For those who don’t know me, I hate research. Okay, I don’t HATE research, but I’m not a huge fan of it by rigid academic standards where they want you to show your work like in a math problem. I’m far too free of a sprit when it comes to what I read and consider research. “Reasearch-y” type books with stilted academic language drive me crazy. So, when I picked up The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact and Fiction Into Film by Linda Seger from the shelf of my university library I gave it a mad side eye.
I’m not going to act like I know everything there is to know about writing. I don’t. I have a blog I barely update, 1 degree (and coming up on another in “creative writing” – whatever that means) and most of what I write remains either in the slush pile somewhere or between the pages of my journal. What does that mean? I read more and write more and read more and write more. Gotta get better in the meantime. By the “meantime” I mean the space in which I avoid writing my dissertation.
Seger’s book was written in the 1990s so it’s a tad outdated – and almost hilarious with how much Seger talks about a potential The Phantom of the Opera (based on the Lloyd-Webber musical) film adaptation. Oddly enough, most of her suggestions were addressed in the subsequent 2004 adaptation. She talks about Field of Dreams a LOT as an example of an adaptation that made some significant changes, but still was a successful translation to the silver screen. And I’m a firm believer in films still being true to the book and decent translations of the original text even if they veer here and there. Hey, I even have/had a podcast about it! But that’s MIA right now…
What I like most about Seger’s approach though is, she’s been in the trenches, she’s been consulting on scripts herself since 1981 so she’s not just theorizing what does and what does not work. You can kind of tell the authors of these “how-to” books who have never actually done the job themselves. They use “perhaps” and “quite possibly” a lot…
Nah, in my mind, something either does or does not work, and that’s the approach Seger takes. The first 4 chapters alone detail why specific genres defy the transition to the screen: Why Literature Resist Film, Why Theatre [sic] Resists Film, Why the True-life Story Resists Film etc. Brilliant. Start with what doesn’t work. ANNNND the whole book runs just over 200 pages. No need to wax on.
I think my other major take aways are her discussions on style and tone and the need to clearly establish these in the beginning of a film/screenplay. Film is a different medium than a novel, you don’t have as much time to rest on your laurels in exposition (I’m looking at you Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them). And a change in style or tone mid-film can alienate an audience and throw them off. She didn’t use this as an example, but Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, for one. The book is set firmly in the realm of fantasy until midway through the main character, The Wizard Howl, steps into the real world. In Hayao Miyazaki’s film of the same name the entire story remains firmly rooted in fantasy and it’s wonderful. A shift in the middle would have made it feel like a different film entirely.
What I’m trying to say is, if you want a good, no-nonsense approach to adapting something into a screenplay, this is a good read OR if you’ve ever watched an adaptation of one of your favorite things and thought, “This… doesn’t work…” and can’t figure out why, Seger probably has the answer.