A couple of weeks ago, a producer gave me a novel that he’s looking for a screenwriter to adapt. I was hugely excited since this is one of my favorite things to do.
In the world of screenwriting, a lot of odd ideas get tossed onto your desk. Sometimes it’s just a fragment that involves a talking animal, some wacky aliens or some kind of fish-out-of water set-up. The problem with most of these premises is that you are shooting in the dark. Whatever your personal sense of how this nugget could be spun into a watchable movie is rarely anywhere near what the producer was secretly hoping for.
The beauty of a novel is that you have something concrete on the table. There’s a set of characters, a plot and at least one set-up that everybody agrees is to some extent compelling. Generally speaking, you don't get a lot of stupid suggestions like turning the cat into a dog or setting the whole thing on Mars. Usually, there’s a solid base to work from. It's a good gig, since as opposed to having to pull something out of the air, you’re in the much preferred position of “rewriting” the original story for the screen. Plus you can blame all the problems on the novelist!
Oddly, every time I’ve been hired to rewrite someone else’s screenplay, I always feel hugely guilty about it. I guess it’s because I have a keen understanding of how much blood went into making that structure work. Novels on the other hand were never written for the screen. They usually have a treasure trove of material to draw from and my job is to whip the whole thing into a fast-moving, visually driven film narrative. As long as I preserve the essence of the original story, I can change shit with abandon.
Not that this task is a breeze. It's tough to squeeze 344 pages of fiction into a 110 page screenplay. I envy novelists their freedom to let their stories unfold gradually. We screenwriters have to pack our pages with as much excitement as possible while using the fewest number of words. Long conversations become very short ones. Character development has to turn on a dime while somehow still making emotional sense.
The first novel I ever adapted was very poignant book about the dissolution and then rebuilding of a troubled marriage. What made it intriguing was that the two characters were a touring husband-and-wife lounge act from the Midwest. The producer, who thankfully had deep pockets, generously agreed to fund a research trip for me. Deciding to leave my laptop at home, I tossed a stack of yellow legal pads into my suitcase, flew to St. Louis and then drove the entire tour route described in the book. It was one of the most fun things I’ve done in my life. As I hit each new city, I’d grab a newspaper and scout out the nearest restaurant or Holiday Inn that featured live entertainment. Once there, I’d take in the show and interview the entertainers afterward.
Over the course of my eight days touring the heartland, I ate lots of bad food while I watched pianists, singers and comedians work the various lounges and bars. My favorite act was a pair of pretty, perky 40ish ladies who performed at a Quality Inn outside Kansas City wearing strapless black evening gowns while belting out medley after medley of 80’s hits. What really impressed me was not so much their singing, but their deep, dark tans (especially given that it was the dead of winter).
I was amazed at how open all these entertainers were when it came to being interviewed about their lives. Having spent most of my life in either New York or Los Angeles, I was used to performers plugging away in less than ideal venues, while hoping for their big break. But for these folks, this was the pinnacle and they took enormous pride in the fact that they didn’t have day jobs; that here in the middle of America, they made their living exclusively from their talent. The information I gleaned proved invaluable when it came to adding dimension to the characters I was adapting, plus it made me realize that we needed to change at least one crucial plot point from the novel.
When the novelist eventually read my screenplay, he praised it for having captured both the essence of his characters and the trajectory of their journey from heartbreak to tragedy and eventually redemption. I was very happy. He never even mentioned any of the plot changes I’d made - which were not small. The script has yet to be made (big surprise) but in grand Hollywood tradition it is suddenly back in play again. More news as it develops.
The book I’m currently working on is much less daunting since it falls more into the light-hearted romantic comedy genre. The premise is great and I’m having a lot of fun with it. That said, I can already see that there are going to be some big shifts as I re-imagine it as a movie. It’s fun to do adaptations and if I could spend the rest of my screenwriting career doing nothing but that, I’d be quite happy. I love good writing in any form and let's face it, when you’re adapting someone else’s material, much of the heavy lifting has been done for you. It’s now my job to be clever; to inject a little electricity into the storytelling, while hopefully protecting the original intent of a very talented writer. I get to be reverent and irreverent at the same time. And I love that.
Copyright 2009 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv/