Home of the Brave: Adapting your Own Work to the Screen

This is an article about screenwriting I wrote more than ten years ago. The last line is particularly interesting. 

I received an interesting package in the mail the other day. Actually interesting is not really a strong enough word – more like “Thrilling”. It was five copies of the novelisation of my screenplay/film “Hildegarde”. Looking over the cover, with my picture and my name on it filled me, as you might expect, with pride. I flipped through the pages and marvelled: “how much easier it seemed to do this than write the screenplay in the first place!”

When the producer of “Hildegarde”, Heather Ogilvie, suggested I write a novelisation of the script, I leapt, in typical fashion, to the task with little hesitation. I wrote a couple of sample chapters, Heather shopped them around and next thing I knew I had an advance, a contract and worst of all – a deadline. But any feelings of dread, inadequacy, or plain old desperation, quickly dissipated when I realised how easy the job was going to be. Every morning I sauntered into my office, flipped open the script and wrote a few more pages of wonderful, liberating prose. Character’s thoughts and memories were suddenly allowed, even a dog’s thoughts were permitted. History could be explained, not merely suggested by visual motifs or clunky dialog. Even dialog could be wordy, detailed and clear. I could ADD scenes! I was free, in other words, free from the constraints of the screenplay form. Free! Free! Free!

It was like a wonderful dream.

Reflecting on this experience, after receiving the copies in the mail made me think about the opposite task: adapting an existing work into a screenplay. Recently I met Daniel Clowes the writer of both the Screenplay “Ghost World” and it’s source, the graphic novel of the same name. Congratulating him on his Oscar nomination he boasted cheekily that “Ghost World” was the only comic book adaptation to score an Oscar nod. That alone, I thought, as he signed my copy, is enough to deserve to win.

Each year, dozens of films come out which are adaptations of one thing or another. More are written as specs or assignments but never produced. Some of those are adapted by the writer of the original source. How different their experience must be from my liberating novelisation. Where I could speak my character’s minds, they suddenly had to show it. Where I could detail history, in however many words it took, they suddenly had to condense and “visualise” it. They had to cut and chop and rearrange their own prose, their own story, their own characters to fit the form, the length and, ultimately, what the producer wanted.

What a nightmare!

And yet, many writers prefer to adapt their own work. It would be nice to think that when a film producer options an original source such as a novel or play, they offer the adaptation job to the writer of the original first. Not always true, in fact it’s probably quite rare. Stephen King, who has optioned almost all of his vast collected works to the screen, appears only infrequently as a writer of the screenplay or teleplay of the resulting adaptations. Many producers feel that novelists and playwrights don’t have the necessary skills to write a good screenplay. Others may want the writer of the source as far away from the project as possible, to protect the cast and crew from their critical, possessive eye.

But sometimes, the original writer seems the obvious choice. For whatever reason, sometimes they accept the task. And sometimes they even succeed. So how do they do it? What’s it like? How do they keep from daily killing themselves, or someone else, over such an arduous task?

Daniel Clowes, the writer of the abovementioned “Ghost World” had help – he co-wrote the screenplay with the film’s director – Terry Zweigoff. When I saw the film, it had a comic book/graphic novel feel to it, and I assumed that there wasn’t much distance between the original text and the screenplay. When I read the graphic novel however, I was surprised how different they were. This highlights a fundamental truth about adapting. It’s all about the choices.

Novels are generally more complex than the screenplays derived from them. This is certainly true of “The Cider House Rules” which I’ll discuss below. So while as a graphic novel/comic book “Ghost World” is less dense than a novel, interestingly it’s also very complex – far too complex to transfer easily to the film medium.

So choices had to be made. The main choice in this case, seems to be the introduction of the character Seymour. Seymour fulfils the functions in the screenplay that several characters fulfil in the book. This illustrates a common practice in adaptation – amalgamation of characters. Sometimes one characters traits and actions will be subsumed by another existing character and sometimes, as in the case of “Ghost World” a new character will be created to fulfil several characters roles.

With Seymour introduced to the script, the story of “Ghost World” radically changed. Where the graphic novel had been more about Enid’s internal struggles, the screenplay, with the help of Seymour, was much more external. Films tend to do that – an introspective, reactive character is not as interesting on screen as they can be on the page. The art teacher, Roberta Allsworth, is another example of this. Her character externalises in the film what nameless faceless college entry examiners represent in the book.

But Seymour does more than just change the direction of the story from inward to outward. With Seymour being such a strong character, he becomes a major focal point of the story. He becomes Enid’s mentor and pupil, friend and lover. Their relationship is essentially the framework on which the plot is hung. There is no such framework in the book. In the same way, Enid’s relationship with Roberta is the framework for the subplot dealing with Enid’s future and studies.

Framework is another word for structure, and we all know how important structure is in screenwriting. With “Ghost World”, we can see how the choices the writers made concerning characters had a big impact on the structure of the final product.

The film “The Cider House Rules”, which won an Oscar for its screenplay, had a long and interesting history. The writer, novelist John Irving, had attempted screenwriting before. His first novel “Setting Free the Bears” was optioned by Columbia Pictures and Irving was hired on to adapt it, which he did, but the project never took off. Irving was the offered the gig adapting “The World According to Garp” but he declined. He was writing his fifth novel “The Hotel New Hampshire” at the time and in his own words he: “knew enough about the movie business to not stop a novel to start a screenplay”.

With “The Hotel New Hampshire”, Irving again declined to write the screenplay. And, it should be noted that he refused any ties with “Simon Birch”, (an adaptation of “A Prayer for Owen Meany”) after Disney rejected his own script. He even declines to mention it in his memoir “My Movie Business”. Make what you want of that.

Suffice it to say that, after a somewhat patchy history in the movie business, Irving no doubt approached the task of adapting “Cider House” with some degree of trepidation.

With “The Cider House Rules” the main issue for adaptation was not so much structure or story, but condensing. “The Cider House Rules” is a pretty long novel at 598 pages and to turn that into a feature film required major choices as to what to include and what to leave out. While Irving wrote several very different drafts of this script, each based on the thoughts of the four directors assigned to the project at various times, the final script is faithful to both the story and the themes of the novel. It’s just a lot shorter.

One of the themes, prominent in the book, which disappeared in several of the early drafts, was the love story between Homer and Candy. When Lasse Hallström (who eventually directed the film) came on board he wisely recommended that Irving reintroduce the love story as a feature of the plot. Again this relationship provides a framework, although this time only for the middle section of the film, when Homer is away from Dr Larch. Homer’s relationship with Dr Larch, which is also prominent in the novel, is the overall framework for the film.

Choices in relation to character again form a large part of the adaptation of this piece. Several characters from the novel are missing from the film, most notably Melony, another orphan from St Cloud’s. Melony is a major character in the book and her story forms a counterpoint to Dr Larch’s and Homer’s stories. Melony was a strong, aggressive, eccentric character in the novel and Irving writes that he removed her from the film so she wouldn’t “overpower” the other characters – a wise choice. Films are much less flexible in terms of lead characters. With Dr Larch and Homer both competing for time, Melony would have made three a crowd.

The film is also condensed in time. Like most of Irving’s novels, “Cider House” is somewhat of an epic. Covering decades of time, from the early days of Dr Larch’s career to his death. The film covers, if you don’t include the brief montage at the beginning about Homer’s early years, only about 15 months. Thus aspects of backstory are left out. The film is very much fixed in the present, while the novel depends on the past to help to tell the story. One technique Irving used in the adaptation to make up for this was to invent a new character, Buster, to represent Homer as a child, to represent his past.

Because of this time truncation, several other changes emerged in the adaptation. Irving writes that “There is less time for character development in a film than in a novel” and as a result he felt that he had to be careful to make Homer and Larch sympathetic. In a novel a writer has hundreds of pages in which to do this. In a film the writer has no choice but to soften that character’s eccentricities and flaws. Thus Larch is more human, he’s not, for example, celibate as he is in the novel. And Homer is less responsible for his affair with Candy, and less close to Wally, Candy’s fiancé.

Although the love story does feature in the film, it’s not as long, prominent or detailed as it is in the novel. This is mostly because of the time truncation, mentioned above. In the novel, Candy and Homer have a child, whom they pretend is adopted. And Homer works in the apple orchard for fifteen years, his love for Candy never fully subsiding, even after she marries Wally. In the film, they have a brief affair, there is no child and Homer only spends about a year on the orchard.

In a sense the relationship with Candy functions in the film as a subplot, the purpose of which is to get Homer away from Dr Larch and confront him with the realities of the world. The real story of “Cider House” is Homer’s relationship with Dr Larch and his coming to terms with becoming a doctor, and more importantly coming to terms with performing abortions.

This is perhaps the bravest choice Irving made in adapting this text. The abortion theme is prominent in the novel, but if anything it’s even more prominent in the film. The film makes no apologies for its explicit pro-choice position, which it plays out through the conflict between Homer and Larch on this issue. Another writer, a producer or a director with less courage might have chosen to soften this controversial theme, instead it dominated. In his Oscar acceptance speech, Irving even thanked the National Abortion Rights League and Planned Parenthood.

So we’ve seen how the adaptations of a graphic novel/comic and of a novel require simplification, truncation and condensing. But what of adapting a stage play? The issues are very different. Plays tend be very contained, and apart from some one man or one woman shows, few plays could be more contained that Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Driving Miss Daisy”.

With only three characters, a basically a minimalist set, and only 51 pages long, the adaptation of “Driving Miss Daisy” posed a number of challenges for the playwright, who chose to adapt his play himself. Comparing the film to the play, one is first struck by how faithful the film is. Barely a word of dialogue is changed. Long speeches are left as is and the structure is practically identical. It’s testament to Uhry’s talent as a playwright that his play translates so effortlessly to film.

But the play is contained, far too contained for a mainstream release film. So the main work of adaptation in this instance was to open up the play, broaden its scope and range, and introduce more visual interest, required for film. One of the simplest but most effective changes that Uhry made, was to give the offstage characters an onscreen presence in the film. Thus Boolie’s wife Florine becomes a supporting character and the scenes which are, in the play, only suggested, are played out on screen. The same applies to Miss Daisy’s housekeeper, Idella, whom we even see, in a very cinematic and dramatic moment, die on screen.

Both these roles are small, but key, and they serve to enhance the main characters, Hoke and Miss Daisy, and their developing relationship, which is the focus of the plot. Miss Daisy’s distain for Florine, for example shows us that her friendship towards Hoke is all the more hard-earned. Florine’s superficiality highlights Hoke’s sincerity. Idella on the other hand, is an ally for Hoke, when he needs one and later on, after her death, her absence accentuates the growing dependence between Miss Daisy and Hoke. Her funeral also allows us to see a demonstration of Miss Daisy’s commitment to Idella, but also the distance between them; while Hoke sits at the front of the all black Christian church, Miss Daisy, Boolie and Florine sit at the back.

Apart from these offstage characters, there are few additions to the play in the screenplay. One important one takes place while Hoke and Miss Daisy are on the road to her brother’s birthday party. In the play this scene is a reminiscent scene, which serves to demonstrate the difference in life experience between the well-off Miss Daisy and the working class Hoke. In the film, after they discuss Hoke never having travelled so far, they are approached by couple of Highway Patrols, who are threatening towards Hoke, and ridicule the couple as “An Old Nigger and an Old Jew”. It’s a small scene, but it adds a great deal of tension at a key moment in the story. Stage plays have a sense on tension and immediacy brought on by their live format. Films need to find that tension in another way. What might have been a weak or even sentimental scene in the film, was strengthened by this small addition.

With this scene and the funeral scene the racial tension is strengthened in the film. This is not so much to make it more dramatic but to make it more palatable to the mainstream cinema viewer, who is, afterall, less sophisticated than a theatre viewer. There is racial tension in the play, but it is much subtler.

These three adaptations demonstrate many of the basic concepts and challenges of adapting original works to film, and the experiences of the writers, adapting their own work, offer a unique insight into the creative process that all screenwriters, whether adapting or not, can learn from.

I have a great deal of respect for Daniel Clowes, John Irving and Alfred Uhry. Their original works are confronting and engaging. Their screenplays based on same are top notch and well deserving of the honours they have received. But their bravery in choosing to adapt their own work is what really earns my admiration. I can only aspire to be so brave myself one day.

So first I have to write that novel…

© G Prendergast 2002

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