change. In fact, adding to the story or complementing the story in the style and tone of the original writer is one of the main challenges of doing an adaptation. A brilliant example of this is the screen adaptation of John Irving's THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP. The story elements of Garp wanting to fly, and choosing wrestling (because the wrestling helmets look like aviator helmets) were, I believe, added by the screenwriter, Steve Teisch. And they were perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the movie.


The danger with theme is not that it will get changed unnecessarily, but that it will simply get lost along the way. The theme of Robert Heinlein's novel THE PUPPET MASTERS had to do with the price of survival as paid by each individual, and by a society. The idea was, those who can fight, have a responsibility to step forward and fight. And the fact that people do this, despite their fear, is a tribute to the human race. This entire concept was simply lost in the film adaptation, and so the film came to be about, essentially, nothing.


One of the weakest aspect of most spec scripts are the characters. Again, here's another reason to work with existing material. Imagine adapting Cyrano de Bergerac, as Steve Martin did, into ROXANNE -- what great training in character development! Characters are often the key element in any adaptation. Say you're going to go see a JOHNNY QUEST movie -- what is it you really want to see? Okay -- you want to hear that cool theme song, but what else? Dr. Quest! Race Bannon! Hadji! Bandit, and Johnny! You're going to see the characters. If you can get the characters right you've won half the battle of doing an adaptation. (This is one reason, by the way, I think the ADAMS FAMILY films have been successful. The plots may not have been great, but they got the characters dead on.)


The two best adaptations of Stephen King novels have been, I believe, STAND BY ME and SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. For each film, much of the King-written speech patterns were retained for the dialog, thereby retaining the 'sound' of the novels. This was enhanced by the choice to use voice-over narration, which benefited both movies. It's a great device, if it can be used, in that it effectively retains the voice of the original author.


I'll illustrate this one by how not to do it: The basic situation of any Star Trek episode is a bunch of military-adventurers on the bridge of a spaceship coming upon a strange, life-threatening situation. The basic situation is not what most of the films have been about, which is spending half and hour getting a bunch of old television stars together onto the bridge of a ship. Identify the basic situation. Keep the basic situation. 'Nuff said.


This is where it gets hard, and your love of the material can affect your story judgment.

Our biggest failure in our screenwriting careers involved working on a TRAVIS McGEE adaptation for Frank Marshall at Amblin' Entertainment. We set about the project very logically: we re-read all 18 or so novels, from "The Deep Blue Good-bye" to "The Lonely Silver Train." We identified all the key elements that made up the "Travis McGee" series -- the friendship with Meyer, the Busted Flush, helping a friend out of a jam, the action sequences, the sex, the inevitable 'wounded bird' woman, the con games, the philosophical asides.

In the end we fashioned a story out of two of the books, "Bright Orange for the Shroud" and "Pale Gray for Guilt." McGee got to foil a land scheme, battle a ruthless villain, and pull of an investment con. He excelled on both an intellectual and physical level. Our script hit all the key elements of the series -- and when we turned it in, it was received with a gut-wrenching THUD.

We probably tried to do too much. Given that we were working from an entire series of novels, we weren't willing enough to pare it all back, and lose some key elements. With too many elements, we failed in fashioning them into a proper movie experience. Maybe, given time, those elements we chose could have been re-worked into something quite effective, but Amblin' wasn't willing to wait. Key elements must be refined into film language in order to be effective.


This is where most of the changes on a property will take place, as the original concepts find their form in the new medium of film. 'Plot' is defined here as the events that take place, and 'story' is the way in which you choose to present those events to an audience. It might not seem so at first, but plot is the least important element to retain from a property. It must remain malleable. This is where you bring all your knowledge of film, film structure, scene construction, visual storytelling, transitions, etc. to bear in order to tell the story through film.


The phrase, 'open it up' is one you'll invariably run into somewhere along the line if you work on adaptations. Very often films are based on plays, and so can seem 'stagebound' when those stories are filmed. Or short stories of even novels, which, in exploring their ideas, don't concern themselves with an audience's need for visual relief. It makes sense to explore those story concepts without the restraints imposed by the prior medium.
Okay, just one other thing before I wrap things up: you need to consider the PRIOR awareness of the property. At the very start, you have to ask yourself some hard questions about what the general public knows about the material, and how widespread that awareness is. The answers can become a guide over what can be safely 'changed' and what needs to be protected at all costs.

If you're adapting a movie from the "Kung Fu" TV series, for example, and you do one of those training flashbacks, the kid's name had better be 'Grasshopper.' If you do a JOHNNY QUEST film, we'd better see Hadji and Bandit. And that neat walking spider thing would be nice, and those cool jet-paks.

Here's a really silly example of prior awareness: the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE previews that played in theaters. When I hear that great theme music and see that match lit, I want to see the fuse continue burning across the bottom of the screen. Isn't that how the original show had it? Am I mis-remembering this? WHERE'S THE DAMN BURNING MATCH?

Disney Feature Animation is brilliant at understanding prior awareness of their properties. They pick high name-recognition material -- such as ALADDIN, or LITTLE MERMAID, or even HERCULES. Then they figure out what the general public knows about them -- with ALADDIN, for example, people sort of expect a lamp, a genie, three wishes, and maybe a cave and a magic carpet. They don't mess with those elements, but beyond them, they're free to invent whatever they want.

Audience expectations do affect the film-going experience. Consider Stanley Kubrik's THE SHINING, based on the Stephen King novel. It really came down to whether you'd read the book first, or saw the film first. Those that read the book first weren't all that happy with the movie. But I'd say it was a successful adaptation (I happened to see the film first) simply because of this: I was scared shitless. To me, it's clear that a scary novel had been successfully adapted into a scary movie.

In the end, when doing an adaptation, the true measure of success is whether you're able to duplicate in the film medium the experience the audience felt with the property in its original form. Simply, if they laughed during the play, or were scared by the comic, or thrilled by the page-turner novel -- those are the emotions they should feel when they see it on screen. Give them those same emotions on film, and your adaptation will be a success.

Oh, and one last thing. As I sit here on a beach in Maui, sipping a Mai Tai purchased with the last of the studio's commencement money, uploading this column via satellite, overdue on our last rewrite, I have one last bit of advice:

Try to get it in on time!

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