Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Why This | Why That by Gabriel Valjan


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


Screenwriters are told, ‘Do not submit a screenplay longer than 120 pages.’ Likewise, the sweet spot for novels is somewhere between 80,000 to 100,000 words. The reason why is simple: one page of a screenplay is one minute of film. Time is money to movie studios, and it costs publishers to print books. The page length may explain why, historically, the short story and novella are ideal formats for adaptation from page to screen. Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, anyone?

I lay Success or Failure at the editor’s door. An editor could have spared us page after page of wheat fields in War and Peace. The publisher’s and film studio’s editor has to exercise judgment and honor the work. There’s also the difference between the two media, the book and the movie.

The Word on the page and the Image on the screen are at war. To the victor goes the eyes of the audience, at home or in the cinema, and in different ways. One pan of the camera can decimate hundreds of words of lush exposition. Some people rather see the movies than read the book. Words on a page, or the voice in audiobooks and radio of yesteryear compel readers and listeners to visualize the story in their minds. Special effects or CGI may wow the viewer, but they do little for the imagination.

Whether a story has legs all comes down to the writing. The script writer has to balance the essentials of the story, leave room for interpretation for the actors and the director, and be mindful of the budget. The writer, mindful of the outer marker of 100,000 words, has ample room for the story, in all of its moving parts, to breathe and move at the pace of its own logic. The writer for the screen is, by definition, a minimalist for style in search of maximum effect.

One zigs while the other zags.

            Films from books where the camera work did not do a disservice to the author are most Merchant Ivory films—and note how many are E.M. Forster novels. When producers wish to convey scale, the novel becomes a series, as was the case with Brideshead Revisited, Roots, and Winds of War.

The World According to Garp and Crazy Rich Asians manage to capture ‘the heart’ of the writing though a judicious balance of cinematography and text, even though both books have wonderful parts that are untranslatable to film. Little Women has been a darling for directors, with 19 adaptations, and the works of Jane Austen remain reliable horses in the stable.

If compression and distillation are done in the name of economics, then talk is indeed cheap. Dialogue is both Action and Plot in films from the works of Elmore Leonard. Ditto for George V. Higgins’s Friends of Eddie Coyle. Too much of good thing, though, is a bad thing. Both Higgins and his literary idol, John O’Hara, produced novels that were 90% dialogue. Thumb through James Cain’s Double Indemnity and you’ll see that the script to the film of the same name wrote itself. Cain is my model for the Yin and Yang of Description and Dialogue.

In some instances, film editors have made bad decisions. Films that meandered from their sources—and conclude what you will about genre—are A Clockwork Orange, Dracula, Psycho, The Exorcist, and I Am Legend. Crime and historical works of fiction lend themselves well to film because there is a blend of action and resolution, but that’s not the case (most of the time) for fantasy and sci-fi. We have had unfaithful adaptations of Dune, The Hobbit, Minority Report, and The Wizard of Oz. The most egregious departure from page to screen (for me) is a tie, between First Blood and The Shining. It seems the studio saw a cash cow with Rambo, and I don’t dare speculate what Kubrick was thinking.

There are times when the editor and screenwriter improve on the original. Examples where the movie was better than the author’s book? Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, the adaptation of P.K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? PKD’s ‘ideas’ were always better than his writing. The one instance where the film equaled the book?

William Goldman’s Princess Bride.



Catriona McPherson said...

Thus is so knowledgable and thoughtful. I've never read the WoO because I always thoguht there was no need to. Now I'm tempted for the first time. Cx

Catriona McPherson said...


Gabriel Valjan said...

Thank you, Catriona.

Josh Stallings said...

Great post, we share many of the same examples. Maybe my post will be, “See Gabriel’s post.” ;)