Monday, October 26, 2009

Movie Adaptation

The other morning, the Engineer threw a magazine at me. It was the September edition of Writer's Digest, and it had apparently been languishing far too long on the dining room table for her taste.

We were on our way out the door, so I stuffed it in the backpack (which is very similar in many respects to "putting it away") and headed off to the cafe to do my morning writing. After I finished writing my five pages, edited a couple dozen and wrote a blog entry likening my character to Bugs Bunny, I opened the magazine. In the back of my mind, I was noodling with my ongoing series of posts on "Cultural Cross-Pollination". I've already done Commedia del Arte, Playwriting, Role Playing Games, Kinetic Text and Cartoons. I either needed a good hook for talking about movies or I needed to just let it lie fallow for a little while.

How movies can, should or should not affect our fiction writing is a bit of a poser, I don't mind saying. It's a big topic for one thing, and for another, I've already touched on it a little bit. Then it hit me... exactly like a rolled-up magazine left too long on the dining room table. In WD and just about everywhere else that writing is discussed, the ability to write "visually" is discussed, dissected and otherwise touted as one of the hallmarks of marketable writing. In the "MFA Insider" column, author Joshua Henkin posited that movies and television and the onslaught of "Write more visually" advice from writing books and magazines have cumulatively eroded our willingness to create introspection in our stories. To prove his point, he gave a writing exercise that entails going through your story or manuscript and highlighting everything that can be filmed in one color (action) and everything that cannot be filmed in a contrasting color (internal dialogue).  In "too many" stories, there would be an imbalance -- the external story would outweigh the internal struggle of the characters, the parts that cannot be adapted for film.

I'm not sure he's right. For one thing, recent and upcoming movies are challenging what's "Filmable". Where the Wild Things Are takes us into the lengthy interior monologue of a young boy at war with himself. Assuming they don't screw it up The Road will be a challenging movie of silences and bleakness where the characters never refer to one another by name.

Has visual media cracked the whip of visual writing? More to the point, have novels been overtaken by authors who would be better suited writing screenplays?

I undertook his experiment with my own manuscript and without compiling exact statistics (there's a limit to how much free time I have) I think my writing is about even. Between the "filmable" sequences and the internal dialogues, I was looking at a pretty decent balance of colors. While there are extended action sequences, I temper that with the fact that my characters are pretty brainy and have a tendency to live inward.

Speaking of "filmable" writing, Paul Levine is an entertainment attorney and agent who represents a lot of screenwriters as well as authors. At PNWA, he told a full room that aspiring screenwriters should write the book first. Movie rights were easier to sell with a publishing contract to back them up and getting a screenplay over the transom at the moment was almost impossible without that. The other editors and agents on the panels all agreed. Hollywood wants a sure thing now more than ever. This is why we're seeing sequels and adaptaions packed cheek by jowl on the marquee right now. Hollywood wants someone else to play taste-maker, to vet the stories for them, to see them succeed in another venue before they plunk millions of dollars into a film project.

To bring it back to novel writing, I used to wholeheartedly agree with Henkin on the impact that visual media has had on writing... for better and worse. And I still do to some extent. But talking to Levine, I got the feeling that there was a bit of the tail wagging the dog -- that movies are following print as much or more than it goes the other way around. Films are delving into territory that was long thought impossible to bring to the screen. Introspective movies are elbowing for room alongside the usual action and adventure. Rather like you will see in my screenpla... um... novel.


Scott Walker Perkins writes literary thrillers and novels of suspense woven from the threads of history. His current novel is The Palimpsest and he is working on another tentatively titled 42 Lines.
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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).