Friday, February 17, 2023

Adapting a Book Into a Film, by Josh Stallings

Q: Why do you think so few beloved books become equally beloved films? Do you have a personal list of exceptions?

A: I started my adult writing journey in screenplays. A couple that got made had limited releases and disappeared. I have been asked if I want to turn any of my books into screenplays. NO, REALLY, NO. I have never felt I had the distance or objectivity with my books to be able to translate them into film.   

For an adaptation to work it needs a screenwriter who can discover the essence or vibe of the book, and then set the book aside to create a new work that delivers the feeling we loved into a totally different art form. 

Steve Tesich did this brilliantly with his adaptation of John Irving’s The World According to Garp. The book was personally important to me; I was worried when it was made into a film. But I loved the film. The screenplay wanders from the book but never leaves the tone. I remember certain passages from the book, and others I remember from the film. They are distinct in my mind but equally wonderful.  

William Goldman is a master of adaptation maybe because he was a novelist before becoming a screen writer. In the case of both Marathon Man and Princess Bride he wrote both the source novel and the film adaptation. His books on working in Hollywood, Adventures in the Screen Trade, and Which Lie Did I Tell? Are must reads for anyone considering a career in screenwriting.

Why are there so many examples of great crime books becoming great films? Maybe because crime novels by nature tend to be short and use action to propel the plot. Like film. Here’s a quick and incomplete list of crime adaptations I love, No Country for Old Men, To Kill a Mocking Bird, Gone Girl, Devil in a Blue Dress, L.A. Confidential, Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Cotton Comes to Harlem… and many more.

One of my favorite adaptations is The Big Sleep, premiered in 1946. The screenwriters were tasked with capturing Raymond Chandler’s absolutely unique style without relying on first person narration. William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman did a fine job of both capturing the style and making sense of the convoluted plot. They also brilliantly skirted the Hayes Code censorship with clever writing as shown in the dialogue. (Bacall and Bogart’s undeniable chemistry help to heat these words up.)

Vivian: Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them workout a little first, see if they're front runners or come from behind, find out what their hole card is, what makes them run.

Marlowe: Find out mine?

Vivian: I think so.

Marlowe: Go ahead.

Vivian: I'd say you don't like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a little lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.

Marlowe: You don't like to be rated yourself.

Vivian: I haven't met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?

Marlowe: Well, I can't tell till I've seen you over a distance of ground. You've got a touch of class, but I don't know how, how far you can go.

Vivian: A lot depends on who's in the saddle.

Some small screen adaptations have been wonderful as well. Ann Cleeves’ Shetland Novels are allowed to be both rich and languid in their story telling by only tackling one novel a season. Starting with third season, they spread one novel over six episodes. 

Tony Hillerman’s Dark Wind became a terrific limited series. I read the book over thirty years ago, loved it, remember it fondly, but can’t tell you if the show tracked with the novel. 

Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven would have been destroyed if it had been contained to 120 minutes. But as an HBO limited series it captures the feel if not the exact plot of the book. I loved the show, even if it was slightly less brilliant than the amazing novel.

Lastly, an adaptation of a book I haven't read. I just saw the Swedish film A Man Called Ove, so damn good that it has me adding Fredrik Backman’s book to my TBR pile. 

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