Friday, May 22, 2009
Books to Film: Is there a formula?
As an author who is also a filmmaker, I have gone through the full process of completing and releasing projects in both mediums. This has given me a very good perspective regarding the mental approach necessary for developing both novels and films. These experiences have also brought me a deep appreciation for the great differences with the writing and structural foundations of each of these mediums.
When it comes to the issue of film, I have definite opinions as to whether an author should do anything differently in developing a book with the hopes of making it a future target for a film project. It is only my personal perspective, and other writers may see this matter differently, but my absolute response is to fully develop the book, first and foremost. Once you have the best novel that you can write, that is when you should start thinking of ways that it could be adapted for film.
Of course, there are always some obvious over-arching issues regarding a particular book and its future film potential. If one is writing a sweeping epic, with massive battle scenes and scenic landscapes, it is a pretty safe bet that any possible film version will have to be a big budget Hollywood project. On the other hand, if the story is a little more intimate, involves a smaller number of characters, and does not entail overly exotic locations or period-piece demands, an independent film version could be possible. If a film can be made within a lower budget, independent context, it certainly broadens the possibility of a film option being secured, or a film actually getting made.
Those very basic, broad issues are about as much consideration as I would ever risk when looking towards writing a book with an interest towards making it a film in the future.
The flow and structuring of a movie are very different from that of a book, which is precisely why some things that work very well in books do not translate to movies, and vice versa.
A well-known example of this in the fantasy genre is the Tom Bombadil encounter in the Lord of the Rings novels, by J.R.R. Tolkien. The character is very beloved by fantasy readers, but in translating the trilogy to cinema, this segment would not have fit in well with the pacing of a movie.
A lot of readers were disappointed with the absence of Tom Bombadil, but being a film writer and director, I do understand exactly why Peter Jackson omitted this sequence (as well as the Sharky sequence at the end of Return of the King). The inclusion of the hobbits encounter with Tom Bombadil would have really slowed down the cinematic pace, if not taking things entirely off path. Peter Jackson needed to move the central story about the One Ring itself along, and made the proper decision for the particular medium.
Always keep in mind that a screenplay is, more or less, a blueprint. Where an author thoroughly paints images with words in a novel, often employing great detail, keeping detail fairly limited in describing scenes in a screenplay is the norm. Only the most important elements are included in a script, and any descriptions of general environments and atmosphere are kept very brief.
The screenplay’s final form gets significantly affected by many other individuals by the time that actual shooting of the movie takes place. The director, production designers, cinematographers, and even actors and actresses have a profound impact on the actual shooting script (what is
actually used for the physical production of the particular scene). Revisions to scripts take place constantly on a Hollywood set to meet the new adjustments, suggestions, ideas, and other input factors. Revisions are even being made on the very day that a particular scene is being shot.
Furthermore, with adaptations of novels, less than 10% of a novel even makes it to the finished screenplay (6-8% probably being a more general norm). This means that over 90% of a novel’s content is not going to be translated to the screenplay for eventual production. I believe that trying to develop the novel into something attractive for film becomes very problematic in this aspect, as it would be highly difficult for a writer to foresee what exactly would fall into the 90% or more that ends up being omitted, and what is retained. This does not even take into account the alterations and changes that occur during the production process, which result in the things that the reader watching a movie version notices were not in the original book.
This is not to dishearten an author regarding the possibility of an adaptation. Keep in mind that all manner of styles can be adapted over to film and television. George R.R. Martin’s writing style utilizing multiple character threads in his popular “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels is very different from the literary style employed by Terry Goodkind in his “Sword of Truth” novels. Yet Terry Goodkind’s work was adapted for the “Legend of the Seeker” television series, while Martin’s is currently being developed for an HBO series.
The rules of the movie game are pretty simple. Commercial potential breeds Hollywood interest, bottom line. If studio believes that it can a film version of a novel can sell, believe me, they will find a way to adapt it. A popular novel immediately becomes a viable target of interest for the film world. The movie world, like major publishers, are motivated by what sells. In a world where writers are artists, this is a cold reality, but it is a reality nonetheless.
So what is my advice at the end of the day?
Write the best novel that you possibly can. Focus all your efforts on the novel, without convoluting your effort by worrying about whether it might make a good film or not. Only then, and not a moment before, begin to look at ways to effectively adapt your book properly for the medium of film.
If you simply have a great movie idea, then just write the screenplay. You can always write a novelization of the movie later!
Stephen Zimmer is an author and independent filmmaker living in Lexington, Kentucky. His debut novel, The Exodus Gate (Seventh Star Press, available in trade paperback, eBook, and Kindle editions), is the first of a projected 5 book modern fantasy series called The Rising Dawn Saga. The first book in his epic medieval-fantasy series is projected for fall release. Stephen’s filmmaking endeavors include the modern fantasy/supernatural Thriller “Shadows Light”, and the horror short film “The Sirens”, which is on volume 1 of the Festival of Horrors Series by
Indie Movie Masters.
Seventh Star Press
Stephen Zimmer's website
Stephen's Myspace page