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For many different reasons, authors who adapt their own books into screenplays are rare. Whether the author feels that he or she has done the job—peaked out, so to speak—or whether the producers believe that a book and a movie require different talents, an open door exists for educated screenwriters to seek out published novels that have somehow escaped the attention of the world's film market.
This is not to say that authors never adapt their own works. The screenplay for Dances with Wolves was written by the author. So was GoodFellas, as well as others. But the fact remains that film is a completely different form; it is not a celluloid version of a novel. And a writer who attempts to translate a novel into a screenplay must understand that before starting.
Thus, an equal opportunity exists for the unpublished novelist. Given the techniques provided by this book, an adaptation becomes another way of ultimately getting a story published—or produced.
Long ago I started out as a New York attorney specializing in theatrical law. It was my destiny, after ten years of practice, to transfer my entire attention to the artistic rather than the legal aspects of my clients' affairs.
I spent the next twenty-five years as a writer, director, producer, and, finally, in Hollywood, vice-president in charge of programming at the American Broadcasting Company. Along the way, I founded and was president of the Television Producers Guild.
The programs I produced were among the leading shows of their time. Perhaps you remember some of them: "Perry Mason," "Have Gun Will Travel," "The Red Skelton Show," "The Johnny Carson Show," "Rawhide," and "Outer Limits."
There are few legitimate industries that play for higher stakes than this business of broadcasting, and the mood swings that accompany the business are equally high. So periodically you think to yourself: "I gotta get away from this... I gotta take a clean breath... I gotta..."
Well, I did. About twenty years ago, I was approached by James Cleary, president of California State University, Northridge. He asked me if I would introduce a screenwriting emphasis at the university. Flattered, I accepted a full professorship and put my television career on hold. I would return to it, I thought, after a year or two at the most.
It didn't work out that way.
Somehow, without my noticing it, teaching became my career. At the end of the fifth year, my first class of thirteen had become ten sections with more than two hundred registered students. By the end of my tenth year, after I introduced two more advanced courses, more than three hundred undergraduates were being registered in my classes yearly.
Also at that time I was fortunate to persuade sixteen friends who were professional writers in television and film to become part-time instructors at the university. One of them came to me and said, "Why don't we have an advanced course in adaptation? At least we'll know that the student is working on a good story." He reminded me of a conversation that I had years before, while I was producing "Rawhide."
It happened during a break in my schedule. I had gone to Madrid with Clint Eastwood to make a spaghetti Western called "A Fistful of Dollars." One night the director, Sergio Leone, asked me to join him for dinner.
In the course of conversation, he began to talk about a scene that was troubling him. Somehow, I managed to contribute a notion that helped to solve his problem.
He looked at me warmly and said, "Bisogna averre gli ingeniere bravi per corregere i stupidaggini delli architetti."
Obviously it was an Italian apothegm. When I asked him what it meant, he said: "One must have smart engineers to correct the stupid mistakes of the architects." And it was in the recollection of that remark that I realized the advantage of adaptation as a learning process in the art of screenwriting.
It is well known that our method of teaching screenwriting is basically architectural. We start out by designating the building blocks of the screenplay: how it is put together. After that, in order to demonstrate how a screenplay, or the engineering, works, we ask the student to create an original story and characters, and we apply them to the building blocks. But, as often as not, the story supplied by the student is rather frail and doesn't create opportunities to fully exploit dimensions of screenwriting. As a result, we end up with a product that may be dramatic but is unsatisfactory as a completely structured play.
In this connection, writers use two sentences constantly to signify their approval or disapproval of scripts or any parts of them. The sentences are: "It works" and "It doesn't work." When writers use those sentences, they're talking about the engineering of a script.
Hence, any discussion of the engineering factor must be inevitably diminished if the original material created by the student doesn't work. It is tantamount to teaching someone how to assemble a well-designed automobile by using parts that the student has created. If any of the parts don't work, the learning process has to be significantly undermined. Why not, then, apply the engineering process to a Rolls Royce—a story with a rich theme and characters of depth and dimension—instead of to a Model T Ford?
Think of it this way. Last year, 27,000 scripts and outlines were registered at the Writers Guild of America. Only a small percentage meet the most basic standard for judging a script: the writer has created an interesting story with dimensional characters. A published novel has already passed that test.
Another aspect of adaptation vehemently suggests itself at this point. That is the fact that year after year, as many as four out of five Academy Award nominations are adaptations. And invariably they are the winners. Moreover, this has been true throughout the history of motion pictures, from the period of the Hemingway classics, to Dr. Zhivago and The Godfather, right up to Driving Miss Daisy and The Silence of the Lambs.
But apart from that, and at the heart of the matter, I strongly believe that quality in screenwriting can be elusive and that the learning process is greatly advantaged by the energy and passion that a good story and rich characters can inspire.
Incidentally, I occasionally refer to the screenplay simply as a play. A screenplay is, in truth, a different product insofar as it uses a camera instead of a stage. But, in the final analysis, the play and the screenplay have the same spine. Together they share a very old and very honorable heritage as a single art form. I often use the word play to maintain that distinction. Nor does this change the theory upon which this book is based, namely, that an adaptation is an original screenplay and, as such, is the sole property of the screenwriter.
Books and films are separate art forms and it's useless to wish that one would perform the other's high-wire act. But when all's right with the heavens, movies that grow from books seem to have an extra layer of subtlety and resonance. When you see one that has, stop for a minute to think about the work of the adaptor, an artist working with respect, compassion, wit, humanity and the sharpest razor this side of Sweeney Todd.
—Sheila Benson, Los Angeles Times Film Critic, 1981-1991
The art of screenwriting may be learned in two ways. The first and most widely employed method is by studying the structure of drama. In such a case, the student is obliged to create original characters and place them in an original story situation.
In adaptation—the second method of instruction—the student's selected source material provides not only the characters but also the story. In both writing an original story and adapting another writer's story, the learning process derives from the exercise of writing as it is applied to the framework of established theories of dramatic art.
An adaptation in film and television is usually based upon a novel, novelette, or short story. (Another possibility for adaptation is opera, but music is not a part of this study.)
A writer may also adapt a stage play but the process of learning is limited in such an endeavor. Since the same dramatic structure applies to both forms, the film or television adaptation of a stage play becomes chiefly a matter of opening up the story to the dimensions that are offered by the camera. Obviously, this leaves the student with much to learn about the dramatic techniques used in the adaptation of a novel.
Short stories, also, are not recommended for the student because the yarns are often spun in the first person, presenting special challenges for the novice. In other words, a short story is told through the central character's innermost thoughts. In dramatic terms, the story is internalized.
Internalization cannot be tolerated in drama. The only way a playwright can reveal a character's thoughts is through the use of dialogue, action, and images: that is, by what the people in the story say and do, and by what the audience is given to see. Only in that way can a writer communicate to the audience what is going on in a character's mind. Hence, the burden of inventing such a succession of scenes and dialogue as may be necessary to translate a complete short story into action may become a less than profitable task for the singular purpose of studying the adaptation process. However, the accomplished writer can find countless short stories that are well worth the effort of adaptation.
A novel is a narrative portrayal of fictitious characters in a series of scenes, action, and dialogue. A novel's story may be told from the viewpoint of an observer, who may or may not be the author, or it may be told in the first person by one of the characters in the story. In either case, the important point is that a story is told to the reader.
Before a writer begins the enormous creative effort of adapting a work, he or she should consider the legalities involved.
If a story of any kind has been published, the ownership almost certainly rests with either the original author or the publisher by virtue of a copyright, express or implied. Some material may exist in the public domain—meaning it is free to be used by others—but this copyright status should not be taken for granted.
If you are interested in and plan to adapt the work of another for financial profit, you should investigate the conditions under which you are able to use such material. Other than those works that are in public domain, you must reach some agreement with the holder of the rights before any use may take place which involves the sale of your adaptation. (No one, of course, can prevent you from adapting any material whatever, with or without approval, if it is solely for your private use as an exercise in screenwriting.)
Although an adaptation has been described as a dramatic translation of the elements of a novel, this does not mean that the adapter, or screenwriter, is required to reproduce a faithful translation of the book.
Assuming the adapter has the rights, he or she is permitted to employ any changes, alterations, or innovations in the process. Indeed, the screenwriter may even decide to use no more than the basic idea of a novel. If so, the screen credits might read: "Based upon the novel," "As suggested by the novel," or "Freely adapted from the novel." The dramatist's sole purpose is to use the story to its best advantage as a play.
This principle also apples to an individual who is adapting his or her own novel, as well as to one who is adapting the property of another. The only difference is that whereas the author of a novel, published or otherwise, probably already holds the copyright to that property, a person who undertakes to adapt and sell the property of another must first acquire its rights in order to do so. Nonetheless, it should be understood that the adapter who has secured the necessary permissions is the sole owner of any and all rights to the adaptation.
Hence, unless you are adaptating a work solely as an exercise, such as my students do at the university (which, in my view, is the most insightful and useful method of learning the basic elements of drama and dramatic writing), you should first investigate your acquisition of the rights to the novel you have chosen to adapt.
In this regard, a simple letter of inquiry to the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress, in Washington, D. C., is the most reliable first step to take in determining who, if anyone, presently owns the rights to the work. A reply from the Copyright office includes information on the facts any writer should know about copyrights.
Since we are going to translate step by step the novel Claire Serrat into the screenplay Claire Serrat, let me tell you exactly what I did to acquire the rights to adapt and sell this screenplay.
To begin with, a novel, like any other merchandise, has a market value. Certainly I didn't look for a book on a best-seller list. My requirements were simple: the novel had to inspire me and at the same time cost little or nothing to acquire.
I wrote to the Copyright Office to inquire about the book's status. The reply stated: "Claire Serrat; by Ida Alexa Ross Wylie. Registered in the name of I.A.R. Wylie under 377000 following publication February 2, 1959. Renewed under RE 340-292, May 27, 1987, by Medical College of Pennsylvania, as executor."
Clearly my author was deceased; her estate owned the rights.
I wrote to the Medical College of Pennsylvania and explained my interest and purpose. I then received a letter from the college's president expressing interest in a license for Claire Serrat to be used in a book. According to the correspondence, the license terms would include payment of an initial fee of $500 to the Medical College of Pennsylvania as advance payment against a license fee of 10 percent of any royalties received on the Claire Serrat derivative works developed by myself. With that, we struck a deal.
Certainly every situation will vary, but what I am suggesting is that you attempt to get an option for a reasonable length of time in which to write and sell the screenplay. An option is an agreement that entitles the writer of the screenplay to offer it for sale under the terms and conditions agreed to by the holder of the rights, and exists for a length of time that is agreed upon by the parties involved. An option might be for three to six months, for example, and offer the possibility of renewals. Bear in mind, the deal may involve more or less difficulty in bargaining, but your expertise as a writer may prove to be the most promising asset for a book that is lying fallow. Of course, your agent, if you have one or can acquire one in the process, will understand all that.
One way or another, only a relatively small part of the novel is usable for its translation into a play. A novel, whether it is a hundred pages or a thousand, could take five to ten times longer to tell in its linear progression than would the screenplay, which compresses time and reorders events for a different dramatic effect. One paragraph in a novel could include a variety of scenes and characters that could take ten or more pages to dramatize.
This means that your book, whatever its length, must be greatly compressed in order to meet the time limits of a screenplay, customarily from ninety minutes to two hours, more or less. Although not all pages in a screenplay move at the same pace, your script should be roughly 100 to 140 pages.
Accordingly, an immediate, unconditional need exists to reduce the novel and eliminate entire scenes, characters, and subplots to the extent that the full meaning and impact of the novel can emerge without them. In order to reduce the novel to a play, the writer must revise the plot. This is another way of saying that the writer must isolate the struggle that will involve the protagonist.
To that end, a fully developed treatment is the foundation we will need to give our story a central dramatic purpose, or, in other words, the necessary organic structure. And so we must first find that place in the novel that is commonly described as the point of departure in the play. That, in dramatic language, is the point at which the protagonist is motivated to resolve the issue of conflict. (All of these italicized words will receive special attention as we proceed.)
The Novel Versus the Play
A novel is a story about people who are involved in a set of circumstances that presumably took place sometime in the past. This is true even though the author may tell the story in the present tense. Even a story about the future (science fiction, for example) is told as if the events have already taken place. A play, however, proceeds on the supposition that the story is taking place now—before your very eyes—even though the time in which the play is set may be ancient history or the distant future.
In short, a novel is a recounting; a play is a re-creation.
When you consider the novel as a form of entertainment, the author properly expects you, the reader, to make a contribution. That is, you are expected to use your imagination. In other words, you pretend that what you are reading is happening now. And you willingly accept that bargain in anticipation of the pleasure you expect to receive.
Unfortunately the playwright doesn't have this advantage. Since the play presents the story as if it is actually happening, it necessarily rejects the viewer's imagination. Unless you are hallucinating, you do not
imagine what you see. And if an audience cannot be prevailed upon to imagine what is taking place, it follows that the dramatist cannot ask it to pretend. Although the play, like the novel, may be equally fictitious, the viewer, unlike the reader, is not imagining what he or she sees and therefore must accept what is seen as being real. In other words, the play ventures beyond the viewer's imagination: it does not pretend; it presumes to be real.
You read a novel patiently with the assumption that the people you are meeting will become interesting for one reason or another. You know and expect that something of a momentous nature is going to happen presently, so you willingly read on. If the author is skillful, you learn about the characters' backgrounds—where they live, what they do, and what they shouldn't do—as well as many things about their characters, such as the way you suspect they might act in certain circumstances, circumstances which you believe will happen eventually.
In most cases, the novel progresses chronologically until somebody in the story emerges with a problem. Looking back, we realize that, while reading, we have taken several left and right turns that actually had nothing to do with the protagonist's problem. But reading the novel was fun; it was what we paid for when we bought the book; after all, we agreed to use our imagination. But not so in dramaturgy. The play is real. Real. In drama, reality is the name of the game. What you see on the screen is what you get ... it's not a promise, it's a happening. And you are there.
To be sure, the play makes the same promise of providing entertainment to the viewer, just as the novel does to the reader, but if the play is to be accepted by the audience, it must convey the impression that what is happening is actually taking place right before the viewers' eyes. From the very beginning of the play, they must be made to feel that what they are seeing on the screen is real.
A classic statement in playwriting holds that a play must be written in such a way as to condition the audience willingly to suspend its disbelief that what is taking place is real. Obviously, making an audience suspend its disbelief is nothing short of magic. Certainly, the viewers are not going to do it upon request. No. The writer must use the technique (in other words, a dramatic structure) of involving the viewers with the central character. Or, more precisely, the writer must get the viewers to feel that they are the central character.
Let us take a few minutes to examine what lies behind this sleight of hand.
A teleplay or screenplay is nothing if it is not performed. You can read a play, and many people do, but finding readers is not the primary intention of the playwright. The purpose of a play is to come alive on a stage or screen in front of an audience. Even though reading a play has its rewards, an audience would rather see it. The reason, we presume, is that seeing the play adds another dimension of dramatic art, the performance, which is probably more scintillating than the solitary experience of reading it.
If we are to understand why untold millions of viewers are daily willing to spend untold billions of dollars to sit and watch and listen to television and theatrical productions, we must explore that part of our minds in which most of our basic needs originate.
The Unconscious Mind
We know some predictable things about the nature of human beings. We quickly learn the difference between what is permissible and impermissible. In our infancy, we want to move, but hands restrain us. Sometimes this restraint is accompanied by an unpleasant sensation. We reach out to touch, to feel, but things are taken away. We are weaned on words like no, naughty, and shame.
Adolescence follows, and we experience personal rejection. All of these disappointments and rejections and failures leave us with a sense of guilt. And since we can do nothing about this mounting guilt, we grow frustrated.
Up to a point, we are able to deal with frustration. But, finally, our guilt and frustration are too much of a load to carry. So we repress them. If we did not have this ability to repress guilt, life in a restricted social order would become intolerable.
Hence, we release the pressure of our frustrations by means of a psychological device called adjustment. We stop feeling guilty and "forget" our pain and what caused it.
But have we forgotten? Consciously, yes. But unconsciously, no. The guilt is alive; it is simply dormant in the backs of our minds. And it wreaks havoc.
When we repress our guilt we experience conscious feelings of relief. But unconsciously, a vague unhappiness—an anguish, even—asserts itself in the form of a silent inner wish to get rid of the hateful frustrations. And we fulfill this wish by means of a mechanism called fantasy. Through fantasy, we repair the pain of our guilt by re-experiencing it in more pleasing ways, with endings that are more desirable. Happy endings.
Our subconscious mind asserts itself on moral issues such as right and wrong, good and bad, fair and unfair, just and unjust, decent and indecent. And we, in turn, seek to repair the pain of this guilt by fantasizing some kind of adjustment, some reconciliation, restoring our self-esteem so that we gain acceptance or seek revenge. These deriding forces in each of us seek constantly to come to terms with life.
This is the nature of our audience. When viewers attend the theater or watch a television show, it is for the purpose of being entertained by a story about the experience of others. But, in actuality, they have come to fantasize, to play the game of releasing their imprisoned emotions—their unconscious guilt. And only because they must disguise the truth of that fact—the fact that they are watching the play to get rid of their guilt—do they regard the play as mere entertainment. But subconsciously they are secretly seeking to accept the story as their own by identifying themselves with the problems of the characters in the play. This secret acceptance of the central character's struggle as the viewer's own is the key to the reality of drama.
A play is a palliative that a dramatist administers to an audience for the express purpose of relieving unconscious guilt. In these circumstances, a play is seen by an audience on two levels: the cognitive (thinking) and the unconscious (feeling). Consciously, a viewer accepts the story as someone else's (mere entertainment). But the unconscious mind secretly accepts the central character's struggle as its own. It does this by feeling sorry—sympathy—or by identification—empathy. That is why a dramatic story must contain a struggle by the protagonist to resolve a problem.
This accounts for what is often described as the rooting interest of the audience. It is the viewers' desire to see the struggle come out fairly, righteously, and, to their minds, decently in the end. That is the basic reason why stories about detectives and lawyers who seek justice are so popular. These characters are fighting for the common decency that most people applaud.
What we are saying is that the thrust of a play is composed of a sequence of emotional charges that begins when our curiosity is aroused by a character who becomes enmeshed in a problem and who develops a need to solve that problem. When he or she generates our sympathy, empathy, or antipathy—the factors that determine our rooting interest in the resolution of that problem—we are emotionally involved in the play. And the sooner we get involved, the better the play.
That sort of involvement does not happen that way in the novel form. Indeed, the protagonists in novels have their full share of problems, but they don't usually emerge until we have been formally introduced and have some idea of the protagonists' values and a sense of who they are, what they do, and the fabric of their surface relationships. This material concerning the central character, when properly used, provides for the playwright what we call the backstory. We shall explore more about that in Chapters 3 and 5.
Choosing the Novel
The choice of a novel is, naturally, left to the adapter. This decision should not be a trivial choice or a passing fancy. If the adapter is not significantly and measurably moved by the novel, for whatever reason, the play will suffer accordingly.
When a writer undertakes an adaptation with no more than a passing desire to use it as an experiment for translating a novel into a screenplay, the likelihood is that the audience will react equally modestly, pragmatically, and unemotionally to the choice of such a story.
If screenwriting has any justification as an art form, it is fundamental that a good play must have meaning. And, to that end, the degree of a play's effectiveness will depend largely upon the richness of that meaning.
When we consider the meaning of a play, we think about the final effect felt by the audience when the play is over. In other words, the audience extracts the original purpose from the play—its message, subtext, or theme. And if the playwright can extract the subtext or theme from the novel, he or she may use it effectively in the play to significant advantage.
A Viable Drama
Some stories seem to be dramatic but are not adaptable to the play form; they are not "playable." When people in the trade refer to such a story, they say, "It doesn't work."
A story that supports a play must contain at least one central character whose emotions are being tried. In other words, dramatic stories are initiated by circumstances that cause characters to react. This reaction to a situation motivates the dramatic action that is the premise of the play.
No matter how artistically or brilliantly a story is told, if it does not present an emotional challenge for the central character or characters it is not dramatically viable. For this reason we must dispense with stories that appeal only to the intellect, such as stories that involve the explanation of lofty themes, obscure principles, or pure debate. Don't confuse the word debate with contest. A debate is purely intellectual; a contest is emotional. We do not react emotionally to intellectual issues; we may think about them, but we do not feel them.
Hence, a dramatically viable story is one that contains a character or characters who can feel, react, and act in circumstances where emotions are being tested.
More explicitly, if we ask the question, "What is the core of a dramatically viable story?", we have to say it emerges when something happens which appears to challenge a person's existence and creates in that person an immediate and unrelenting need to resolve the problem.
In dramatic language, this need is the issue of conflict around which the play revolves. The play is resolved only when the protagonist finally comes to terms with the issue.
The Engine of a Play
The engine of a play functions very much like a steam engine—but not, mind you, a locomotive. A locomotive is a vehicle. What we are talking about is the steam which is the power that moves the vehicle.
In this sense, our locomotive, or the vehicle, is the play. And, just as the locomotive's engine, or source of power, is the compressed steam, the play's engine, or source of power, is the protagonist's problem.
In the locomotive, power is generated by the force of the steam under pressure. The steam's freedom is opposed by its confinement. The force of the steam as it seeks to be released powers the locomotive. If the steam were freed of its confinement, the locomotive would come to a stop.
In like manner, the engine of the play is an issue generated by a force that draws its energy from some opposing force. More discretely, a play is a problem that is activated by the force of a protagonist under pressure. That is, the protagonist's freedom to function is opposed by the confining influence of the antagonist. If the protagonist were freed of the problem, the play would come to a stop.
Hence, the opposing force has the effect of moving the play forward by depriving the protagonist of the ability to go on with life until the issue of conflict is resolved. When that happens—and only then—the protagonist has come to terms with the problem, the engine stops, and the play is over.
The Issue of Conflict
At issue with the protagonist's objective of reaching a goal, or a final decision, is an opposing force, or an antagonist. We call this force the issue of conflict.
An issue of conflict falls into one of three categories:
- A human force: Person versus Person.
- A nonhuman force: Person versus Nature (or a physical obstacle).
- An inner force: Person versus Self.
These categories describe the architectural foundation upon which all plays are constructed.
Thus, the power of a play in the first category will be generated by the force of a character who opposes the protagonist. In the second, it is a natural force or physical obstacle that opposes the protagonist; in the third, it is the protagonist's own inner force or conscience that generates the power of the play.
Significance of the Issue of Conflict
Conflict, then, is the fuel and the mission of drama. It increases or diminishes in direct proportion to the degree of significance your protagonist gives to the issue of conflict. Hence, the crucial issue, the objective of the play, is the significant issue of conflict. This is normally found in one of these categories:
- Life or death.
- Freedom or captivity.
- Honor or degradation.
- Health or illness.
- Faithfulness or unfaithfulness.
- Success or failure.
Once you have identified for yourself the plight of the protagonist in your novel as well as the significant issue of conflict as it falls into one of the above categories, you will have determined the point of departure (the opening), as well as the climax (the end), of your play.
The Will to Struggle
Jeremy Bentham, the ethical philosopher, thought that every human act and decision was motivated by some calculation of pleasure and pain. But the strength of this motivation depends upon the importance of the decision, which can be limited or extreme. That is, a matter which is of passing importance will be far less forcefully motivated than a life-anddeath issue.
Therefore, if a person is not seriously concerned about a problem, in dramatic terms he or she doesn't truly have a problem. And the less a character cares about a problem, the less the audience cares about the problem. Why should the audience care if the character doesn't?
A characteristic of human nature is that we are inclined to dwell selfishly on our own concerns, except for the times when we are distracted by matters of more compelling interest. Therefore, the range of our interest in a distraction depends upon its seriousness. As soon as someone else's trouble becomes less compelling than our own, we return to our private thoughts.
To insure against this possibility, the issue of conflict for your protagonist must be of transcending importance, or larger than life. In most novels, the protagonist's problem is central to some socially accept able principle or ideal with which the audience identifies. For them, the force that unconsciously drives the protagonist has an undercurrent of right or wrong, good or bad. Therefore, the significance of the conflict should be as crucial as destruction of that principle or ideal. To settle for anything less than right or good would be to compromise; to compromise would weaken the protagonist's will to struggle. Conversely, the more intensely significant the issue of conflict is for your protagonist, the more deeply it will be felt by the audience.