The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact And Fiction Into Film

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Macmillan, Feb 15, 1992 - Language Arts & Disciplines - 238 pages
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Adaptations have long been a mainstay of Hollywood and the television networks. Indeed, most Academy Award- and Emmy Award-winning films have been adaptations of novels, plays, or true-life stories. Linda Seger, author of two acclaimed books on scriptwriting, now offers a comprehensive handbook for screenwriters, producers, and directors who want to successfully transform fictional or factual material into film. Seger tells how to analyze source material to understand why some of it resists adaptation. She then gives practical methods for translating story, characters, themes, and style into film. A final section details essential information on how to adapt material and how to protect oneself legally


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A Theory of Adaptation
Linda Hutcheon
No preview available - 2006
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About the author (1992)

Art of Adaptation, The
PART ONE WHAT''S THE PROBLEM? 1 WHY LITERATURE RESISTS FILM There is something delicious about reading a good book. I have been an avid reader since the age of seven. Having begun with the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew, I moved to the richer fare of Jane Eyre and Little Women, Gone With the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird. Because of my frequent airplane trips, I have recently been reading a number of best-sellers. On my way to New Zealand I found myself stranded in Honolulu for a day because of airplane troubles, and spent the time mesmerized by Presumed Innocent. Curled up in a wicker chair at the Sheraton Hotel I read for hours, fascinated by the unfolding of the story, by the rich characters, and by what the book was telling me about obsession and marriage, politics and power. When I watched the film the story came to the forefront. I wanted to be able to follow every clue, to watch it unravel, and to clarify some of the parts of the book that I''d forgotten. When the film worked well, the story was clear and involving. At other times I was confused and bewildered, which lessened my enjoyment of it. But the experience of reading a novel is quite different from watching a film. And it''s exactly this difference that fights translationinto film. When we read a novel, time is on our side. It is not just a chronological experience, where someone else determines our pacing, but a reflective experience. Rarely do we read a novel in one sitting. In fact, part of the joy of reading is going back to the book. The reading, putting it down, thinking about it, sometimes reading a page twice is part of the pleasure. It is a reveling in the language as much as reveling in the story. THE IMPORTANCE OF THEME Novels, unlike films or plays, communicate all their information through words. The words express much more than story and events, images and character--they express ideas. Occasionally you do see a novel that is purely story--usually a short novel that''s not particularly known for its literary merits. All of the great novels, however, and most of the good ones, are not just telling a story but are pursuing an idea. They are about something significant, and this theme is just as important as the story line, if not more so. The best films also have strong themes, but in a film the theme serves the story. It''s there to reinforce and dimensionalize the story, not to replace it. In a novel, the story often serves the theme. The book Gone With the Wind is as much about the lost South as it is about Scarlett''s relationships and struggles. The theme gives depth to the story. When I watch the film, however, the story sweeps me along. The story becomes the most important and the idea about the lost South is not what I remember best. I remember Scarlett and Rhett and the burning of Atlanta and Melanie and Ashley. The novel gives me many more layers. It follows its thematic line by building up detail after detail, page after page, about the manners and rituals and parties and hierarchies of the South. Even the characters reinforce the theme. In passages such as thefollowing, the characters are defined thematically, in terms of how they relate to the Old South. Although born to the ease of plantation life, waited on hand and foot since infancy, the faces of the three on the porch [Scarlett and the Tarleton twins] were neither slack nor soft. They had the vigor and alertness of country people who have spent all their lives in the open and troubled their heads very little with dull things in books. Life in the north Georgia county of Clayton was still new and, according to the standards of Augusta, Savannah and Charleston, a little crude. The more sedate and older sections of the South looked down their noses at the upcountry Georgians, but here in north Georgia, a lack of the niceties of classical education carried no shame, provided a man was smart in the things that mattered. And raising good cotton, riding well, shooting straight, dancing lightly, squiring the ladies with elegance and carrying one''s liquor like a gentleman were the things that mattered. As the book unfolds, we see the disappearance of this way of life and how the characters react to the New South. Scarlett, through many compromises, is able to bend with the new era of Reconstruction. The book-loving, less practical Ashley is not. Rhett finds his integrity in the New South. Frank Kennedy becomes a hero while trying to preserve certain values of the Old South. In the beginning of the film Gone With the Wind, words on a scroll sum up this important theme from the book: There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South ... Here in this patrician world the Age of Chivalry took its last bow ...
Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and Slave ... Look for it only in books, for it is not more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind ... As the novel explores the idea of the lost South, it also takes its time giving us other layers of the story. BUILDING UP DETAIL Have you ever noticed that a book may take fifty or one hundred pages to give you the information that you get in three minutes of film? In Bonfire of the Vanities, the events in the first fourteen minutes of the film take up about eighty-nine pages in the book. When I worked on the adaptation of Christy by Catherine Marshall, the first image we created for the film corresponded to thirty-two pages of the book. Even in a short novel such as 58 Minutes (the basis of the film Die Hard 2), it took forty-six pages in the book to create what we see in the first few minutes of the film. In Gone With the Wind, what happens in the first one hundred twenty-seven pages of the book is presented to us in less than thirty minutes of film. Film is much faster. It builds up its details through images. The camera can look at a three-dimensional object and, in a matter of seconds, get across details that would take pages in the novel. Film can give us story information, character information, ideas and images and style all in the same moment. When we read a novel, we can see only what the narrator shows us at that particular moment. If the narrator puts the focus on action in those pages, then we follow the action. If the narrator talks about feelings, then we focus on the feelings. We can receive only one piece of information at a time. A novel can only give us this information sequentially. But film is dimensional. A good scene in a film advances the action, reveals character, explores the theme, and builds an image. In a novel, one scene or an entire chapter may concentrate on only one of those areas. In the process of building up details, the novel is also communicating other information. When the novel Gone With the Wind takes several paragraphs to describe Ashley Wilkes, it is giving us important character information. But it''s also using words to convey ideas about the kind of life Ashley was meant for--a gentleman''s life in the Old South. It is building up details that will pay off in the last half of the book. Read this descriptive passage in which Gerald O''Hara describes Ashley: Our people and the Wilkes are different ... . They are queer folk, and it''s best that they marry their cousins and keep their queerness to themselves ... . And when I say queer, it''s not crazy I''m meaning. He''s not queer like the Calverts who''d gamble everything they have on a horse, or the Tarletons who turn out a drunkard or two in every litter, or the Fontaines who are hot-headed little brutes and after murdering a man for a fancied slight ... . But he''s queer in other ways ... . Now, Puss, tell me true, do you understand his folderol about books and poetry and music and oil paintings and such foolishness? Later, Ashley laments his lack of skills as he says to Scarlett: I don''t want allowances made for me. I want to stand on my own feet for what I''m worth. What have I done with my life, up till now? ... I''ve been thinking. I don''t believe I really thought from the time of the surrender until you went away from here. I was in a state of suspended animation and it was enough that I had something to eat and a bed to lie on. But when you went to Atlanta, shouldering a man''s burden, I saw myself as much less than a man--much less, indeed, than a woman. Such thoughts aren''t pleasant to live with and I do not intend to live with them any longer ... . This is my last chance ... . If I go to Atlanta and work for you, I''m lost forever. This character information connects ideas in various parts of the book. It builds up details and ideas about the Old South and the New South, about the world that has gone with the wind, about a man who can''t adjust to the new world, and a woman who can. THE WORK OF THE NARRATOR As we read a novel, someone is taking us by the hand and leading us through the story. This narrator is sometimes a character (if the novel is in the first person) or the storyteller (usually the writer''s alter ego), who explains to us the meaning of the events. When the narrator in Gone With the Wind tells us about the "pleasant land of white houses, peaceful plowed fields and sluggish yellow rivers ... a land of contrasts, of bri