‘The Process and Reception of Book to Film Adaptations’ is a dissertation originally written in 2010 by Steve McCarthy as part of a Masters degree in Publishing. This dissertation was produced with the help of industry professionals acknowledged below, and is now being re-published online with the aim of illuminating the process of book to film adaptation for the wider public. In some places, where appropriate, the author has edited content to bring it into the modern day context in which it is being shared. The dissertation will be published in 6 parts covering the key players in the process: the author, the agent, the script, and the producer.
A short review of the literature on adaptation
‘“To adapt” means to transpose from one medium to another.’5 It ‘implies change. It implies a process that demands rethinking, reconceptualizing, and understanding how the nature of drama is intrinsically different from the nature of all other literature.’6 The adaptation process is so inherent in the publishing, film, and theatre industries that it is now impossible to avoid when discussing the art of successful writing in these fields.
‘Adaptation theory’ as a term is equivocal, its roots being more closely tied with the study of evolution than that of book or film. However, in this instance such connections are beneficial in understanding not only the creation of adaptations, but also their survival. As Stam aptly notes while commenting on the Darwinian overtones of the film Adaptation: ‘Yet if mutation is the means by which evolutionary process advances, then we can also see filmic adaptation as “mutations” that help their source “survive”.’7
Regrettably it seems that discussion involving human evolution is much more abundant than that of story evolution, for at its core this is what book to film adaptation is: the transformation of a story. Where discussion can be found it, for the most part, rightly focuses on the role of the writer (both screenwriter and author) because adaptation is inevitably a task placed in human hands, rather than left to the impartiality of nature. This instantly raises issues of proficiency, and it is therefore unsurprising to find equal emphasis on responsibility and technique, but also success (as this is something that can be measured by human response alone). Seger asks: ‘Why is it that the worst failures and the greatest successes so often are adaptations?’8
With such stakes at risk understanding these key elements is invaluable. Filmmakers see the literary world as an unlimited resource, while authors and agents see cinema as another commercial opportunity. Book to film adaptation, as a concept, has become so inseparable from the literary world that ‘new novelists, as well, hope to see their stories turned into film, often writing specifically with an eye to movie structure and characters.’9 Statements like this suggest that in some cases the notion of adaptation itself could in turn be affecting the creation process; an odd paradox, thats implications are worth considering. In Darwinian terms this indicates that authors could be deliberately designing an entity around a structure most suitable for its survival.
However, for the most part book to film adaptation discussion focuses on both creation and interpretation, ensuring that clarity is enforced. In her book Screenwriting: The Definitive Guide, Field stresses ‘Adapting a book into a screenplay means to change one (a book) into another (a screenplay), not superimpose one onto the other. Not a filmed novel or a filmed stage play. They are two different forms.’10 This notion of difference is supported by both Field, and Seger (The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact and Fiction into Film), who both note the need to view the adaptation as an original product respectively: ‘An adaptation must be viewed as an original screenplay. It only starts from novel… That is the source material, the starting point. Nothing more.’11 [and] ‘The adaptation is the new original. The adaptor looks for balance between preserving the spirit of the original and creating a new form.’12
Stam (The Theory and Practice of Adaptation), however, comments on the influence of interpretation and concentrates on debate between how the older arts are seen as better than the younger arts. But this at times seems a futile discussion. It is clear that literature will always be at an advantage due to the ‘one-way-street nature’ of the adaptation process; it is free to highlight the failures and ignore the successes in a manner that reflects that of selective memory. Therefore discussion of an art’s ‘value’ seems unhelpful, the consequence being that the question of why books are adapted in the first place is overlooked completely at the detriment to all those involved. This said, not all perception is nonessential, and in some cases can play a big role in what gets adapted and what doesn’t.
General perception and audience expectation
Stam’s analysis evokes the notion that film is a victim of its own popularity, viewed as a lower art form because of its accessibility. Consequently the standard discourse of adaptation is often left ‘lamenting what has been “lost” in the transition from novel to film, while ignoring what has been “gained”.’13 Seger makes a similar point, but goes a step further by acknowledging that film and literature aim to gratify different audiences: ‘Film and television shows need to satisfy the masses to make a profit. Novels and plays have a more select audience, so they can cater to a more elite market: they can be thematic; they can deal with esoteric issues, or work with abstract styles. But the transition to film requires that the material be accessible to the general public.’14 It is here that Seger’s analysis can be seen as more in-depth than Stam’s, as she moves beyond the exterior of the argument and looks to uncover the causes behind it. Field also mentions the role of the audience: On adapting All the President’s Men, she notes that William Goldman chose to end the film earlier than the book because the audience were already aware of the story. It was already imprinted within cultural knowledge. The adaptation process was therefore influenced directly by the audience’s expectations. If this is true then it suggests that an understanding of marketing theory is as integral to the adaptation process as any other element, with so much of an adaptation’s success hinging on its ability to satisfy.
Seger’s discussion also raises potential pitfalls for an author looking to benefit from having their book turned into a film. By acknowledging that the adaptation is a ‘new original’ then the author must accept that substantial alterations may be made. But if too many changes are made during the adaptation process then some of the benefits for the author will deteriorate. In many cases the author is benefitting financially by selling the film rights in two ways: a) instantly, by selling the rights; b) over time as the film raises awareness of the book’s existence and draws in new customers as a result. However, customers who buy a book based on having liked the film will be left feeling shortchanged if the book is completely different. This feeling of disappointment will consequently be transferred onto the author rather than the producers of the adaptation.
This is a recurring theme among online book reviews written by disgruntled customers. Take Up in the Air which was 2009’s 17th highest grossing book to film adaptation making $44,375,26515. Much of its success as a film came from being nominated in the Oscars, and as the public’s interest in the film grew so too did interest in the source material. However, on Amazon.co.uk one reviewer wrote of the novel Up in the Air: ‘I picked this up on the strength of having seen and enjoyed the film. To be honest I wish I hadn’t bothered. It was nothing like the film…’16 The benefit of reaching a new audience becomes marred by the inability to meet their expectations.
‘Film, we are reminded, is a form of writing that borrows from other forms of writing.’17 Often it is a misunderstanding that leaves audiences of both literature and film feeling disappointed. And a lot of this confusion is a result of the film being titled the same as the book. This, ironically, often seems to be one of the few similarities, as discussion regarding the differences of literature and film appears united and rife. Stam explains: ‘While novels are absorbed through the mind’s eye during reading, films directly engage the various senses.’18 Field agrees: ‘When you adapt a novel into a screenplay, it must be a visual experience.’19 Both indicate that the differences lie in experience, ‘Films, then, are more directly implicated in bodily response than novels.’20 Similarly a reading of a novel is a personal and intimate experience, whereas film is sold as a shared event.
McKee (Story: Substance, structure, style and the principles of screenwriting), and Seger are more meticulous, preferring to focus on the structure of story, and offer a more comprehensive argument. McKee notes: ‘The unique strength and wonder of the novel is the dramatization of inner conflict. This is what prose does best, far better than play or film.’21 [and] ‘The inner life can be expressed impressively in film, but it cannot reach the density or complexity of a novel.’22 He goes on to outline what he calls the ‘purity’ of the source material: ‘a telling located exclusively at the level of inner conflict, employing linguistic complexities to incite, advance, and climax story with relative independence of personal, social, and environmental forces.’23 ‘Attempts to adapt “pure” literature fail for two reasons: One is aesthetic impossibility.’24 The second he explains is due to the adaptor’s inability to replicate a work of genius if the adaptor is not a genius themselves. McKee sets the bar high for screenwriters, and asserts that for the most part literature is operating on a level that is beyond the reach of film. But by outlining these unsubtle differences he is also reaffirming the notion that an adaptation is a new entity; it doesn’t have to replicate the source because it is impossible to. He goes on to explain the second principle of adaptation is reinvention. Noting that in many cases having broken the novel down the screenwriter will find the story is either poorly told in the first place and thus littered with holes, or so well told that it is too long.
Seger’s view is that ‘novels and plays are more able to encompass ambiguities. Their story lines can meander off on tangents before coming back to the main focus.’25 She looks at the structural constraints of a novel: ‘We can receive only one piece of information at a time. A novel can only give us this information sequentially.’26 But she also reverts back to the idea of audience interaction: ‘Film is usually a one-time experience. There’s no opportunity to turn back the page, recheck a name, reread the description. Clarity is an important element in commercial viability.’27 However, although this is a valid point it would be naïve to assume this is the case for all films. The Prestige and Fight Club are prime examples of book to film adaptations that require a ‘rereading’, because so much can be missed in the first viewing. In these cases the adaptations have benefitted from adopting techniques intrinsic to the literary style.
The key is what McKee describes as extra-personal conflict: ‘huge and vivid images of human beings wrapped inside their society and environment, striving for life.’28 This is where film succeeds. By identifying the elements that assist the adaptation process, those in the film industry will have a better chance of success. Seger effectively flags a few of these elements. Firstly she touches on the construction of character: ‘Most successful American films have a main character who is likable, sympathetic, and identifiable.’29 [and] ‘As a rule, Americans don’t like their major characters to lose or die at the end.’30 This is true of the previously mentioned Fight Club, where the ending was changed to signify hope. The author Chuck Palahniuk comments: ‘My hope was that the film would demonstrate the themes of the story to a larger audience… Everybody involved brought so much more to the story, I felt a little ashamed of the book.’31 By observing the requirements of film, the adaptation was able to change appropriately and, in this instance, for the better.
Stam states eight separate causes of hostility towards the adaptation process, including ideas of philosophy, post-structuralist theory, narratology, and reception theory. But the latter concept seems underdeveloped and fails to acknowledge the importance of audience expectation. The success and failure of a film balances on the reception from the exterior world, and in the case of adaptations these would have been sold to producers on the proof of a pre-established audience and fan base. However, this is a problem in itself as the pre-established audience have preexisting opinions. Failure to live up to these expectations will result in a cinematic flop.
What McKee says about adaptations seems astute and comes from a place of unrivaled experience. His summary here shows the depth of his knowledge: ‘…the ultimate creative task: to write in a purely dramatic and visual way, to show a natural world of natural human being behavior, to express the complexity of life without telling.’32 However, due to the purpose of the book which aims to cover storytelling on a broad scale, McKee doesn’t dwell on adaptation too long. It therefore feels insufficient. His idea of ‘show not tell’ being the goal of any good storyteller is apt but general, forgetting perhaps that film by its very nature ‘shows’: in a single opening shot a film can set-up an entire world, something that might take a novel a few pages to do.
Field seems to acknowledge that the screenplay is separate to the novel and that the adaptation process is merely the method of getting from one to another. Once the screenplay is formed it is a new entity and thus should not be compared. However, like McKee her book’s broad audience (screenwriters) means the topic of adaptation is underwhelming.
Seger is the only one who gives adaptation enough breathing space to truly create appropriate discussion. In this sentence she captures the purpose of this very thesis: ‘By knowing where and why the material resists the transition, writers and producers are better able to know what material is not worth the effort, and what problems need to be addressed in order to make the adaptation work.’33
5 Field, S. (2003) Screenwriting: The Definitive Guide. Ebury Press. Page 323.
6 Seger, L. (1992) The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact and Fiction into Film. Holt Paperbacks. Page 2.
7 Stam, R. (2005) Introduction: The Theory and Practice of Adaptation. In Raengo, A. Stam, R. (ed) Literature and Film. Oxford: Blackwell 1-53. Page 3.
8 Seger, L. (1992) The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact and Fiction into Film. Holt Paperbacks. Page 1.
9 Seger, L. (1992) The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact and Fiction into Film. Holt Paperbacks. Page xii.
10 Field, S. (2003) Screenwriting: The Definitive Guide. Ebury Press. Page 323.
11 Field, S. (2003) Screenwriting: The Definitive Guide. Ebury Press. Page 324.
12 Seger, L. (1992) The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact and Fiction into Film. Holt Paperbacks. Page 9.
13 Stam, R. (2005) Introduction: The Theory and Practice of Adaptation. In Raengo, A. Stam, R. (ed) Literature and Film. Oxford: Blackwell 1-53. Page 3.
14 Seger, L. (1992) The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact and Fiction into Film. Holt Paperbacks. Page 5.
15 Data taken from: Box Office Performance for Based on Book/Short Story Movies in 2009. [online] Available at: www.the-numbers.com/market/2009/BasedOnBook.php [Accessed 1st July 2010]
16 Review written by Kate. [online] Available at: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Up-Air-Walter-Kirn/dp/1848543263/ref=sr_1_1? s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1284666015&sr=1-1 [Accessed 10th July 2010]
17 Stam, R. (2005) Introduction: The Theory and Practice of Adaptation. In Raengo, A. Stam, R. (ed) Literature and Film. Oxford: Blackwell 1-53. Page 1.
18 Stam, R. (2005) Introduction: The Theory and Practice of Adaptation. In Raengo, A. Stam, R. (ed) Literature and Film. Oxford: Blackwell 1-53. Page 6.
19 Field, S. (2003) Screenwriting: The Definitive Guide. Ebury Press. Page 327.
20 Stam, R. (2005) Introduction: The Theory and Practice of Adaptation. In Raengo, A. Stam, R. (ed) Literature and Film. Oxford: Blackwell 1-53. Page 6.
21 McKee, R. (1999) Story: Substance, structure, style and the principles of screenwriting. Methuen. Page 365.
22 McKee, R. (1999) Story: Substance, structure, style and the principles of screenwriting. Methuen. Page 376.
23 McKee, R. (1999) Story: Substance, structure, style and the principles of screenwriting. Methuen. Page 367.
24 McKee, R. (1999) Story: Substance, structure, style and the principles of screenwriting. Methuen. Page 367.
25 Seger, L. (1992) The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact and Fiction into Film. Holt Paperbacks. Page 7.
26 Seger, L. (1992) The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact and Fiction into Film. Holt Paperbacks. Page 16.
27 Seger, L. (1992) The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact and Fiction into Film. Holt Paperbacks. Page 7.
28 McKee, R. (1999) Story: Substance, structure, style and the principles of screenwriting. Methuen. Page 366.
29 Seger, L. (1992) The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact and Fiction into Film. Holt Paperbacks. Page 5.
30 Seger, L. (1992) The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact and Fiction into Film. Holt Paperbacks. Page 6.
31 Quote taken from: Fight Club. 2000 [DVD] Dir. David Fincher. Fox 2000 Pictures, Regency Enterprises. DVD Extras: ‘Behind- the-Scenes Vignettes With Multiple Angles and Commentary’
32 McKee, R. (1999) Story: Substance, structure, style and the principles of screenwriting. Methuen. Page 370.
33 Seger, L. (1992) The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact and Fiction into Film. Holt Paperbacks. Page 10.
I would like to thank the following people and organisations for their support, advice and contributions to this dissertation:
Kingston University, Alison Baverstock, Sarah Mahaffy, Mary Braid, Julian Friedmann, Linda Seger, Tally Garner, Nick Hornby, Lucy Chavasse, Evan Leighton-Davis, Adam Baron, Kieron Connolly, Ken Marshall, Emma Wood, and all those who participated in the survey.