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.