Thursday, November 3, 2011

How to Make a Good Book into a Good Movie: 7 tips

Steven Pressfield has a new book out, called The Profession. You can find out more about the book and Pressfield at stevenpressfield.com. He has an interesting blog and some fascinating things to say about creativity. "What scares us on Wednesday, becomes old hat by Friday". He's very accessible, he writes in his blog like an old friend, sitting next to you and chatting, drinking a cup of coffee. At some point I may get around to reading The Profession but my list is so long right now, if it's not being made into a film, it's pretty low down on my list. But what does interest me right now is that Pressfield is the author of the The Legend of Bagger Vance, which was made into a movie starring Matt Damon and Will Smith in 2000. He knows firsthand just how tough it is to turn a great book into an equally great film.
Here's what he said about why books are (almost) always better than movies.

The Godfather, yes. To Kill a Mockingbird, definitely. Maybe a few others. But with these notable exceptions, almost every adaptation of a novel is less satisfying than the book itself. Why?
Not because film is an inferior medium. You and I love film. But the form demands truncation, condensation, and simplification – and none of these helps any work of fiction. Here’s what the adapter has to do to make a book into a movie:

1. Make it shorter. A lot shorter.

Novels are meant to be absorbed over a period of many hours, even days. The reader can digest numbers of characters and complexities of theme that she can’t in a movie.

2. Make it work in a rhythm.

We pick up a novel, put it down, pick it up again. Movies, in contrast, go down in one uninterrupted ninety-minute gulp.
Cutting down my own newest novel, The Profession, I had to lose two major throughlines. There was no choice. A movie is experienced in flow, like a prize fight or a rock concert or a bout of making love. It must have a rhythm and a momentum. It has to hook the viewer, pull him in, tease him, trick him, build his expectations and then satisfy them in a dramatic or comic climax that wraps up the whole show and sends him out the door replete.
What this means is:

3. Find the core throughline and cut everything else.

Complexity must be sacrificed in the service of momentum. Pace and energy are everything in movies. Detours don’t work; digressions are out of the question. The story in a movie must not only keep moving; it must keep building in intensity and in the stakes of the conflict.

4. Strip it down to three acts.

Because they are experienced in one self-contained ingestion, movies work best like plays: Act One, Act Two, Act Three. The leisurely exposition of a novel by, say, Thackeray is out of the question in film. The audience will be asleep before the second reel.

5. Lose all interior prose and poetry.

Movies, except via the awkward medium of the voiceover, can’t get inside characters’ heads literally. Film communicates interior life in two ways – by dialogue and by action. That’s all the adapter has. The actress can reveal great depth by expression, action, and subtext, but she can never (well, almost never) literally say it.

6. Cut all long speeches.

Short and punchy. Back and forth. That’s what works in film. The lengthy soliloquy, even if it’s by Shakespeare, is deadly on screen.

7. Make it work for a single star.

A movie needs John Wayne; it needs Clint Eastwood. Everyone else is off the bus.
I love movies. Nothing is better than a great film. But the overflowing chalice of the novel, particularly a full-blooded one, is often more than the shot glass of film can contain. A lot of good booze gets spilled onto the floor.

Often short stories (see Philip K. Dick) or even magazine articles make better material for adaptation than full-on novels. The adapter doesn’t need to be loyal. He can tear down and build afresh."

Source: Word and Film
It's a neverending debate, which is better, the film or the book. I tend to agree that a great book is hard to beat. But, I do love both mediums. Remember that song? "Torn between two lovers, feeling like a fool. Loving both of them is breaking all the rules" That's me. I'm irresistably drawn to both. And I suppose the arguing about it is part of the fun. How about you? What's your take on the age old dilemma?

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