Inside the Fiction Factory – Part 44

Books into Films

A recent television adaptation of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens has ignited the debate once more over whether a television program or film based on a book should remain faithful to the story. This got me thinking. I imagine most authors dream of having their book made into a film. It’s a funny thing. You can spend years working away, dreaming about having a book published, and when you get there, the next thing is dreaming about the film of the book. The odds against being published are heavily stacked against you; the odds over a film or tv deal are even higher. Still we can dream.

From my perspective I treat books and films separately. I’m not worried if a film takes liberties with the storyline. There are often areas of a book that do not translate well into film, so the script writers and the director need to find a way of making it work. That can result in scenes being taken away or new ones added. A film is an interpretation and I will either agree with it or I won’t, but I see no point in spending time worrying over the end product. It’s a bonus if I enjoy it. I always have the book to go back to.

There are times when I marvel at what has been done with the plot to make it fit into the confines of a film. There can be some very clever tweaks and for me as a writer, paying attention to what has been done is all part of the writing process. I treat every film of a book I watch as a learning experience.

While I’m on the subject, TV dramas can be irritating at times. Spinning stories out to six episodes when clearly four would have done is not great. Shots of people driving and looking pensive and at times playing an entire song at the close before the credits with more shots of people looking pensive or overhead drone shots are all time fillers and do nothing for the plot or the viewer experience. I love drones and the shots are great, but they should be kept to a minimum. I understand the need to make money and advertising slots, but from a story point of view, dragging things out is not the way to go. I am also irritated by modern endings, but that’s for another blog post.

So, how would I feel if one of my novels was to be made into a film? Excited, yes, for a little while before the nerves and the worry kick-in. There will be a contract, but what writer is going to quibble over that? You sign and hope for the best. I have learned to take constructive criticism from editors. All writers will remember the first time they see a manuscript returned with what seems like an impossible number of changes to confirm. All that hard-won prose, decimated, because you are not as good with the words as you thought you were. It’s a learning process and one I fortunately embraced. I’ve heard stories about when authors and editors have clashed which is a shame, as editors are hell-bent on making the book as good as it can be, while some authors feel their words are sacrosanct. But a novel being turned into a film? What changes are going to be made and how will I feel? I have no idea. I would hope I would accept what I said above, and not worry about any liberties being taken with the plot. Of course I’m against changes where characters are at odds with the novel. I won’t condone films that attempt to rewrite the narrative to make some political point that the author never intended. Or dress the film up in a way to incite controversy and play to the lowest common denominator that is currently trending. There are stories about writers on filmsets and giving everyone a hard time. I would hope that wouldn’t be me. I would love to be involved, and accept the film is an interpretation. It’s never going to look like it does in my mind, that is not possible. I believe it is possible to get close. The key thing here is to let the crew get on with it. No one wants to make a bad film.

I recall watching Die Hard and my youngest was viewing for the first time. She was quite young, still at primary school, and she was transfixed. She loved it. Halfway through she turned to me and asked. “Was this a book?” I thought for a moment and said, “That’s a good question, I don’t know if it is.” She shook her head and said, “It can’t be. It’s too magical to put into words.”

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