A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… A young student at the University of Lund, Sweden, was browsing for course literature - history of ideas, if you must know - when he kind of maybe perhaps possibly just by chance stumbled into the film section of the academic bookstore.
The book that caught his eye was a paperback by a chap called Syd Field and the title was “Screenplay”. In my defence, I did buy the study literature as well, but to be honest I didn’t really read it. What I read was Field’s how-to-write a screenplay guide, laid out in easy beats. I was hooked. It didn’t take long before Field’s “The screenwriter’s workbook” and “Selling a screenplay: The Screenwriter’s guide to Hollywood” (seductive title, that) and Linda Seger’s “The Art of Adaptation” began easing out the works of Heidegger, Spinoza and Arndt on my bookshelf. Academic studies went to shit, nights were spent reading about how to tell a story for the screen.
Film had always been there via my father who was a professor in sciences but a true romantic and arts lover, who took us kids to exhibitions of Monet (okay shit), Operas (Carmen being my fav) and Kurosawa films (yay!). It was The Seven Samurai that had me at hello - where I lost it at the movies, as it were. I saw it in a dingy “arthouse” (read: shithouse) cinema in Copenhagen in or about circa 1982. It was - of course - all in Japanese, and the subtitles in Danish; a language I did not well master in those days. But looking back now, I realize I got the whole damn story blow by blow. Because it’s so extremely well-acted and told dramatically in a visual way that you cannot but get the gist of the story.
Inspired by Seger’s book about adaptation, I set to work adapting my favourite novel of the time (and to this day, on my top five list) Martin Amis’ “Money - a suicide note”. I had already read it twice in Swedish, and then thrice in English. Now I set about the task of notating - with three different coloured marker pens - the pieces that I wanted to visually tell in a screenplay: the descriptive parts, the dialogue parts and the - I-don’t-know-what-parts. This was 25 years ago. I just remember marking up the novel with three different coloured markers. It’s still standing here beside me on the bookshelf. I’ve read it at least three times since.
Short of the long: I ended up with a big fat pile of pages; I believe something like 350 pages thick, with what amounted to a chronological telling of events and dialogue lifted pretty much verbatim from the novel (choice cuts, naturally) and then adding a few words here and there at the beginning and the end. I was way too much in awe of Mr. Amis’ text at the time (still am) to dare really work it, knead it, challenge it.
However, I was on my path to becoming a screenwriter - or so I thought. In the end, all those readings and re-readings and late nights hacking away at a prehistoric laptop where I had to do all the darn formatting myself (as opposed to today when MovieMagicScreenwriter formats it as I go along) kind of maybe pretty much paid off.
When applying for the Danish Film School, I used the script (amongst other texts) to fake myself into their prestigious screenwriting programme, then headed by the inestimable Mogens Rukov of later fame.
So adaptation is where I began, but that’s not the topic of this particular sermon. I’d like to try and share with you some of my experiences of screenwriting, which is a very collaborative process, and in the end, the true art of adapting.
See, all stories start in some odd place of your brain. A fragment, an image, a smell; whatchamacallit - something, somewhere tickles your story-telling nerve and sets in process a story told by you and no one else could tell that particular story. That’s the beauty of it: if you latch on to a story of your own design, it’s yours and yours alone.
Until the moment you share it with someone else. From that moment on, you go down a beautiful, lovely, inspiring and horrendous nightmarish path to hell. Because from then on, your story is not your own - you share it, with producers, directors, money men, TV-station bosses, wives, girlfriends, ex-girlfriends, town car drivers and their brood.
As the “originator” (as Richard Price once beautifully termed it) you are, to some extent the king of control, the master of your domain. That is until you show your text to someone else in the TV/film business.
Now, there are, to my mind, two things about this: one good, one bad. One inspiring, one tough. The first one (let’s start with the good news) is that someone, some place out there, likes your text. Yay! The second one is, this person (company, agent, person of interest, devil spawn, gremlin) will after that first back-slapping session of camaraderie, closeness, friendship and brotherhood - say something along the lines of: HOWEVER.
When the sentence begins with HOWEVER, or BUT, or something similar - you know this is when the dance begins in earnest. This is merde creek sans les paddles.
This is where the art of adaptation begins. Not adaptation from one media to the other - but the art of adapting to other people. You have proven yourself a pages person, now you have to jump in and become a people person.
There really aren’t many how-to books about this part of the process. (If there were, they’d be called something like “Run to the hills” if that title wasn’t already taken by Iron Maiden.) Because now, after having dreamt your beautiful little dream and typed it out, printed it and shared it with the world at large - now comes an army of very well informed, very wise, very full of talk and very powerful people that want to tell you just exactly is WRONG with your text. To name but a few, there’ll be the director and his agent, the directors’ girlfriend or boyfriend (most often both), your agent, the producer, his pooch and the team of story editors he’s brought along, the DP and his little kingdom of serfs. You know you’ve hit rock bottom when the town car driver starts commenting on the latest draft.
When you step out of same said car, take the elevator up to hell and enter an “informal meeting” you realize - much to your disbelief - that there are product placement people, franchise agents, TV-station underbosses, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, story editors, storyliners, in-house scriptwriters and men in dark shades and black suits standing against the wall with their hands clasped in front of them and you really don’t want to know who they are. Seriously.
This is when you know you’re about to be right royally done over. Because these people, or the people they are associated with (don’t ask) have bought your text. So now you’re just a little pilot fish hanging on the great white that was formerly known as your screenplay. And you’re not going to be able to hang on for long.
This bastard - this thing of your creation - has suddenly attained a life of its own. It’s ALIVE! And it’s out to kill you.
Yeah okay so I got a bit carried away there. I’ve experienced the above, but I’ve also experienced great rides of inspiring collaboration and fun adapting. Some of them have developed into life-long friendships. It’s a struggle bringing stories to the screen, but you have to trust your collaborators, their enthusiasm, their drive and their passion. I once wrote down three basic collaborative rules (and strange enough - they have now become framed at Norwegian state TV).
They are, as follows:
1. Every morning, come with a story to the table. It doesn’t have to be funny, or good, or dramatic or whatever. Just come with a story. A little anecdote; an observation. Story-telling is a muscle that needs exercise. Train that muscle. Come with a positive to the table every day.
2. Never say no. This is harder than it sounds. It means: if you’re listening to someone else saying something really off or silly or down right stupid: your gut reaction will be to say: No. Stop it. That’s just not funny, smart, sad, good, (take your pick). BUT - here comes the but - but instead say, ‘Hrm. Interesting. But what if…” The what if is key here. Because what you’re doing is not putting up a big red light of non-communication: you’re actually keeping the ball in play. “Hrm, cool. But what if…” and you keep the conversation, the process of developing, in motion.
3. Never shut your mouth. This is an old one, but it can’t be stressed enough. Think out loud. Embarrass yourself, embarrass people around you, quack away. For short: don’t be afraid. It’s all about keeping the creative juices flowing, of laughing, of crying, of telling and thinking of what matters the most to you in your life - the most painful and the most humorous, preferably mixed up in one great joke (see nr 1).
So, yeah. The art of adapting is not really taught at film schools or in books. You have to jump in there and swim. Some people are better at this than others. I think, in the end, we all take a toll. Because you go in there and smile and you’re wide open and you want to be liked, you want your text to swim, to get along with the others - and you go home drained and tired and there’s Jack on the kitchen sink and such.
You come home and you have a buzz because people like your text and they want to pay you money for it, but then you’re alone and spent and there’s a notebook full of panicky scribbles written whilst keeping a calm face on the 32nd floor with those goombas lined up along the wall (jeepers creepers who are these guys!?) and there’s pills and there’s Jack and good night and good luck.
The art of adapting is a great challenge, if you have the mettle. I dream of a world where I am a novelist and only have to interact with a sexy agent or a lovely editor about two times a year over lunch. This, however, is just a fantasy. I actually love the grind: the immense seclusion and insane interaction of screenwriting.