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The Art & Business of Adaptation: Adrian’s Sessions, Pt 1

Here are my notes on Adrian’s sessions (oo er) from the Mead Kerr course “The Art & Business of Adaptation” that I attended this past weekend in Edinburgh. There will be other notes on the many quality guest speakers coming soon. Enjoy!

Someone said to me recently they would sooner put pins in their eyes than adapt material for the screen. “It’s all original stuff as far as I’m concerned,” she said, “I mean, that’s where the real imagination and skill is, right? In making it up from scratch.” (You’ve known me a while now, I’m sure you can imagine what my response was).

Adaptation is big business: I don’t think anyone can deny it. Yet you do hear this notion that somehow adaptations are not as creative as original works. Perhaps it’s because it’s considered easier somehow – after all, if you have the source material, you haven’t had to slave at that original idea that kicks it all off? How hard can an adaptation be anyway… You just open the book, take the best bits out and render them as a screenplay. Easy! ; ) Joking aside, it would seem that adapters don’t always get the same kudos as those original writers.

So why do we adapt material?

Well, it does save time. If a book or play is already in existence, it’s true there’s none of the uphill struggle of convincing a producer of your own fabulous idea: if a story is good enough to already by a novel, play, magazine article, blog, poem or renowned true story, then it’s already had an audience, so there is a sense of assumed quality. In addition, because of its existence, there is a ready-made audience. If people liked the book (or whatever), chances are they will like the film – or at least want to see it. Roughly 75% of Oscar winners and celebrated films are adaptations, proving this idea quite categorically. Adaptations work. People want to see them. Adaptations make good financial sense.

But adaptations are not just about money: a writer or producer may love a particular story, feel it DESERVES a wider audience. That novel, poem, blog, radio script etc may have a strong descriptive style, strong narrative drive or great characters, the type of thing any good script SHOULD have. Adaptations are not easy to achieve: perhaps writers who feel adaptations are “inferior” in some way just don’t know where to start? After all, you have to know your craft inside out to get one written with any degree of success, whether that means attracting funding or in some cases just getting it passed for production. Many a great writer has tried – and failed – to get a draft approved on a production. Adaptation can be a messy business: Michael Crichton was apparently supposed to adapt his own novel “Jurassic Park”, but two drafts in things were not working. Another writer, the curiously named Scotch Marmo, delivered a character-based work that she had created from Crichton’s old drafts, only to be rejected. By the time David Koepp arrived and kicked Jurassic Park into the plot-driven blockbuster it was *supposed* to be (I mean, “obviously”, right? ;), hinged on 5 or 6 big set pieces, literally millions of dollars and huge swathes of time had been wasted. Yet the production team were hardly beginners – this was SPIELBERG.

Adrian said that any adaptation should be viewed in the same way as writing an original script: you might have source material, but that is all it is – a starting point. There are many questions involved in approaching adaptations, the most obvious being “How faithful should we be to that source material – or not?” The answer is not simple either it seems, for Adrian says it DEPENDS on the type of adaptation you are attempting. He broke it down into two useful ideas here:

RECONSTRUCTION. Think of films like The Harry Potter franchise or the LOTR trilogy. An audience who has read these books will have intimate knowledge of the source material and there will be certain “non-negotiables” and expectations of any adaptation. If you change things willy-nilly, those audiences will invariably feel disappointed and reject your adaptation.

To be a reconstructor: You need to be into structure. Chances are you need to be into the notion of the mythic or hero’s journey and you will usually be working at how to make characters more active, than the actual characters themselves. You’re working to compress the work, you’re condensing events whilst keeping all the major expectations. You are not writing an entirely new film, but working to make a cinematic vision of what is on the page. The theme of the source material will undoubtedly be the same in the film.

. These adaptations are not faithful to the structure of the source material so much as the “spirit” or “essence” of it. The adaptor may decide to reinterpret the theme of the source material, it will be rejigged when the adaptor looks at the work and says, “What is POWERFUL about this?” Sometimes the film will work as a metaphor of what the source material stood for. Harold Pinter was brought in on The French Lieutenant’s Woman and has a his draft approved on this basis after Dennis Potter and Richard Lester had already had drafts rejected.

To be a Reimaginer: You need to really appreciate what the ESSENCE of the story is, but be able to work out what benefits there will be from the changes you make. These might be changes for particular audiences or commentaries you want to make on older or “accepted” views of stories. With this in mind then, something like The Company of Wolves is a good case in point: Angela Carter’s original poem was itself an adaptation of Red Riding Hood, but updated for adults and a dark tale of female sexuality and feminism. It then was adapted as a film on this basis. Another adaptation of Red Riding Hood, Hoodwinked, produced a reimagined tale, this time for children, but in the style of an adult show like CSI with a non-linear storyline.

PART TWO: Adapting true stories for the screen – Peter Broughan for Flying Scotsmen Films.

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9 thoughts on “The Art & Business of Adaptation: Adrian’s Sessions, Pt 1”

  1. Steve: I know, anyone who thinks adaptation is a cinch or somehow less creative needs to read the round up article of these posts I’ll do last… Adrian gave us a step-by-step guide on how to attempt one as he sees it, was very interesting, not to mention daunting!

    Eleanor – thanks. In fact, there’s a new one up now, your comment came in as I was writing!

  2. I want to hear about the weekend itself: how many people were there? Was it schmoozing a-go-go? Were you woken in the middle of the night by a fire alarm/amorous landlady?

  3. Jason: there was roughly 25 there, less schmoozing than one would expect at your average Mead Kerr class since many of us present were stalwarts of other classes and already knew each other, either by sight or because we had “met” online already. There were no fire alarms going off this time but my window was done up with EFFING GAFFER TAPE so I got no frigging sleep thanks to mad Scots singing all night outside my window.

  4. Thank you, madam. I notice, incidentally, that you’re neither confirming nor denying nocturnal interference from an amorous landlady.

  5. “Yet you do hear this notion that somehow adaptations are not as creative as original works”

    Yes, because, as you say:

    “you have the source material, you haven’t had to slave at that original idea that kicks it all off”

    But not only that. You probably haven’t had to invent the majority of the major scenes that make up the narrative. Or the characters. Or any number of other things.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying adaptation is easy. I can well imagine that is often harder for a writer to bring someone else’s book to the screen than it would be for them to write their own story. But adaptation palpably, obviously and just plain does remove from you a large number of creative burdens.

    It adds plenty of other, different problems. And these require creative solutions. But in the sense of creating something – making something where there was nothing before – you are required to create less when you are adapting.

  6. Personally I think a good adaptation is every bit as creative as an original work: so many original works are derivative or take very “uncreative” (is that a word?) routes through a story – all because they want to stay within safe territory re: monetary returns. ALIEN might have broke new ground – but now we flog it to death to cash in on new technology, new generations etc when maybe we should be taking more creative risks?

    An adaptation can take loads of creative risks [when done well]because it’s already addressed the financial aspect and has a ready made audience IMHO, even when doing a reconstruction.

    Having said that, I think they’re both equally difficult. Interesting point BNB, thanks!

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