I had the extraordinary pleasure of sitting in on John August’s breakdown of the adaptation process for BIG FISH, during last week’s Austin Film Festival and conference. This was a win-win for me, as I was a huge fan of the book and then the movie – which was adapted for the big screen by two of my favorites, John August and Tim Burton. John was so gracious during his session, the way he let the audience figure out his thinking process was so organic, it seemed like we actually were doing his incredible job. But that’s John — he loves to help fellow writers as is evidenced by his very insightful and active blog – also linked in the blogroll here. (BTW – there are lots of other BIG FISH answers over there if you’re looking for more beyond this post)
First let’s look at the novel ‘of mythic proportions’ by Daniel Wallace. This is a fairly short novel, so it’s particularly interesting what the 1st 10 pages accomplish or in this case, the 1st chapter, depending on which print of the book you pick up it is in most cases, 10 pages.
The title and the opening paragraphs that make up the prologue really accomplish much the same as the 1st 10 pages of August’s adaptation. Which is; they let us know the tone of the story and world we are about to enter, and the main characters that inhabit that will take us through this world. A frail, soon to die Edward Bloom as seen through the eyes of his now grown son, Will who doesn’t quite understand his father. What Will does know is that his father loved to tell stories, big, fantastic stories that were really embellishments of his own life. By the end of the 1st chapter we know that Edward was big fish in a little pond made enormous through his stories and for the first time in his life, his son Will is about to find an appreciation for this quirk, hopefully before it’s too late.
Here’s the 1st chapter of BIG FISH.
Now, John took us through the entire genesis of the screenplay but I will try and keep this focused on the 1st 10 pages. One of the first things we had to identify was that we were listening to the story of his father’s life — as he would want it told — but why do we care? Especially considering the fact that our tour guide on this journey of story, Will, isn’t very sympathetic. His father is on his death bed and Will is giving him a hard time about how his story actually played out. So in came one of the main differences from the book, Will got a wife. A smart, pretty, kind and expecting wife. Her role is useful in many ways to the story but her main objective in being here is to make Will more likeable. After all if he can land her, he can’t be all that bad.
Next, we looked at the main characters, Edward, Sandra, Will, the family Doctor (and Will’s wife) somehow they are all integral and we need to get to know them as soon as possible. We distilled from that the core characters of Will and Edward and had to define who they were at the beginning of the story and who they would become by the end, literally drawing out their individual arcs. So we should have been off to the races right? Well, as John pointed out, those first few pages got torn up multiple times before leaving the starting gate. Why? Because the novel is really a bunch of snippets some real some fantasy (some can be seen in the 1st chapter sample) and for a movie to work we needed a common thread to tie it all together, to seamlessly blend the fantasy with reality. Once John discovered the notion of telling Edward’s stories (over and over) through the years over the backdrop as Will grew, then he was off to the races and beyond the 1st 10 pages. I’ve included the start of the scene immediately after those 10 in the sample because here we have our catalyst, where Edward sees how he will die and therefore is no longer afraid to live. The end is a given literally and figuratively, in this story and all of our own lives, so posing question of, ‘what if we knew how we would die and therefore lived each day to its fullest and most fantastic?’ gives us something to buckle up and enjoy the ride for.
The other big element from the book’s beginning was the day Edward was born and the mythic rain. Due to production constraints (budget and time) this was removed from the screenplay and made the slippery birth scene, which actually tightens the story and still maintains the mythic aspect.
Here’s the 1st 10 plus of BIG FISH ADAPTATION
As I said, John has a lot of stuff on his site including outlines early and later, plus the entire screenplay, so click on over and enjoy.