Ruining Good Books for Years – Film Adaptations

Just as I’m about to appear on a Brisbane Writers’ Festival panel with the above provocative title (Saturday, 10am), I’ve been sucked back down the adaptation rabbit hole again. So, I think I’m about to talk one game while I’ve been playing another all week. I’m wary of adaptations, while at the same time having a huge amount of fun getting on board this one this week. Long may it last.

And that’s kind of indicative of my position overall, really. Some of the best films I’ve ever seen have been adaptations, and most adaptations I’ve seen have irritated me to one degree or another.

I’ve had first hand-experiences of adaptation as well – 2 features, ?6 shorts, 5 plays and a few things in development – but so far the few scripts that have made me blanch/vomit/seethe haven’t seen the light of day.

Mostly it’s better to stand well back. I remind myself of that all the time. It’s fair to the film people not to have the author looking over their shoulder (unless it’s lunch on set, and you’re all in the queue for free food). It’s also better for the author to stand well back once the blue touch paper is lit. Because the film will not be your book, and should not be. If it was your book – exactly your book – it would be 8 hours long and almost all voiceover and even your mother would be embarrassed for you.

The film needs to be the best film it can be. It needs the dozens of smart storytelling ways film people have to be artfully deployed to create, in their own way, some of the things you tried to create in your novel. Where adaptation is, perhaps, most prone to going wrong, is when some senior film person (often one with a cheque book or, in the 21st century, the PIN that lets loose wads of cash) puts their knee on your story and tries to jam it into a box.

That’s one of the great things about publishing. Novels are often free to be what they need to be, and editing is about making the most of them, not bashing them into a more formulaic shape.

As film people have regularly said to me, ‘It has to have a three-act structure. We don’t know why that’s what works, but it does.’ A book editor has never said that to me, or anything resembling it. Film people regularly do. To which I want to say, ‘If you feed lab mice blue food long enough, they’ll only eat blue food,’ but, since the film person is usually paying me, I don’t. I’ve heard far more rigid and specific things than that too, but there’s no need to go into every instance here. Suffice to say that film people seem to come at a writer’s work with a much bigger rule book and a much stiffer template than novel editors. It’s what they have to do to get things made, so it easily becomes a kind of wisdom that it’s how things have to be made.

I can’t say what audiences would take. I can say that I some time ago wearied of picking the formula five minutes into a movie, knowing immediately who would end up with whom and having a reasonably good idea of how they would get there.

So, why do I get sucked back in? Because some films are American Beauty, or Lantana, or hilarious, or genuinely moving. And because sometimes there’s a team involved who have great ideas and they ask me nicely and I look at where they are, like the look of it and work out that, years after the novel, these characters are fresh to me again, and I’m already getting a rush of new dialogue to the brain and finding things I want to do with them. All of a sudden, I’m not listening to my ‘stand well back’ advice, and I’m like a kid on a fast bike letting go of the handlebars.

So, I’ll try to give a nod to both sides of the argument at my festival panel on Saturday, while jumping boots and all back into the World of Chickens film in the hope that the new manic energy I have for it might bring it something good – and that I won’t stack it, and it won’t stack me.

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10 Responses to Ruining Good Books for Years – Film Adaptations

  1. Lisa Walker says:

    I loved World of Chickens. So I hope they do a good job. I think the floating restaurant thing might have been washed away now though?

    • Nick Earls says:

      It turns out the Island just made it though. While the newer Drift on the opposite bank sadly broke free and crumpled under a bridge, the Island came perilously close to having to be sunk so as not to become a missile. In the end, though, it clung on to its moorings and stayed afloat. It’s a hardy old thing, and the producers had a walk around it a few years ago and are very keen for it to pay the role of the Paradise.

  2. Grace says:

    48 Shades of Brown was pleasant. 🙂

  3. Michael Flynn says:

    A World Of Chickens movie would be so incredibly awesome. I hope there is a reference to creme de menth in there for those of us who’ve been following Phil and Frank’s escapades for a while. And the wonderful suburb of Carindale deserves to be immortalised in film too 🙂

    • nickearls says:

      Just last week I slipped a creme de menthe reference into the screenplay. I hope it’ll stay there. I will be passing your feedback on to the team, who look like they might be coming from the UK, US and Melbourne in November. They took pics of about 30 Carindale houses last time they were here. If all goes the way we hope, some lucky resident may yet get the knock on the door that lets them know their place is just right for Ron Todd.

  4. ajames001 says:

    I’m glad to hear you have a balanced approach to seeing your work adapted. The other thing to remember as well is that the first Harry Potter – which the author dictated be done exactly like the book, was a bit painful.
    That being said, sometime’s it’s hatd, as a reader, to watch my favourite works on screen. The Count of Monte Christo is my favourite favourite book, but no fil mas (or could) do it justice.

    • nickearls says:

      Good point. I only realised in response to a question at the writers’ festival panel that, if I particularly like a book, it now takes a lot of persuading for me to see the film.

  5. Dermott says:

    Reading this post, it reminded me of something I heard Neil Finn say about people covering his music: “It’s like raising kids and letting them out into the world – you can’t control who they’ll sleep with, and you hope you’ve bought them up to make good decisions”. Is it much the same with letting your stories run off and play with the film people?
    I liked the 48 Shades movie, although it really was a case of ‘the book is better’. I’m glad to hear a movie’s being considered for World of Chickens. I’m not sure though the cast would look the way I’ve always imagined them to.

    • nickearls says:

      Poor Neil Finn. However well brought up his songs are, there are still times when someone mugs them in broad daylight, and there’s nothing he can do to stop it. WIth film adaptations, the author does have the choice of saying no.

      A quick read of the contract usually makes it pretty clear you’re to step back and let your story run away with these new people. And that they can sell your story to other people (at that point it’s usually best to stop likening stories to children). One of the tough things is that the film maker who loved your book might have to make all kinds of compromises in order to get the film made, despite their great intentions when they’re talking to you about the film they want to make. They truly mean what they’re saying, but you can’t hold them to it, so I really think it’s best most of the time to step back, stop looking over their shoulders and get on with what you would otherwise be doing.

      So, yes, I’m with Neil Finn. That approach is less likely to end in tears.

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