Sunday Salon: “Page to Screen to Page”

March 24, 2013

On the weekend of March 7-9, I went to quite a few sessions at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. Today, I’m going to write about what I heard (and learned) at a session called “Page to Screen to Page”:

Readers are often passionate about how their literary heroes are translated from page to screen, so is it a daunting task for a screen-writer to attempt the adaptation? How to decide what to cut and whose is the vision behind the screen version? After a blockbuster movie, whose is the task of producing a novelisation and how successful are these as works of fiction? Join our illustrious panel to discuss the excitement and fear behind adapting from page to screen to page.

This panel was made up of Deborah Moggah, Ian Ranking, Lynda La Plante, and Alan Dean Foster. I have far fewer notes from this panel than from last week’s (I bet you’re happy about that), but it wasn’t because the panel wasn’t interesting. Rather, I took less notes because the discussion was more personal – each person talked about their personal experiences and their work, and I felt more like it was a conversation than a straight “panel”. So I’ve got some things that I noted down, but otherwise, I just really enjoyed hearing more about these people’s experiences with writing, television/film, and adapting works.

Something interesting right from up front was that Rankin said that he hasn’t watched any of the films based on his Rebus novels. He said that this is because he doesn’t want the actors and voices to replace what’s in his head. La Plante pointed out that she likes producing because “if you produce it, you can control it”, and Rankin admitted that he has a huge ego and so would be a control freak about the films if he got involved. He said that film is a very different way of telling a story and that he wants to stick to writing novels.

La Plante said that she started off screenwriting in order to write herself a leading role, and that she didn’t realize until she was finished that she’d written herself out. She said that the primary difference between novels and television dramas is the budget. She also said that you need to learn how to pace a television show, to move it, and that a lot of strategy needs to go into making a television script (though this is less true of film scripts).

Moggeh said that, when novel writing, your relationship with your characters is completely private, that you have complete control over a secret world. In contrast, she said that when screenwriting, you work with people and have to be adaptable, that even though they’d be nowhere without you, you are their servant as they’re putting up the money. She said that when adapting a book, after the first draft, you never look at the original text again. Moggeh also said that in film and television adaptations, the actors have to give you the interior world that you have in the novel through their expressions, something which is difficult to do but that a good actor can pull off.

When asked what advice he would give an author whose work will be adapted to the screen, Foster said: “take large amounts of drugs and stay comatose until the project comes out”.

La Plante said that the gift of writing a series is that you get to grow with the characters. On the downside, though, she said that in a short series you lose the “breathing room” for the characters.

Foster said that he regards adaptation from film to book as a collaboration between himself and the screenwriters even though they have no direct part in it. He said that he gets to show what the characters thoughts were unlike in the film. He is also “very aware of the fact that [he’s] working with someone else’s work and they have no control over it”, and so tries to be respectful. He said that he tries to go back to the original work as much as possible. Finally, he said that the studios have become more involved in the books than they used to be, so now they want him to change the book to match the final cut of the movie when possible. Even though it’s not in his contract to make these changes, he says that he does it anyways because he feels like it’s his own director’s cut of the movies, and that “from a fannish standpoint it’s fun”. I found it rather interesting that he maintains a fan’s point of view while writing books that go along with movies.

I feel like this talk just brushed the surface of the issues when adapting books or screenplays between genres, but it was an interesting primer. Do you have any thoughts about adaptation that you’d like to share?

One Comment

  • Rachel March 25, 2013 at 6:41 am

    I recognize the difficulties of switching from book format to film, so I try to judge them completely separately as much as I can. I AM fond of a movie that stays true to the book, but I’m also happy to discover a different interpretation of a story when it has been changed. I TRY not to compare apples to oranges here – but I know that’s really difficult!

    My Sunday Salon

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