It seems that there are more and more adaptations of novels to the screen these days. I have made the comment on occasion that adapted films feel like the creativity has gone out of Hollywood. And other cynics seem to agree with me on that point. The alternate point of view is that marketing an unknown story is just too difficult.
We have seen the phenomenal success of movies such as the Harry Potter series and the Twilight Saga and it’s hard to measure those against movies such as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. While The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was not a bad movie per se, the responses to it seem to speak to the difference between the known and the unknown.
Clearly, if for no other reason, adapting ready-made story-lines to the screen is financially lucrative. And there doesn’t seem to be any fallout from this approach as the fans flock to see the adaptations and the debate that remakes kicks up generates even more viewers and more debate.
So, what makes a book a good candidate for adaptation?
The Examiner.com examined this very question in 2009. Even then, adaptations were clobbering original stories at the awards and with the public in general – so this isn’t a new phenomenon and likely the very motivation behind Hollywood moving more towards adaptations than original stories for screen.
The author of the piece sums it up in one sentence: “The key to a great book to movie adaptation lies in the film’s success at concentrating and magnifying the feelings readers have when they read the book.” And I have to agree with her – once the screenplay aims to evoke the same emotions the book did on a magnified scale, then it is destined for success.
Take for example the “Angels and Demons” adaptation: speaking on a personal level, after the Da Vinci code, I was not looking forward to seeing “Angels and Demons” because I thought it would be just as lackluster and watercolor as “The Da Vinci Code” turned out to be. I think the problem with “The Da Vinci Code” movie was that the writers didn’t understand what the driving emotions and motivations were behind the story – either that or they just weren’t able to portray those emotions and motivations on the screen. Admittedly, the premise behind “The Da Vinci Code” is somewhat esoteric.
“Angels and Demons” reaches deep into the psyche of just about every single religious person who appreciates what Catholicism has contributed to western civilization – the good and the bad. All the high points of the book and none of the lackluster ones. It’s the kind of adaption that is pure success.
So what is required to adapt a book to screen?
Legally, it’s all about gaining access to the motion picture and related rights of the book – the more famous the book, the more expensive the payment. Of course, if the book is yours, then that’s a whole different story (no pun intended).
It is often said that authors don’t make good screenwriters because they have a completely different skill set and they tend to be too married to the original work to be able to do the shaving required to get a 90 minute movie out of possibly hundreds of pages of descriptive passages and dialog without losing the essence of the story. That may be true, however when comparing both versions of Stephen King’s “The Shining” I have to wonder just how much merit that argument has.
I think the ability and talent to weave a story whether in 300 pages or 90 minutes is the same basic skill set and that most authors are most likely able to understand the difference and be able to rise to the challenge of either. There are some obvious differences – dialog is different, descriptive passages that ramble on for sometimes as much as a chapter (a lá Tom Clancy) can be captivated in a few seconds of a panning camera. Explicit passages are not necessarily relevant in a screenplay and can be “suggested” with a series of lead up events. And the list goes on.
Thinking about it, if you can spin a written tale for others to love, it is likely you will be able to create a visual tale along the same storyline for them to love as much, if not more. It gets harder to write the screenplay if you weren’t the original author in the first place because your screenplay now becomes your understanding and interpretation of the original story – and we all know how subjective that can be.