Richard Kurti, the author of tense and brilliant ‘Maladapted’, is also a film director – he adapted Terry Pratchett’s ‘Going Postal’ for BBC1! And he’s going to give us a glimpse into the process of adapting something for the screen.
Imagine a beautiful stained glass window…
Now throw a brick through it, smashing it into tens of thousands of pieces.
Your mission (should you choose to accept it) is to pick up just 100 pieces; select them carefully, and arrange them to give an accurate impression of the original window.
That’s what screenwriting is.
Using just 100 scenes, you have to tell a story that took a novel many hundreds of pages.
That stage of throwing a brick through the window is why most novelists have a very low opinion of screenwriters. They generally think of us as the enemy determined to destroy their beloved creation.
That couldn’t be further from the truth.
As a screenwriter, I always approach adaptations with huge respect for the book.
I’ve done a lot of adaptations over the years, some were filmed, some never got beyond script development. Some were adaptations of classics, others were of contemporary books, and there are pros and cons to both.
With classics, the author is usually dead, so they can’t complain. On the other hand, classics have legions of fans who get very annoyed when you start changing the thing they love, and they soon find online forums to complain!
Turning more modern books into screenplays has the added complication that the author is generally still alive and can give you a hard time face to face.
When adapting Terry Pratchett’s ‘Going Postal’ for Sky, it took 16 drafts until Terry, the Producers and Sky were all happy.
As one of the screenwriters I frequently found myself in the middle of some pretty tricky politics. Terry may have sold 80 million books, but Sky were writing the cheques!
But why do changes have to be made at all?
Partly it’s a numbers game.
If a book sells half a million copies it’s a bestseller. But a TV drama needs to rate several million to be considered successful, and the big ones will get well over 6 million.
For movies you’re trying to attract tens of millions of viewers around the world, and to reach that wide an audience, it’s often necessary to make stories more accessible… which means making changes.
People will put up with a slower paced book because they’re happy to invest the time to read. But if a TV drama gets off to a slow start, you risk losing viewers at the first commercial break, and they may never come back.
Money is another big factor.
Books cost far less to produce than TV shows and movies, so publishers can afford to take creative risks. But at a million pounds an hour for TV and tens of millions for movies, producers have far more to lose, and that tends to make them more conservative.
The edgy narrative that deliberately disturbs the reader may need to be toned down to keep the film backers’ blood pressure under control.
Another reason for making changes is the difference between seeing and imagining. When a character does something morally ambiguous in a book, it is often very interesting. But when you actually see them do it in vivid colour on screen, it may suddenly become repulsive and you may never forgive that character.
Hungry for plot…
Another difference between book and screen: TV and movies eat up plot. Something that may take 40 pages to unfold in a novel may last a couple of minutes on screen; one look from a great actor, and pages of subtext are delivered in an instant. So even though a book may be several hundred pages long, you may still be forced to invent new plot.
And some books you get asked to adapt don’t have any plot at all!
I’m currently working on a project called ‘Royal Chef’, based on the memoirs of a man who was chef to three British monarchs. It’s a great world, but the book is just a collection of anecdotes and recipes which would make boring cinema. To avoid that, a plot had to be built from scratch.
All these things make screenwriting a really rigorous discipline, which I love.
The crucial thing to remember is that the screenplay is not a finished product – it is just part of the whole, it is the template from which the director, actors, designers, cinematographer and composer all work.
When all those different disciplines come together, something really magical happens… and those 100 bits of broken glass suddenly become the full window again!
How cool is that? What would you like to see adapted for film or TV? Let us know @maximumpopbooks!