Los Angeles AWP Conference: Adaptation and Bringing the Novel to the Big Screen


There has been an ongoing discussion in the English Department at UMF about the process of adapting literature; and once created, what these adaptations mean to the original text and how are they related. I recently took a trip to Los Angeles to the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Convention and attended two panels which dealt with this notion.

Since Hollywood, California is such a film-oriented city, you can imagine the different types of scenarios and conversations that circulated in these panels. Some writers have had wonderful experiences watching their novels come alive onto the big screen. Other writers have seen their memoir twisted into a strange story without their permission.

The first panel I attended is described below:

“If the integrity of a film adaptation is measured by the degree to which the novelist’s intent is preserved, Mr. Foote’s screenplay should be studied as a classic.” —Harper Lee on the movie To Kill A Mockingbird. What makes a novel worthy of adaptation? How should we measure the success of an adaptation? How faithful should a screenwriter remain to a novel? Is the author’s intent relevant? In this panel we explore these questions from the perspective of prominent screenwriters.
The four screenwriters who were present at the panel included:
  • Graham Moore, who is a New York Times bestselling novelist and Academy Award winning screenwriter. His screenplay for the film The Imitation Game won an Oscar and a WGA award.
  • Also, Nicholas Kazan who is a playwright (Blood Moon, The Good Soldier, Mlle God), screenwriter (MatildaAt Close Range, Reversal of Fortune, Fallen, Bicentennial Man, etc.), and a writer/director (Dream Lover).
  • Amber Tamblyn was present; and has been nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her work in TV and film. She published three poetry books, including the critically acclaimed Dark Sparkler. Most recently, she adapted and directed the feature film Paint It Black, based on the novel by Janet Fitch.
  • And lastly, Robert Nelson Jacobs who has had seven of his screenplays have been produced as films. His script for Chocolat was nominated for an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay.
This particular panel was interesting to me because I learned about the process in which a piece of writing is transcribed to film. It is a massive evolution where the screenwriter will have to take the piece of writing and interpret that writing into what would fit best in a screenplay, but then a director will buy that screenplay and interpret his own tone and direction – and try to hire actors and actresses to convey it. So it’s a long and complicated process to try and keep the spirit of the novel alive.
Nicholas Kazan wanted to discuss the meaning of the word “adaptation” and wanted to argue that a more accurate term is a “transformation” since he believes the change of media to be something completely unique, and it should be something unique. “The way it goes, is that you go ahead and devour the book, right? And there’s a spirit in it that you love. Close the book, lock it away, and then create your own.” He went on to say, “When I tackle onto writing a screenplay from a successful book, I ask myself, ‘What are the new challenges I have in front of me? How can I embrace them?” The task of adding and eliminating elements from the original text can be both scary and liberating but what is important, as Kazan expressed, is keeping the spirit.
Amber Tamblyn had the opportunity of working with the author of Paint it Black and they wrote the screenplay together. They emphasized that this particular situation doesn’t always work perfectly, but it did in this case since Fitch and Tamblyn had a certain relationship and . Tamblyn said, “You want to feel the same emotions as when you read the book, but sometimes you can’t always transfer it onto the screen. You have to be creative.” She went on to explain that the book was very internal, and was mainly about the process of grief. Tamblyn changed it in a way where the movie instead made you feel grief. She even removed one of the main characters in the book. “You have to kill your darlings,” she explained. “What to leave in and what to leave out is the most difficult decision in this business. You’re blind to your own work for a while, you’ll cut out a certain scene but then another scene can become richer.” She then elaborated on the process, calling it “music” and “detective work” trying to find a new, but similar, story and how she decided to remove the character and why.
I’m currently researching contemporary adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility, and by going to this panel, it was interesting to hear about WHY we adapt. The panelists talked about Sherlock Holmes and Romeo and Juliet and why there are hundreds of adaptations of them and they said, “There’s so much room to play. There are boundaries, and there is structure, but within those lines, you’re able to get really creative.” They also explained that from an economic standpoint, it’s a lucrative business to adapt since there is a market for familiar stories. Whether it’s a classic, or “based on the best-selling book” it will bring audiences to the theatre to see how they’ve translated the story to the screen.
Overall, the adaptation of novel to screenplay is difficult since screenplays tend to be “the spine of the movie,” with dialogue and notes, and the director and actors needs to fill in the rest. The writing has to be very simple and novels tend to be complex. The interiority of feeling and emotion has to be expressed in a different way and sometimes visuals can and cannot convey them. Afterwards, the film is an entire different beast and those who work on completing it have ownership of their creation – it’s a cousin of the original text.
I’ll be covering the second AWP adaptation panel next week, “Adapting to Adaptation: Making the Most of Going Hollywood,” which included panelists from the opposite standpoint: authors whose novels have been adapted into Hollywood films and the pros and cons associated with the process.
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