Inevitably, every time a new film adaptation comes out, people get up in arms about how it’s not like the original book. The characters are vapid, the world is two-dimensional, the plot was watered down, etc. Often, it’s not just reader/movie-goers who are upset, but the authors of the original works themselves. This is understandable. You spend five years pouring your heart and soul into a novel, only to have the characters you loved and cherished be grossly caricatured and misrepresented on-screen. I’m sure it must feel like being misquoted in the press. Authors stand up and shout, “That’s not what I said!” Sometimes, in court.
Unless your last name is King, Rowling, or Sparks, you have very little say in how your book is adapted. Once you sign those papers, you’ve given up custody of your baby forever. They may not raise him the way you’d like.
I’m not an expert or a Hollywood insider. I’ve written a few screenplays, optioned one of them, sat in some meetings, and rubbed shoulders with sleazy producer stereotypes. In my limited experience, though, I feel like I’ve come to some pretty good conclusions as to why bad movies get made. And, more to the point, why authors should be cautious about having their work adapted to the screen.
I will move from the general and obvious to the more specific.
Longer is Not Necessarily Better
That massive tome you wrote, with intersecting sub-plots and an entire folio with nothing but singing elves? Yeah, it’s not going to fit. A standard screenplay is 90-120 pages. These aren’t like the double-spaced pages of your manuscript either. Each page corresponds to approximately one minute of screentime. There is no way to fit in all the minutia of a book into a movie. With the thousands of dollars forked out for each day of shooting costs, the director will be under a lot of pressure to trim the fat. Sometimes he ends up trimming some muscle and bone too. Some movies are longer than two hours of course, but that’s not always for the better.
What You See is What You Get
In a book you can spend pages describing a scene, a character, or a period in history. You work in concert with the reader’s imagination to create a mood, the tone of the people and places you describe. You can jump in and out of character’s heads, pass through walls, and experience the world through a character’s five senses. There are very few limits on what is possible in a novel.
In a movie you are down to two things. Light and sound. That’s it. In a screenplay, you are only allowed to write what the camera sees and the microphone hears. Dialogue and scene description. A whole lot of the nuance in the description in the original novel can be lost in the transposition.
Collaboration – Or the Lack of It
When you write a novel, you alone are responsible for the finished product. The words come out of your head and onto the page. Editors can make recommendations to the text, but in the end the final choices are yours. Your work sinks or swims based entirely on your choices.
A movie crew consists of hundreds if not thousands of people. There are lighting people, camera people, sound people, costume designers, actors, set dressers, prop masters, location scouts, directors, assistant directors, second assistant directors, screenwriters, script consultants, script supervisors, producers, dog trainers, snake wranglers, and people with enormous egos who have no job whatsoever, but just like wandering around the set talking about how they knew someone famous in their prime.
And that’s just during production. There are dozens of people involved before and after the film ever gets filmed, each touching, molding, breaking and setting the story in the way they see fit. Any one of these people can screw the whole thing up and send the story crashing to the ground in a ball of flames. The sheer number of people making the movie (think about how long the credits are) increase its chances of sucking exponentially.
Money – Or the Lack of It
It’s tough to get enough money to make a movie. A movie studio, like any business, is keen on getting a return on any investment it makes. If the studio execs feel like the story, or the production, or the A-list actor’s temperament are tanking their chances of making money, they will pull the plug on your story, or worse yet, have it completely rewritten. This is where most of the crimes against the previously published word occur –during the development process. Teams of producers and executives sit around tables postulating how a hypothetical audience will react to a given scene, character, premise, or resolution in your story. They stick and unstick the story parts together ad nauseam infinitum. Sometimes they let the whole thing simmer so long that it’s drained of all color and flavor . This is a major reason why adaptations sputter and fail.
Sidebar: If you want to make money in Hollywood, write a sequel to a big action movie franchise. Fast & Furious 17 is still up for grabs, I think. If your book isn’t that, then, you have to fight for its very existence, to say nothing of the storyline.
Frankly My Dear, They Don’t Give A Damn
In the end, the equation is simple. The vast majority of the people making the adaptation of your book, do not care about your book at all. They are clocking in, getting their check and going home. You and your readers, care way more about the story than they ever will. They will rearrange things to suit their own interests. They don’t understand the story’s nuance as well as you, so when they pull out an essential Jenga piece, they don’t realize they’ve brought down the whole tower until ticket sales fail to reach their projected apex. When the sales don’t materialize, they will probably end up blaming someone else . Possibly you.
What Should an Author Do?
To be forewarned is to be forearmed. Don’t sell your film rights if you are scared of people messing up your story. Period. Inevitably, no matter how close they stay to the original, they are going to change things you don’t want changed. For many authors it’s just a matter of money. And that’s fine. Just optioning your story idea can earn you a pretty penny without actually having to write anything new. Having your book made into a movie can increase your notoriety and name recognition too. That’s also fine. You just have to decide what you are willing to compromise in order to get there.