7 Adaptation Rules from the Screenwriter of "Dracula" and "Contact"
Guest Blogger James V. Hart brings his three decades of experience as a major Hollywood screenwriter, and 20 years teaching seminars around the world. J.V. is most known for writing Hook, Epic, Contact and Dracula. He is also the co-creator of the HartChart, a story mapping tool to track the emotions of your characters and their journeys. It helps writers visualize the rise and fall of characters as they make choices and proceed through the story. We previously interviewed Hart in How Screenwriters Can Find the Emotional Journey of Their Characters.
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I realized in prepping for this blog that my career has been built on adaptations.
Hook, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Muppet Treasure Island, Contact, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Sahara, Lara Croft and the Cradle of Life, Tuck Everlasting, and many of my unproduced screenplays and TV developments are based on "previously published material" which is the WGA designation for a non-original screenplay, or — adaptation.
Look at the films produced that were eligible for Academy consideration this year: Over 50% of the produced films are based on previously published material or characters.
IP is now the must-have for capital in the business and entering the business. IP is the preferred asset for investors wanting to create instant value for their enterprise.
Why adaptations? Branding. Name recognition by the audience. Successful in one medium or more so an audience already exists. And, somebody already did the heavy lifting — how hard can it be?
Surprise! Surprise! Damn hard!
Here are some practical rules and guidelines I have set for myself in my various adaptations.
1. Read the Damn Book/Source Material — aka Go Back to the Book, Dummy!
I always find that the Author and the Author's visions have a reason to exist and that reason is not so a screenwriter can muck it up. There is gold to be mined — solutions, answers to character secrets, their backstories which inform their present and explain their behavior, their wounds, their inner journey — right there in the book.
When I was adapting Carl Sagan's novel, Contact, I was genuinely shocked at the previous scripts by Academy Award-winning writers that completely denied the content of Sagan's densely jammed opus except for the signal from space and the building of the "machine" and Ellie's journey to the center of the galaxy. Seven writers before me, and not one seemed to have read or attempted to take on this novel. Hey, it scared me too. I believed it was un-adaptable, but none of the previous drafts did justice to Carl and Anne Druyan's work [Carl's amazing wife and co-author].
This leads me to one of my most important guidelines which makes Producers and Execs shudder that I learned on Contact.
2. If the Author Is Still Alive, Talk to Them
Insist on it. Sit down with the Author, skype them, phone them, hang out with them if they will let you. In most cases, the Author will appreciate that you care enough to want to find out their POV as the originator of the material that got you the job of adapting them.
The key to finding the film narrative inside Contact was a magic weekend my family spent with Carl and Anne and their family in upstate New York [a brilliant move by producer Lynda Obst]. During that golden time, I interviewed Carl like a journalist — what do you want the audience to take away from the film version of your book? Why did you write it? What are the most important scenes? Who are the most important characters and why? What do your main characters want? What does your main character need? What is his or her wound that has to be healed? You will find these questions and more in the HartChart toolkit online.
Carl graded my notes every day. The best I got was B-. But we found the narrative inside his novel that weekend. The most important scene in Contact for Carl is the meeting between Ellie and the ETI version of her father, where Ellie believes all the answers of the ages will be answered.
The problem was that in his novel, the relationship between Ellie and her Father barely existed. In order for a film audience to be emotionally connected to the importance of this moment with the father that died when she was so young and inspired her obsession with making Contact with the Universe, we had to build that relationship in the film narrative. And so we did and Carl embraced it and supported the film adaptation of his expansive novel and all the good work done by Michael Goldenberg and the uncredited Menno Meyes.
Same with Kurt Vonnegut Jr. When my son and I were adapting Cat's Cradle and Sirens of Titan, Kurt graciously let us into his home and helped us solve character and narrative problems we were having with adapting his genius novels and characters to the film narrative form. At one point, Kurt pointed to his bookshelf and said “I wrote the novel. It’s right there. I’ve done my job. Now it’s your turn. Go make a good movie.”
Natalie Babbitt, the writer of Tuck Everlasting, gave me an A- on my script and did not like the film of the script at all. There were too many changes from her novel for her to accept. The big one was the relationship between Winnie Foster and Jesse Tuck. In Natalie's acclaimed novel, Winnie was 10 years old and Jesse Tuck was 17 [plus a 100]. I asked Natalie if she really thought the audience would accept a budding relationship between a 10-year-old girl and the handsome adventurous Jesse. She then understood the problem but never embraced it. Winnie is 10 in the Author's mind. But the voice Natalie gave to Winnie in her novel was much older. I firmly believed Winnie Foster had to be old enough to lose someone in death she cared about to better understand the incredible decisions and choices Winnie and the Tucks have to make in Natalie's extraordinary novel. Tuck Everlasting is only 137 pages long and was the most difficult adaptation I have ever done.
The Author knows more about his or her own work than any screenwriter or director and is a wellspring of insight into the world and characters they created. If you cannot talk to them; read interviews, find interviews online, read academic analyses of their works by scholars. Shakespeare is a perfect example. Everyone interprets Shakespeare a multitude of ways. But they don't f*** with the Bard’s words.
3. Create a New Original
I have always like this guideline by Linda Seger, a world class script consultant and author of several excellent books. When I read a book, I know that the narrative is too long for a film adaptation; the series TV adaptation might be more satisfying, but the writer's mission is to create a new original that honors the intention and the spirit of the original. Novels, news articles, and short stories are completely different literary forms than screen formats. They cannot be translated word for word and page for page to the screen successfully.
JK Rowling and the Harry Potter series comes the closest. That is because the Author designs her books to be translated to the screen format from the beginning.
4. Pick Ten Big Moments in the Book as You Read/ aka Do Not Read Just for Pleasure
This is a must for me when I am preparing an adaptation. Ten is a minimum. The big guideline for me in this exercise. It can be more than ten. But do this as you read; make notes as you read; do not wait until you are finished, as you will forget a lot of your gold. I use the signposts listed in the HartChart to break down and identify narrative structure, especially when adapting a novel or previously published material or characters. I do this exercise as I read — identify the most important chapters. Pay particular attention as to how, where, and why the Author has chosen to end each chapter. That is key to structure. Whatever you the reader are anticipating is coming in the next chapter is directly related to the anticipation the audience must have in the film/TV adaptation.
5. Whose Story Is It?
Nothing new here. This applies to original and non-original TV and screenplay formats. But when you read the novel/article/historical/biographical material, choose a POV and your main characters as you read. Any character you can remove and still tell the story is not a main or running character. Even in an ensemble adaptation like the most excellent Spotlight, your audience will gravitate to one or more characters they connect with.
Even though Bram Stoker was not alive for me to interview, his very sophisticated narrative had been mangled over the decades by adaptations that denied the genius of his Gothic game-changer and spawn of many Vampire franchises today. But, no one has ever tried to faithfully adapt the book.
Whose story is it was the question I wrestled with for years. Dracula obviously, but he is barely in the novel. Van Helsing is key, but as a mentor/wizard/alchemist in Chris Vogler's 12 Steps of the Archetypes. I could not bring myself to accept the Jonathan Harker hero focus of Stoker's classic. Stoker had written as a Victorian man a tome about unbridled female sexuality, but there was no romance. Dracula, as empathetic as I found him to be in Stoker's novel, was a monster.
Enter Frank Langella and the revival of the Balderston-Deane stage adaptation of Dracula. The play has little to do with the book and everything to do with the Hollywood versions of Dracula that made Lugosi famous. Except Langella brought a genuine erotic sex appeal to the character. So, at the act break when Langella opens his Errol Flynn poets shirt and pulls Lucy to his bare chest to drink his blood [never done before in any Dracula production] and then we blackout, the audience gasps and sits in stunned silence.
The row of ladies with big hair in front of me have the vapors. Then it happens; the magic, the key to unlocking the mystery for this writer. The big-haired lady in front me announces for the entire theater to hear:
"I'd rather spend one night with Dracula dead, than the rest of my life with my husband alive!"
Pure genius. Dracula is a woman's film. Not a man's. From that night on my adaptation became the story of Mina Murray [not Jonathan Harker} and her awakening to her love for the "beast the breathing men would kill."
I found in my research that the true Dracula's wife had committed suicide believing he had been killed by the Turks "defending the cross of Christ."
This was a Dracula I had never seen but that was grounded and rooted in Stoker's novel.
Francis Ford Coppola, the Maestro, brought his genius and artistry to every frame.
6. Research, Research, Research
The internet is a boon to writers. The world's knowledge and garbage at your fingertips. Just like talking to the living Author, there are solutions and inspirations and problems solved and scenes inspired that can only come from research. Dracula is a particularly potent example of how research and being open to the world can solve huge problems in your adaptation.
7. The Movie Inside the Reader's Head Is Your Biggest Competition and the Nemesis of All Adaptations
No way around it. The imagination creates the best film/TV adaptation of any written works.
That is why the audience rules here. That is why often the book is proclaimed better than the film or TV version of the material being adapted.
So, listen to your own imagination, pay attention to the invisible audience that will be the judge and jury of how successful your adaptation is.
ANYONE WHO TELLS YOU ADAPTATIONS ARE EASIER THEN ORIGINALS HAS NEVER DONE AN ADAPTATION!