In addition to her work as a script coverage consultant in the film industry, Christina Hamlett is the published author of 17 books, 100 plays and musicals, and several hundred magazine articles that appear regularly throughout the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Her upcoming book, WHERE THE PLOTS ARE, will soon be released. For more information, drop her an email.
INKLINGS: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage
This Month: Is It Yours for the Taking?(Pt. 2) also: Announcing the HERITAGE SQUARE 2004 PLAYWRITING CONTESTIn last month’s issue we talked about where to find ideas for film adaptation and how to go about researching whether the rights are available to you. In this column, we’ll not only look at what happens after someone says “yes” to your proposal but why certain properties lend themselves better than others to creative tweaking.
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In a perfect world, promises could be sealed with a handshake or —- in the case of e-mail -— with a smiley face. Unfortunately, issues related to the acquisition of intellectual property rights require that both parties put a signature to it. This is when it comes in handy to have an entertainment law professional help you memorialize your option agreement.
In an option agreement, you are essentially “renting” the work for a specified amount of time and designating who gets what in the event of a sale. This protects your interests insofar as the author can’t turn around and cut a deal with a writer he or she likes better. The duration of this lease (usually 1-3 years) also protects the author from being saddled with a flake in the event the screenwriter becomes a flaky procrastinator.
Do you want the original author to have a say-so in the finished product? If this is a concern, it needs to be addressed in the agreement. As a creative professional, the last thing you need is to pour all of your energy into a script only to have the novelist or playwright come back and tell you to rewrite it. While input is always valuable in the adaptation process, it can also be a hindrance if the originator is either too wedded to their own words to allow someone else to orchestrate substitutions or if they simply don’t have a grasp of what a successful screenplay entails in terms of structure, pacing and dynamics.
WHAT TO KEEP, WHAT TO LOSE
As someone who has done screenplay adaptations of books and stage plays, I can attest to the fact that it’s a lot harder than it looks. The obsession to retain and compress as much of the original source material as possible into a smaller box makes you lose sight of what you’re trying to accomplish; specifically, to relate the story on a different level.
Just because you have to whittle a 500-page tome down to a 98-page screenplay doesn’t mean that those 402 pages of literary brilliance will never be appreciated. As long as the book itself remains in print, all those fabulous words and extraneous scenes you had to painfully delete for the medium of film will still be available.
Novels and theater scripts hold opposite challenges when it comes to the adaptation process.
For novels, it’s obviously a matter of excessive verbiage. Historical narrative, detailed descriptions, bridging passages, character thought-bubbles, anecdotal pauses, retrospective commentary, etc. have to be sacrificed in the interest of keeping momentum and staying focused on the central conflict.
Non-fiction texts—the fodder of many a documentary—call for their own brand of selective editing. On the one hand, verbatim passages can be pasted into the script because the majority of lines are straight narration, not chatty conversation. On the other hand, the whole thing needs to be stitched together with the appropriate visuals, interviews and relevance to contemporary viewers. And, because they are spun from a fact-based orientation rather than a fictional one, adaptations of this nature are generally deemed more educational or inspirational than they are entertaining.
Budgetary considerations factor into the equation, too. While it’s the same cost to print a book page that describes 10,000 Chinese warriors running across The Great Wall as it does to describe a single guy eating dinner in a Chinese restaurant, it’s a lot cheaper to film the latter. Although you certainly never want to let pesky details like money put a rein on your muse, if you’re planning to pitch your script to a studio with modest means, you need to develop an eye for what’s a necessity and what’s a frill. This sense of prudence applies to supplemental characters as well, forcing you to downsize the book’s original population to those who have a clear-cut reason for existing in the plot.
Dialogue in a book-to-film adaptation also needs to be significantly restructured to take into account that conversations that were written to be read tend to be more formal and articulate than those which are written to be spoken. Book characters, for instance, use less slang, interrupt each other less often, speak in longer sentences, and put together sound combinations that would be awkward if they had to be delivered out loud; i.e., “Sheila sells soft-shelled seashells, doesn’t she?”
While dialogue is clearly less of a problem with stage-to-film conversions, the onus on the writer is to figure out how to expand the story beyond the borders of the living room, bedroom, or front porch where the theatrical plot transpires. As of this writing, I am involved in such a dilemma with the adaptation of MURIEL’S MEMOIRS, one of my two-act dramas, to a feature-length film. The producer wants to keep the story to the cast of four women and yet move them out into the community, incorporate flashbacks, and go into greater depth on the influences that shaped their respective personalities.
The larger problem, however, is in figuring out how to introduce “visual stimulation” in a storyline where the characters do more sitting and talking than getting up and running around. To this end, I rely on my library of videos to appreciate how others have handled this question. If indeed adaptation is a route that you want to go in your screenwriting career, familiarizing yourself with what filmmakers consider to be watchable elements is a tremendous aid in deciding what can be eliminated and what needs to be elaborated.
In the stage version of STEEL MAGNOLIAS, for example, all of the action takes place in Truvy’s beauty salon. We accept the static nature of the stage set because we’re more interested in getting to know the owner, her assistant, and the four women who frequent her shop. While the film adaptation is still about the bond of friendship that exists among these women, even the talents of an all-star cast could not hold our attention if the camera never moved beyond the sinks and the hairdryers.
THE LION IN WINTER is an excellent comparison piece as well, allowing us to move throughout Henry and Eleanor’s castle and even outdoors rather than confining the royal family’s struggle for power to one central room. Historical pieces such as this also invite comparison to their counterparts in print, in which a plethora of dates, places, battles and so forth are only sparingly referenced in the course of natural dialogue.
LOST IN TRANSLATION
No two people are going to read a book, watch a play or see a movie and get exactly the same thing out of it. Likewise, whatever personal inspiration you derive from a work you want to adapt to a screenplay may not be what the original author intended at all. Criticisms such as, “She just doesn’t get it,” “He completely left out the second sister,” and “Why did they go and change the ending?” are common reactions among consumers who expect adaptations to be carbon copies of the original material. The inability to accept that it’s just one person’s viewpoint inhibits them from appreciating that “different” can sometimes translate to “better”.
I recall the great lengths to which one of my literature professors would go in analyzing Nathaniel Hawthorne’s THE SCARLET LETTER. She adamantly tsk-tsked what was then (1979) an upcoming television mini-series starring Meg Foster.
“Mr. Hawthorne,” she archy declared, “would roll over in his grave.”
Goodness knows, of course, what she opined to her students 16 years later when Hawthorne’s heroine was resurrected yet again, this time by an actress who posed au natural on the cover of a national magazine.
With no way of knowing what Hawthorne’s mindset was when he first wrote it, we obviously have no way of accurately guessing his reaction to any of the adaptations. Was he deeply wedded to the pain and humiliation of the star-crossed lovers? Or did its completion represent nothing more than a chunk of change with which to pay his mortgage on a house with seven gables?
Keep that in mind as you struggle with the riddle of the “right” way to communicate someone else’s story.
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Excerpted from the author’s upcoming book COULD IT BE A MOVIE? (September 2004 release by Michael Wiese Productions www.mwp.com.) Former actress and director Christina Hamlett is a Pasadena, California script coverage consultant whose publishing credits include 17 books, 106 plays and musicals, 2 optioned films and columns that appear throughout the world.
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Heritage Square 2004 Playwriting Contest
All the world's a stage.
Here at Heritage Square, all of the Past is a stage as well. Playwrights and history buffs are invited to submit original one-act plays for performance and professional filming this December 2004. The costumed productions will take place in four of our historic landmark homes; specifically, the Perry House, the Hale House, the Valley Knudsen Garden Residence, and the Longfellow-Hastings Octagon House. The following rules and guidelines will enable you to put your best script forward and to participate in "Holiday Lamplight Tours," a reflection of Southern California's rich cultural and architectural legacy.
Submission Period: March 1-May 31, 2004.
Entry Fee: $5 per script (no limit on number of entries).
Script Length: 12-15 minutes each.
This Year's Theme: "Faraway Friends"
Unlike a traditional theater setting, our audiences get to experience an hour's worth of time-travel by walking from one house to the next and eavesdropping on four families as they prepare for the holiday season in, respectively, 1876, 1900, the 1930's and the 1940's. Our objective is to not only entertain our guests with a well written story but also to impart historical tidbits on these particular eras as they affected those who lived in them.
Contestants are not limited in the number of scripts they can submit for each house. Some, for instance, may want to try their hand at writing a script for each house and interweaving references to prior characters (ancestors) from the earlier settings. Others might focus their energy on writing a script for the time period that most appeals to them. Each entry will be judged on the basis of creativity, originality, warmth, and the inclusion of no less than 5 historical facts pertinent to that era.
For official rules, entry form, home descriptions and sample script, send an email to: Inkview@cswebmail.com