Adapting Material for the Screen

Submitted by Robert Alstead on Mon, 12/15/2003 - 16:00

It's often said that if you want to write for film you should start by writing a book. As much as 75% of all films made are adapted from books. You don't need to look far to see actual proof of this statistic: Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, the James Bond series, The Godfather, to name a few.

However, if you did write that book, chances are the producer wouldn't be too keen on you writing the screenplay too. It's also often said that authors don't make good screenwriters - the reason cited being screenwriting requires a different skill set and that authors are too attached to the original work for what often must be a radical overhaul of their work.

Instead the producer would probably commission the likes of Fight Club screenwriter Jim Uhls or Buffalo Soldiers adapter Eric Axel Weiss to turn that novel into script.

So how do screenwriters boil down a substantial novel to its abbreviated cinematic form?

Both Weiss and Uhls, speaking at a Vancouver International Film Festival Trade Forum workshop (24 September 2003), said they first read and then write down the novel's narrative.

Uhls catalogues the good bits and dialogue. Weiss says he reads the book and then outlines it from memory. "I don't try to be creative," he says. He uses two pads, one for a mechanical account and the other for jotting down those ideas as they come to him. From here it is a process of combining story and creative ideas, and finding the climax. "Write a great climax and use that as a beginning," says Weiss, who was drawn immediately to the big heroin cook-off in the final part of Buffalo Soldiers.

"There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting" is another one of those oft-quoted maxims, and often that rewriting can take longer than the contract stipulates. A contract might require the screenwriter to take 12 weeks to do a first draft, eight weeks for a revision and six weeks for a polish. Weiss says he took about a year on Buffalo Soldiers, while Uhls reckons he took about 4 or 5 months working on the Fight Club script with each step taking more time.

Both writers faced unique problems in transferring the material from book to screen, but the fundamental concern in both cases was finding the balance between being faithful and delivering a film that works. A film can be both. Silence of the Lambs was good and "incredibly faithful" says Uhls, but adds that with a film like Catch 22 they "tried to put every in and it was a little overwhelming".

"Give yourself permission to make your screenplay... the only way to make it live is to get inside it," he says. "Ask yourself...Can you appropriate these characters in your own way?" says Uhls.

Weiss goes even further. "To be faithful, you have to be unfaithful. If you do something that is reverential then the writer may end up not liking it," he says.

Researching beyond the printed page helps immensely. Uhls said he went to support groups and toyed with the idea of picking a fight with a stranger. Weiss spent time on military bases in Germany.

"It's so much better to talk to people. Somehow it gets the chemicals going," says Uhls.

Difficult decisions revolve around characterisation. Characters have to be culled or merged into composite characters and, as Weiss found himself doing in Buffalo Soldiers, new incident added to the story to make the climax work. However, he tried to maintain the "black comic tone" of the book which he loved so much.

Weiss says he cut characters toward the end of the script-writing process. In Fight Club, Uhls says he didn't have to cut major characters. He did end up with a longer script though - Fight Club is 139 minutes long.

Filmmaking is a colloborative effort and when many creative minds with different agendas - author, screenwriter, director, producers, actors - come together there are going to be differences of opinion.

"There are other cooks in the kitchen. You either have a very healthy colloborative experience or you don't. I don't know what the solution to that is. You always hope that the best idea will out. It's a matter of being convincing and presenting a case about why you do what you do," says Uhls.

Uhls said it was "gratifying" that when he presented the first draft of his adaptation of Fight Club to the original author Chuck Palahniuk he liked it. Uhls also had a "fantastic" working relationship with David Fincher.

When Weiss took the first draft to the original Buffalo Soldiers author Robert O'Connor, he didn't get the response as he was hoping for. "He said, 'Do you want me to be honest or just nice?' I said, 'Can't you be both?'" says Weiss. After he finally had handed over his script, he says they decided to rewrite the ending. "In my version the hero dies. They made it so he lived. I wasn't crazy about it."

That is the cue for another author's maxim, this time from Weiss.

"You never finish a script... You surrender it."

Amen to that.