Screenplay versus Book

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Screenplay versus Book

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Feb 28, 2020, 3:54pm

Books change when they turn into Movies and vice versa. Which of those changes are needed and beneficial to the story, and which ones are just unnecessary meddling on the part of the screenwriter/author?

Feb 28, 2020, 4:03pm

The inspiration for this post was a couple other posts elsewhere recently. In on on the 2019 Author introductions ljkendall said:
This short subtitled video of Kurosawa's advice to starting screenwriters contains gems for authors too:

I think the "finish it" advice is excellent; and also his point about creating things based on things in your memory sounds like yet another example of a highly regarded creator providing more supporting evidence for, which I've been using very fruitfully for my own writing, after I learned about it in an other context.

I haven't had a chance to check out either of these links yet, but I plan to, so I copied the entire message over to remind me, and so that I could discuss it somewhere other than an out of date introductions thread.

I also agree that "finish it" is excellent advice. In fact, I tend to be a bit strange on the subject, after starting working on around a hundred stories as a teen, and only finishing the 20 shortest ones I now get very frustrated when I find myself in the middle of more than about four stories at once, and won't publish a story until it is all finished, even when it's going to be 5 or 6 volumes long.

But to get back to screenplays

I think screenplays and books are two different animals even if they have a lot of similarities. I started working on my first screenplay last year, and I feel like I'm cheating. Like there is a ton of stuff I'm not needing to say because the choreographer will handle that, or the set designer will handle that.

But it has other challenges that I've never had to take on before. Since I'm writing a screenplay for a multi-episode tv drama, I'm having to pay FAR more attention to structure than I ever had before.

When I find the time to see that Kurosawa video (this weekend, maybe if I get the present I'm making for my daughter done in time?) I will try to take notes and summarize it here.

But in the meantime...

As I just mentioned elsewhere, in the recent Lord of the Rings movies, Tom Bombadil was removed. And try as I might, I can't really blame the movie-makers for this decision. Because it really actually is very easy to tell the story without Tom, and everything you DO put into a movie costs a lot of $$$$. Since movies are waaaayyy more expensive to make that books, it makes sense to me to trim unneeded sets and characters out of the adaptation. A writer doesn't have to worry about a production budget.

Editado: Feb 29, 2020, 12:37am

The narrative quantity of a feature film generally falls midway between a short story and a novel. I tend to prefer movies that are built out from short stories to ones that are cut down from novels.

Taking a novel, splitting it into three movies, and padding it out with a lot of new crap is not an approach that has been vindicated, imnsho.

Mar 1, 2020, 9:01pm

>3 paradoxosalpha:

That remark resembles the Hobbit trilogy. :)

I actually didn't mind the addition of the orc leader as a big bad, or the stuff actually showing where Gandalf was and what he was doing.

The orc, thingy... I think it's harder to do a non-personified antagonist/enemy in a movie than a book. Please feel free to tell me I'm wrong and come up with examples.

But a movie is a visual medium, so I think its hard to be as effective at doing stuff that is essentially unseeable. Maybe it's my misconception, but it seems to me that movies tend to be a bit more concrete than books.

As for Gandalf...
In a book, a character telling what happened can be much the same experience as the writer telling what happens. (Or it could be a very different experience, depending on that character's storytelling ability.)

But in a movie, a story being told and a story being shown are always vastly different experiences.

Although this difference was used very effectively, I thought in Pirates of the Caribbean, where sometimes a bit of backstory was told rather than shown... and then we had to think about whether or not it actually happened that way. "Can I trust this character to be telling the truth?" that kind of thing.

Also, when someone tells a story in a movie, no matter how effectively that story is being told, it doesn't pull the viewer out of that time and place the way doing a flashback would.

In a book, to create the same effect, you would want to keep interrupting the story to insert stuff about the 'now', to keep the reader from changing focus.

In a movie, you can truly do two things at once. In a book, each word is read one at a time, in order.

I think the reason building up works better than cutting down is pretty obvious. Unless the book was seriously padded, or had some plot thread that could be totally separated out without changing the main flow of the story (not usually a recommended approach to book writing) then you can't take enough stuff out without losing something important.

It's easier to come up with some additional material that can enhance the original in some way.

But, uh... yeah. If the additional material doesn't enhance the original... :(

Editado: Mar 2, 2020, 9:39am

>4 LShelby:, absolutely that: the difference is that movies are a visual media. I just read Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. It's a satire from the 1780s, but one of the things it does is poke fun at the opinion that the (then new) novel was perfect for capturing and conveying all of human experience. He takes a page and a half to detail the particular pose of a particular character at a particular moment - just to demonstrate that an actor on stage could do the same thing in an instant.

Similarly, a book can show us a perspective from inside someone's head. A movie only shows that person from the outside. You could rely on voice-over narration, but then the person's just sitting there or standing there thinking. Boring. You're wasting the visual opportunity. If you're a competent director, you migrate that into a dramatized scene where the same thought/feeling is conveyed through action, and by giving your audience something to look at instead of just listen to.

A visual medium tries to inspire feeling through visual imagery. It does this far more successfully than a book can. I don't care who you are, you can't write the novelization of Star Wars and create the same effect that the original had on audiences in 1977.

In the course of the transfer, you may naturally lose some cohesiveness in characterization or plot progression. So the screenwriter/director feels the need to add extra stuff so it all remains sewn together instead of becoming choppy.

In that dream world, other-dimensional life where a director makes a film out of my novel, he/she discovers I am pleasantly agreeable without whatever changes she/he requires. :)

Editado: Mar 2, 2020, 11:02am

Ironically, I think that voice-over "thoughts" in film tend to flatten the narrative and make it less psychological. Compare the theatrical release of Blade Runner with the Harrison Ford voice-overs to the director's cut for a vivid demonstration (touchstone: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?).

Print text and motion picture each have different tools of expression. I can't think offhand of any "novelization" of a film I've read that surpassed its cinematic source--possibly because I tend not to read such things anymore. I don't think its impossible to do, but I'm not sure the incentives are there to make it happen.

On the other hand, there are certainly rare films that transcend the books on which they are based: Fight Club is my favorite example.

Screen adaptations of comics (graphic novels, "sequential art," what have you) are another interesting case. I felt like Watchmen was a little disappointing in part because of its severe fidelity to the source images--it couldn't provide some of the fascinating static tableaux of the comic, but it was locked in to the original visual presentation. (They did a pretty great job with the score, though.) The current Locke & Key on Netflix takes a lot of liberties with the source content, but admirably communicates the richness of the characters, which I thought was the real strength of the original.

Mar 2, 2020, 10:42pm

>5 Cecrow: "In that dream world, other-dimensional life where a director makes a film out of my novel, he/she discovers I am pleasantly agreeable without whatever changes she/he requires."

I have been working with graphic novels as well as novels, and just recently I started working on a massive screenplay, so I like to think I have sympathy for the needs of the different mediums. But I can think of many cases where I thought the some of the changes made weren't a very good choice. So I'm not too confident that my dream world director would be happy with me.

: In the course of the transfer, you may naturally lose some cohesiveness in characterization or plot progression."

Even when you aren't changing the medium, a small adjustment early on can lead to snowballing changes as you follow along smoothing things out and making them right.

I remember when I was editing Cantata, all I was trying to do was make the chain of causality more clear to the reader. I mean, that wasn't even a planned plot change, just some extra detailing. And yet, it caused this little change, and that little change, and then two scenes swapping their order, and finally a scene and a half requiring a total rewrite. When changing between mediums, the effect has to be intensified.

But the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. (Which sounds like a horribly messy thing to do to one's proofs). When they make umpteen zillion changes and the result is a horrible mess of a movie that nobody likes, then I think maybe they should have...
...not tried to turn that book into a movie, maybe?

So, since you've apparently thought about this a bit... what parts of your book do you think would transfer over best to a movie, and what parts might be problematical?

>6 paradoxosalpha:
Ironically, I think that voice-over "thoughts" in film tend to flatten the narrative and make it less psychological.

I think this is because voice-over is not the same experience as a first person pov narrative. In a book, that person's voice IS the story, but in a movie, the voice-over is something that is layered on top. That's why they don't have the same emotional effect, IMHO.

Mind you, I have seen voice-overs used to excellent comedic effect. An example is Disney's Goofy Sports shorts, where they have Goofy doing all these crazy things with a calm sensible narration over the top.
But those examples, they aren't using the voice-over to try to compensate for what a book can do and what a movie can't, they are taking full advantage of a movie's strengths.

"On the other hand, there are certainly rare films that transcend the books on which they are based: Fight Club is my favorite example. "

I usually say that the movie does something different, that I happen to like better. ;)

Although maybe I'm cautious that way, because most unexpectedly, although I am very fond of Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion in book form, I tend to prefer movie versions of Sense and Sensibility, and Emma. (My theory is that its because I don't want to spend quite that much time with the lead characters in those.)

I like Man a la Mancha better than Don Quixote, too. But maybe that's because I always prefer a tragedy to come with a really awesome soundtrack?

"Screen adaptations of comics (graphic novels, "sequential art," what have you) are another interesting case"

I agree. They look like they should be very closely related, and yet...

But I'm not familiar with your examples. Was the Watchmen movie live action?

I have noticed that extreme visual stylization is much harder to pull of in live-action than in animation. I think because we're more used to it in that medium. Also animation characters seem get away with being a bit, um, "flatter". (I sort of feel like that's a horrible pun or something.)

What did the Locke and Key adaptation do with the characters to keep them feeling so vivid?

A difference I noticed between graphic novels and movies, is that graphic novels have a really weird timelessness to them. The reader can look at each image for as long or as short as they want. In a movie, the timing is absolutely out of the control of the viewer. The best they can do is pause or fast-forward... but that disrupts the experience of the story in a way stopping to stare at a static tableau in a graphic novel does not.

Editado: Mar 18, 2020, 8:34pm

>7 LShelby:

I usually say that the movie does something different, that I happen to like better. ;)

In the case of Fight Club, I really think the movie succeeds in doing everything the book does, and goes it one better. It was the author's first novel, and an early effort by the director. The author has gone on to do some things much better and a few things worse. I have looked in vain for another as good from the director.

Yes, Watchmen was live action. I don't think there's ever been an animated adaptation of an Alan Moore comics production, come to think of it ... Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen ... Moore is notorious for his low opinion of the movie adaptations of his work, although I think it's really only the League movie that deserves his scorn.

What did the Locke and Key adaptation do with the characters to keep them feeling so vivid?

It's hard to say; it was a very thorough rewrite. The casting is solid, and the focus stays on the characters. The books have an initial trauma that they present up front to create a psychological substrate for the characters, and the show parcels it out into a series of flashbacks across several episodes, re-presenting it from different perspectives, which I thought was a very savvy choice.

Mar 19, 2020, 9:55pm

>8 paradoxosalpha:

IMHO, the choice to do background material via flashback or by actually starting with the background is not always easy or obvious.

In most of the very, very, very long dramas I watch (40+ hours long, some of them) they just start with the background scenes. This has some obvious advantages -- the most important of which is that it is easy to follow, both for the audience and the production team.

Presenting the same material in flashbacks requires a lot more thinking about structure. So it probably wasn't just a savvy choice, it was a choice that was then carried out with a great deal of savviness. :)


If I were to choose one of my written works to become an animated film, it might actually be the space opera I am currently prepping for publication, even though that one has the difficult-to-deal-with element of an essentially invisible character.

But if he works in the books as just a voice, shouldn't he work even better in a medium with actual sound, as just a voice?

The other characters include a giantess, and an intelligent blue chimpanzee, four species of aliens . Plus, it was always intended to be a teensy bit tongue-in-cheek. So I think an animated medium would suit it. :)

For a live action film, it would be a different and much harder choice.

Mar 20, 2020, 12:04am

I've become something of a fan of Thomas Burnett Swann in the last year or two, and I think his fantasies would be awesome for animated films--albeit for adult viewers. It's a shame that animated features carry the stigma of "kid stuff." Print comics have been more rehabilitated for adults than screen animation, I think.

Mar 21, 2020, 11:14am

I remember being told that comics were for kids and snickering quietly to myself. Not some of the comics I've read, dude, and that even though I try to avoid so-called 'adult' subject matter.

But I think you are right that screen animation still has that stigma. ::sigh::

When Disney put out Hunchback, I really wondered who on earth decided that could be turned into a 'kid story'. I had little kids at the time, and we watched it, and the best scene in the entire movie-- where our self-righteous priest is agonizing over his lust for a gypsy girl, is just not something children can comprehend. But for adults its very powerful.

I wanted a remake sans cutesy animated gargoyles, and my kids wanted to watch something else.

Most of the best animated family shows really are for family. The parents enjoy them too. So why are they not supposed to be able to enjoy them if the kids aren't there? Clearly the general public has once again failed to think things through.

I have a Swann story on my nightstand right this very minute, as it happens, since he's published in the Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories. I should make an effort to get that far In the anthology soon, and see if I agree with you. :)