With this issue’s theme of Adaptation, we look back to some of the Words with JAM interviewees whose work has been adapted for stage or screen. We’ve talked about writing computer games; discussed scriptwriting with producers faced with the challenge of adapting a novel into movie format, and delved into the minds of authors who have had to be cajoled to release the rights to their books.
Here is a selection of replies from both sides of the fence
MICHAEL MORPURGO (AUTHOR OF WAR HORSE, ADAPTED INTO FILM & THEATRE)
How were you first approached about the theatre and cinema adaptations of War Horse? Which idea came first and what were your initial thoughts/fears?
I was first approached via my agent by the National Theatre. It was the director Tom Morris’ mother who originally discovered my book and urged him to read War Horse. I was sceptical at first. I wondered how on earth a convincing drama of the First World War could be made using life-size puppets of horses? For the film, it was Kathleen Kennedy’s producer of films such as ET and Schindler’s List who came to see the National Theatre production of War Horse with her daughter on a visit to London. She was so entranced by the play that she immediately called Spielberg and suggested that War Horse might be worth a read for his next film and that he should come over and see the play too.
Did you ever have any concerns about how Joey’s story could effectively be told via confines of the theatre stage?
I did have fears initially, but I trusted Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott implicitly. They work-shopped the story with Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler from Handspring and the rest of the team – designers, musicians, writers, to explore how it could be done. They came down to Devon where I live to see the landscape of the story, to watch horses working the land. There were some tense moments during the Previews when it was obvious that the play was too long, even clumsy in places, but in the end they got it together somehow. Press night was a triumph.
MARK BILLINGHAM (AUTHOR OF THE DI TOM THORNE BOOKS, ADAPTED FOR TV.)
How much of yourself did you write into your lead character, and is it therefore odd watching the role on television?
I never really believe writers who deny that there is anything of themselves in their characters. There is a lot of me in Thorne, but by the time that was reflected through the prism of the script and David’s performance it did not feel at all like I was seeing aspects of myself. Thorne probably has characteristics that I WISH I had...
With SKY recently showing the first Tom Thorne series, and a second series underway, how much involvement do you have in the actual TV production? Would your choice be for more or less?
I was always of the “keep a wide berth” school, until we made Thorne and having been so closely involved, that is the way I would want to carry on. I enjoyed being involved in casting, seeing scripts at every stage, watching rushes every day and visiting the set. There’s a point at which the writer needs to back off, obviously, but I certainly want to be as involved on any future productions.
You’re quoted as saying there has to be changes in bringing the books to screen. How do you feel TV as a medium handles complex plots and storylines in crime fiction such as yours, and what do you consider the pluses and minuses in this regard?
Where we were lucky with Thorne is that we were given three episodes per novel. That’s more than two hours of screen time to tell the story. I think trying to adapt a crime novel in less time than that inevitably involves an over-condensation of the plot. Sometimes it’s necessary for the central character to make almost superhuman leaps of deduction because there simply isn’t time to show the basic detective work. Obviously there are sub-plots and minor characters that have to go, but I want to see the work that goes into it. I’m not interested in a simple series of set-pieces interspersed with the detective brooding at home and coming up with the solution supernaturally.
DAVID HEWSON (AUTHOR OF THE KILLING NOVEL, ADAPTED FROM THE DANISH TV SERIES)
You’re already a successful author in your own right, so how were you first approached about writing the novel version of the screen story of The Killing?
There was a huge international auction for the book rights. My publisher Pan Macmillan wanted to win and came beforehand to ask me if I’d write. They’d had an internal discussion about who to approach and I was top of the list on the back of experience in foreign locations and writing strong female leads.
How do you go about translating over twenty hours of small screen drama into a normal length novel?
In a very organized way. I went to Copenhagen, talked to Søren Sveistrup the series creator, visited locations, got to know a little of the city. Then I wrote a synopsis of every scene – more than 600 of them – as a kind of massive treatment. That came to 260K words. I then tried to understand the story structure. After that I worked on a prose style. When all those things were in place I could start writing.
How much of a free rein were you given in writing the novel? And how much involvement was there with Soren Sveistrup (the mastermind behind the television series)?
Completely free rein within reason. That was one of the conditions of the deal. I knew there would have to be changes in an adaptation and said so from the outset. Fortunately Søren was incredibly supportive and said very vocally, ‘I want this to be your book.’ He was great help in explaining some ideas and answering some questions but he wasn’t involved in the writing or publishing. He’s been tied up producing the third series of The Killing throughout the whole time I’ve written both Killing books – which shows how different TV is to literature.
JOANNE HARRIS (AUTHOR OF CHOCOLAT, ADAPTED INTO FILM.)
I read that you didn’t like all of the changes made in the film version of the story, what in particular did you feel strongly about?
I tried to persuade Miramax that it wasn’t necessary to change my lead character from a priest to a mayor: it alters the dynamic of the story and dilutes the meaning. But I guess they thought Middle America wasn’t ready for a priest to be the bad guy…
Is it true when writing the novel you’d always dreamed of Juliette Binoche in the lead role? How did you feel when you heard that had become a reality?
I’d tried to suggest her before they started casting, because I thought she was a perfect fit, both physically and temperamentally. For a long time Miramax ignored me, and then Juliette, who had read the book, heard they were casting and asked for the part. It was great to hear that they’d chosen her (though I doubt I had much influence over their decision); it gave the film a much more European flavour, and shaped it into something much closer to the original book (two of the other actresses they’d considered were Whoopi Goldberg and Gwyneth Paltrow).
It’s probably a writer’s dream to have a cast that includes not only Binoche, but Judi Dench and Johnny Depp! What did you think when you saw the characters on screen?
It was a terrific cast. Not everyone was as I’d imagined them - everyone needs to make the part their own in a movie – but there were so many wonderful actors in CHOCOLAT. I was so moved to see Judi Dench playing Armande (a character based on my great-grandmother); and Alfred Molina really managed to make Reynaud come to life…
TESS GERRITSEN (AUTHOR OF RIZZOLI & ISLES, ADAPTED INTO US TV SERIES)
How were you first approached about the television adaptation of Rizzoli & Isles for the TNT Network in the US?
I got an option offer from a producer named Bill Haber, who had been reading the books for years and had loved the characters of Jane and Maura. As he told me over the phone "I love your girls and I think they belong on television." He focused straight away on character, not on the crime stories themselves. He thought the concept of female crime-fighting partners was something no one else on TV was doing. Not since "Cagney and Lacey" 30-some years ago have we seen female partners.
What were your initial thoughts? Or fears?
I was pretty pessimistic about the project ever coming to fruition. I've had a number of books either optioned or sold outright, and nothing ever came of it; I assumed this deal would hit a dead end, like all the others. I signed the option contract, cashed the check, and forgot about it. It's the only way to stay sane when you deal with Hollywood. Don't ever get your hopes up.
ANN CLEEVES ( AUTHOR OF NOVELS VERA & SHETLAND, BOTH ADAPTED FOR TV )
Setting plays a huge part in your books, Northumberland in particular in Vera. How do you think the sense of place comes across on TV compared to your books?
I think that’s one of the things that the adaptation does brilliantly. Each of the films had a different director, but they’ve all captured the space and the variety of the landscapes in North East England. So of course we have the hills and the coast, but they also show the post-industrial areas along the Tyne and in South East Northumberland and they look stunning too.
The brilliant Brenda Blethyn plays the lead character in the TV series, how do you feel her portrayal mirrors the character in your head?
Brenda doesn’t look like the Vera I created. My Vera is bigger and even scruffier. But Brenda absolutely captures Vera’s spirit – her wit and defiance and commitment. And when I’m writing dialogue I hear Brenda’s voice in my head.
With ITV currently filming the second series of Vera, how much involvement do you have in the actual TV production? Would your choice be for more or less?
I’ve been very fortunate and feel very much a part of the team. It’s become a tradition that we bring scriptwriters up to the region to give them a sense of the landscape, its stories and its possibilities. I get invited to the read-throughs, see the scripts in advance and I’m made welcome when I go on set. I have no contractual influence though, and I wouldn’t want that. It’s a different medium and I’m happy to leave it to the experts.
CHRISTOS TSIOLKAS ( AUTHOR OF THE SLAP)
Changing your work for another medium intrigues me. Can you explain how you worked with the screenwriters on the television adaptation of The Slap?
The model we took was from HBO. As someone who grew up with cinema, it’s actually television which has been the most out there in the last 10-15 years. I’m talking about the Anglophone world, of course; Mad Men, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos. We got as many people as possible involved in the creative writing process to discuss how the story worked, how narrative works, how characters work and I found that collaborative process really exciting. As a novelist, you work often in isolation. We worked Monday to Friday for a fortnight, separated for a three-week period and came back together.
Some writers find the process of collaboration more frustrating than exciting, because you’re not in full control of the decisions made.
But I’d done it before when working in theatre. Although I’d been going to the cinema two, three times a week since I was this high (indicates his knee), I came to theatre later in life. So getting involved in writing for the stage, I really had to think hard about the writing process. I learnt a lot from rehearsals and working with actors. I’m not scared of that process, but I can’t imagine a collaborative novel. Working that way, I would bite someone’s head off. But in other media, I enjoy it. You’ve got more freedom for collaboration in television. It’s not bound to the auteur, in the way that film is. At least in Australia. There the auteur still rules.
HELEN FITZGERALD, AUTHOR
You’ve had your work adapted for screen. What do you see as the positive parts of the experience and which bits piss you off?
I’m getting better and that is a result of learning from adaptations. How to pare things down, how to think things through. The downside is creativity by committee. It takes years to develop a script and each new person who comes aboard has a new take. I’m not precious, far from it. My problem was being far too much of a yes-woman. I was easily persuaded into changes by people I saw as experts.
And I’m guessing the writer has very little influence.
Absolutely the bottom of the pile. That’s why I prefer to write novels. But the process has helped me to think about my books more as a film. This is Act One, and this is Act Two and so on.
JANE GOLDMAN, SCREENWRITER, PRODUCER, AUTHOR
Do you have a system when writing an adaptation of a book? Where do you start with something like The Woman In Black?
First, you have to make it movie-shaped. The form of a book is so different, so you have to find the spirit of the story and find a cinematic structure to suit. That probably takes me around three weeks to develop. Then you have to look at how to bring out character on screen. In books, a character can have a whole internal monologue, but on screen, that has to come across by putting them in different positions to reveal themselves.
DANIEL MARTIN ECKHART, SCREEN WRITER
Where do start when adapting a novel?
By reading it as a reader. Then read it again and find those instant connections. If those strong connections aren’t there, I’m the wrong writer for the project. I was once asked to adapt a crime story about a missing body, but the thing that jumped out at me was a minor character, a child kept in chains. That was the story I wanted to write.
NAOMI ALDERMAN, AUTHOR, PRESENTER, GAME WRITER
How did you get into writing for games?
It's a long story, which boils down to "I mentioned the right thing to the right person at the right time". A friend had heard about a game that was going to be "the modern-day Masquerade". I mentioned to this friend that I was obsessed with the book Masquerade. He put us in touch, it all came from there.
Why do you think interactive games receive so little media coverage, unless it's negative?
I think we suffer from neophobia, the fear of the new. When videogames are older, we'll all feel less frightened of them and more understanding of their place in culture.
DAVID MITCHELL (AUTHOR OF CLOUD ATLAS)
What about your relationship with (producers) the Wachowskis and Tykwer? How much involvement did you have?
Almost none. The desire for my approval for an early form of the script I do believe was genuine. We met in Cork, and that’s when they discussed foregrounding the reincarnational theme by having the same actor play different ethnicities and genders at points in time. Which you can only do in film. You can’t have actors’ faces in books.
You were happy with that?
Absolutely. John le Carré, speaking about the film of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, said what I wanted to say. The biggest compliment you can pay is to take the book and interpret it your way. What’s the point in making an audiobook with moving pictures? I want it to be disassembled and reassembled. And they’ve altered some plot lines, to make the Tom Hanks/Halle Berry relationship evolve over time, and that’s fine. It has its own, pure internal logic. It was very hard for the Wachowskis and Tykwer, but my first Hollywood experience has been unusually lucky. They really are artists. With people like that, it’s an honour to be adapted.
Extracts from interviews by Gillian Hamer and JJ Marsh