The Movie of the Book

I’m frequently told by well-meaning fellow writers (and non-writers) that I shouldn’t be concerned about whether what I am writing is going to be a best-seller and make me the next J. K. Rowling, nor that it should be successful at all, nor even get published, especially in the age of self-publication.  I should write, they say, for myself, because I enjoy it, because I have stories to tell and all that sort of inspirational stuff that writers always tell themselves.

And I have no doubt some, perhaps many, writers really do feel that way: they write because it burns inside them and they have to get it out, and what happens after that is of less consequence. But the reality is, as in all things, it’s not really that simple.

The majority of writers have in mind the model of all the successful writers we follow.  We celebrate each others’ publications and sales milestones and eagerly peruse the bestseller lists.  We may write for ourselves a bit, but really we write because we want to be read.  And because we want to be able to think of ourselves as writers, rather than as teachers/lawyers/accountants/computer technicians/sales managers/lab workers/etc. who also happen to write in our spare time.  To quit your day job and be “A Writer,” you have to write a bestseller.  And yes, that’s kind of what I want.

Then what?  What about the writer of a bestseller that goes on to be made into a successful movie.  Some would say that’s sort of selling out, but most would consider it that much sweeter.  Most of us write with mental images of what we are writing, and, to some degree, have in mind what the movie might look like.  Who should play this part, how should that scene be staged, and so on.

I certainly have had those thoughts, but I also believe that what I am writing, even if it is published and becomes successful, is probably unfilmable.  Not because my vision is beyond the scope of film, but rather because of certain elements of story and character about which I would not want to compromise.  And I would be expected to do so.

Established, successful authors have some influence.  Perhaps they get first crack at writing the screenplay, or maybe some input towards casting, music and so forth.  But mostly, once the book becomes a movie, it’s out of the author’s hands.  I understand that, and I understand why that is.

The fact is, many of the things that make a novel great do not translate effectively to film.  Many of us have had the horrifying experience of seeing the movie based on a beloved book and bemoaning how “they ruined it!”  But to translate a book to film, changes must be made and compromises are inevitable.  Consider the films based on The Lord of the Rings, which endured significant changes.  Some were due to the tastes of the filmmakers: Peter Jackson favors elaborate battle sequences and action and spectacle and so emphasized those elements even when they were only alluded to in the text.  And it was often at the expense of the moments of tone and character that make the books so beloved. 

In some cases the changes arguably damaged the story.  There was great controversy about the complete removal of the “Scouring of the Shire” sequence near the end, a part of the story very important to J.R.R. Tolkien, that made a strong point about the aftermath of war and how it is worst when it comes close to home.  Jackson admittedly didn’t like that part and so left it out, at great loss to the story.  And yet, he may well have been right to do so.

Modern day audiences have little patience for a story that goes on for a long period after the Big Climax where the main villain is defeated.  They got to the place the story was going and are ready to move on.  To test this, next time you attend an action movie, right after the villain is blown away, start watching the audience; you will see them reaching for their jackets and packing up their popcorn empties and all that.  Because for them, the movie is basically over, so let’s get ready to go.  As it was, the third Lord of the Rings movie confounded its audiences by continuing on for nearly half an hour after the Big Climax, and that was with a lot of the subsequent story removed.

Another, even more justifiable change made by Jackson was the complete removal of the three early chapters dealing with Tom Bombadil.  Indeed, virtually every dramatic adaptation ever produced leaves out Bombadil, despite those parts being among the most magical, engaging passages.  Why?  Because it’s a total three-chapter digression that has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the story.  Had Tolkien been writing today, he would surely have been told by editors to lose that part, and also the “Scouring of the Shire,” probably.  Yet they make the book work.  But not the movie.

I have no illusions that, if my book were made into a movie, I would be faced with changes and compromise.  I’d be willing to listen in most cases, and actually have only a few areas where I would not give in.  My main action hero being a girl of apparent Polynesian extraction is one.  My youngest character having red hair is another, along with one of her most defining chacteristics: her preferred mode of (un)dress.  And that alone would be a huge impediment to film.  So I have no expectation that I’m writing the next summer blockbuster.  Just as well, because I have to finish writing it before it can be anything.

But there is one way it could be done, a way that might well address some of the stickier character elements.  I have come to realize that I see considerable appeal in the possibility that my book could be made into a movie… in animated form.  I’m a big fan of animation and would wholeheartedly embrace such a prospect.  Provided that the state of American animation could get past the assumption that animation is strictly for children.  Yeah, there’s the problem.

To be continued…

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2 responses to “The Movie of the Book

  1. Intiguing discussion. Like a lot of things, I think the healthiest option when it comes to writing-to-publish and writing-because-we-love-it is some kind of balance. I have to admit I don’t have a lot of respect for people who write something ONLY because they’re hoping to publish it and get rich. But to love what we’re writing AND hope to publish it? Very different proposition.

    Most writers want to be read, and most writers want more time to write–and publishing a bestseller is a very neat answer to both of those. I know that’s how I look on it…if I make money writing, that means less time making money some other way, which means more time to write.

    I have mixed feelings about books-to-movies. I don’t see anything wrong with a movie version that is essentially true to the heart of the book. I’ve seen some, however, that are so wildly divergent from the original source that it’s hard to believe the writer didn’t sell out just a bit there–but then, I don’t know how easy it is to tell what the movie will look like when you approve the rights. Terry Pratchett gets to have a cameo in his movies, but most authors, I suspect, have next-to-no control.

    And if you want adults to watch the animated version of your novel, cut a deal with Pixar. 😉

    • Thanks for responding, Cheryl. I’m not sure I can fully agree about people who write specifically to get published. Certainly those setting out with that goal at the start are on fool’s errand, but what can we say about the writer who is already successful enough to have quit his day job? Now his job is to write something in order to make money. Prolific authors like King or Grisham can’t possibly love everything they write; sometimes they must be doing it to pay the bills. Frankly, that scares the crap out of me. I went to a conference where one of the speakers warned us: “If you set out to sell a series, be prepared to have to write a series.” If I do manage to become successful enough to make a career of this, I’m gonna have to keep producing. Going though all this again and again and again. And I suspect that, unlike many other professions, it doesn’t really get easier with experience!

      The problem with a movie of a book being true to the source is that the “truth” will be different for each reader. Thus in the movie we get the filmmakers’ “truth.” The better the novel, the more this matters. That’s why it’s been said that great literature makes lousy film, but mediocre literature often makes great film. Look no further than The Godfather for proof of that. And you’re right that most authors have little to no input once the project starts, and in most cases that’s just as well, because authors can be incredibly unrealistic. There are exceptions. The author of a certain repugnant YA novel whose movie has just come out on DVD had a lot of input, but that was because of her years of experience in TV production.

      For my thoughts on Pixar and CG animation in general, wait for my next post (though I will say that I did fly a concept for an Incredibles sequel at my writing partner, but it never got off the ground).

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