Screenwriters: I Don’t Envy Your Job

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My uncle has been at me again. Out of the blue, he sent me a Facebook message early yesterday:

Screen capture of my Facebook messages page.
Screen capture of my Facebook messages page.

Obviously I’ve removed his name and replaced his photograph with a stock silhouette image. As you may know he’s a HarperCollins published novelist (his first books appeared in the 1980s) and also writes screenplays. As you probably also know if you stop by here regularly (Hello again!), he has no idea (yet) that I’ve taken up writing.

His message got me thinking about the process of turning novels into movies – helped along by the fact that currently we’re seeing lots about a newly released major film that’s based on a massively selling recent novel.

Actors can act only with the material they are given. If a film misses the mark, chances are the big problem wasn’t the actors themselves. Likely it stems from how the story was adapted to the screen in the first place.

I’ve had readers relate things to me from my novels that I was surprised to hear. That they do is perfectly reasonable as every reader “sees” what’s in a book differently and makes it their own. Yet they have at times fixated on aspects of the stories in ways I hadn’t anticipated anyone would.

Given the near bottomless pit of novels out there, it’s often assumed that they are handy sources for films. “Option that one,” the studio guy/gal declares. “Yep, that’ll do. We’ll see what we can do with that. We don’t want Tom Cruise getting to it first.”

However, getting it on screen is a skill all its own. I wouldn’t begin to know how to convert my novels to film. (Should I ever get so lucky.) I would hand off my books to someone who knew how to do it properly and say, “Off you go.”

And I also know I’d almost certainly feel my heart sink at the result of what the screenwriter produced. It would be what a filmmaker – who might well also double as the screenwriter – needed done. I’m sure there would be changes to dialogue, scenes would almost surely be trashed, and some characters might even be written out entirely, etc., and so on.

Maybe some “simple” stories are less trouble developing into a film. But clearly not every novel can easily serve as a source for a movie without substantial alterations to get it to “fit” theatrically. Shooting a tale to be told in less than a 2 hour window is a radically different art form than penning a 100,000 word novel.

Perhaps aptly for our purposes here, Harper’s Bazaar noted the other day:

2/17/15: According to Mirror UK, 50 Shades director Sam Taylor-Johnson has threatened to quit the movie trilogy due to differences with the book’s author, EL James…

An author having “differences” with a filmmaker? I’m shocked! Shocked!

We’ve all also heard this angry film complaint from some novel’s devoted fans: “They changed the book so much!” Or we’ve witnessed fury that Tom Cruise gets the starring role for a film based on a series of hugely successful books centered around a guy who’s about 7 ft tall. Fans can be very protective of their favorite books, and as authors we do truly appreciate that.

But we are also well aware that of course screenwriters and filmmakers have to make such changes because shooting the beloved novel scene by scene and chapter by chapter would probably lead to a cinematic disaster. I’ve read that Fifty Shades is relatively “loyal” to the novel, and if that’s so perhaps that was a huge mistake. Often even vastly re-working a (even mediocre or bad) “hit” book is far better for a film adaptation than trying to, uh, tie oneself to “The Book” too tightly. πŸ˜‰

Hope you have a good day, wherever you are in the world. πŸ™‚


  1. Funny how your pieces get me thinking about MY stuff and here, the movie in my mind. I hope your books get made into a movie; they really seem like what I would love to watch one day.


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