Adapting novels into screenplay is something many screenwriters balk at, whether wanting to focus on their own stories exclusively or finding the process of honing a dense work into something far more concise that will work on screen to be a daunting challenge. But for writers who do work with adaptations broader work opportunities become available. Oscar winner Ted Tally and screenwriter Daniel Martin Eckhart joined us to share their processes and thoughts about the adaptations they’ve done.
It seems there’s a knack to adaptation that begins with finding the right material to work from. Money and contracts come second to finding a novel that you really see something in, say’s Daniel. Something to look for are great characters that you want to spend time with. Reading the novel for the first time, Ted likes to pretend he’s just reading it for fun rather than looking too hard at where the plot needs keeping or trimming for a transfer to screen. You want to feel there’s a motor there, you hope the plot is unpredictable and you hope that the third act is good. Often if the novelist hasn’t been able to solve the third act problems you won’t be able to either.
When it comes to the adaptation process Ted makes his outline scene by scene having read the book three or four times by this point until he has a some twenty-five page treatment of what the project will be. Gradually he’ll flesh out the treatment picking the bits that stay with him from the novel. As he writes he’ll work more from his outline than from the novel, eventually forgetting the book unless he needs to look up something specific from it. Daniel has a slightly different approach, writing an approximately ten page proposal that outlines what the story, characters and major themes will be. Both ways achieve the same aim of being able to show execs the particular take on the story that a writer sees. Even if you’ve been sent a novel to look at adapting doesn’t mean you’ll get the gig and you may still have to pitch. It’s wise, says Ted, to assume that execs don’t know the material when you go in, even if they bought the rights to it.
Silence of the Lambs was a long novel with multiple points of view throughout. Ted Tally focussed on the Clarice character as he felt she was the most important spiritual guide for the audience and the right person to lead us through the story. He made a choice to write in a way that would only reveal pertinent information as Clarice herself discovered it, he wanted us to know stuff as she knew it, not ahead of her. With any decisions come downsides and for this choice it meant the richness of other great characters in the novel was muted in the screenplay. It’s not always obvious in novels who the story is about but most movies have two or three key characters. When it comes to story adaptation Ted believes ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.’ All the Pretty Horses was a good example of a story not needing to be changed extensively to work on screen.
When working with a novelist adapting their work, collaboration from both sides is essential. If the author and screenwriter don’t respect each other’s mediums or if the relationship isn’t good then it’s going to be bad for the material. How much research you need to do on a subject you’re adapting can depend on how much the novelist has already done. For Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris had done a lot and Ted knew it was reliable and authentic in the novel.
Having adapted a novelists work once, it sometimes happens that they will produce a sequel book and the option to adapt that also comes to pass. For Silence of the Lambs, a sequel film had been a very real possibility right away but knowing Thomas was writing his own sequel it hadn’t felt right to go ahead with a new film ahead of his book. However after waiting ten years for him to write it, Hannibal was not the book they were hoping for, Thomas had taken the characters in a completely different direction than the first. The day they received the sequel book to read was the day the Columbine massacre happened and the influence of media on young people was at the forefront. The violence in the book was of a gratuitous nature and both Ted Tally and Jonathan Demme had kids of their own. They took a pass on adapting this sequel as did Jodie Foster. A few years later Thomas Harris who had not liked Manhunter, a wonderful film but Harris felt one that didn’t deliver on the promise of the novel, wanted to go back and revisit that origin story. Ted got to work on Red Dragon and the rejection of Hannibal was politely forgotten.
All the Pretty Horses had been an easy adaptation and became known around Hollywood as one of the great unmade screenplays. Billy Bob Thornton, got himself the job of directing it but he had little experience as a director and the resulting film wasn’t so good. Ted was brought back in to help with the edit process and work to find the story and structure from what had been shot after Billy Bob walked away. Sometimes the adaptation process itself isn’t so good and it feels terrible if you spend a year or so on something and then it doesn’t work but it goes with the territory. In the same way it’s frustrating when good work goes unproduced. There’s nothing deader than an unproduced screenplay. And then again, jokes Ted, sometimes it gets made and you think ‘oops’ wish that one hadn’t been!
Daniel likes to see the process of adaptation as being given frames, that while they may appear to be confining, within those frames you get to be as creative as you want, debunking the myth that writing to the confines of someone else’s story might dampen one’s ability to be fully inventive. With many produced works these days coming from adaptation, that’s something to remember and maybe worth giving it a try if it’s something you haven’t considered yet.