While there is certainly never a shortage of book to screen adaptations, as a fierce devourer of screenplays, books and film, the past few weeks have me wondering, aren’t all screenplays adaptations?
We’ve all had the experience where ‘the movie doesn’t live up to the book.’ Lately, I’ve come to notice that they don’t always live up to the screenplay either.
SPOILER ALERTS AHEAD
I go to the movies at minimum once a week, but even so, I don’t always get to see everything in a theater. But I’m lucky, or so I thought because I can usually get my hands on a script and read the most talked about films. So much so, that my response to the question, ‘have you seen ________?’ Is very often, ‘I’ve read it.’
Before the holiday mayhem, I got my hands on ARRIVAL, and I was impressed. Which takes a lot for me when it comes to sci-fi. But the script really was all about character, it read like an ET for parents. Then friends of mine started talking about how spectacular the film was. This wasn’t all one conversation; it was a stream of random, unrelated commentary from people who work in the business. An Oscar-nominated director said it was one of the most beautiful films he’d ever seen. Another industry story executive raved, it went on, so these were opinions of people whose opinion bears weight in my world and in the industry. I finally put ARRIVAL on my theater agenda just before Christmas and was immediately intrigued that the opening was different from the script. Now, this in and of itself, happens a lot (stay tuned for LA LA LAND below), but the writer of the script had so expertly used a bookend technique, that I was taken aback it was abandoned.
I found myself getting more and more frustrated as I watched the film because it had deviated from the script so much and it occurred to me that I shouldn’t read scripts before seeing films, doing so really destroys the movie-going experience that my industry friends were so caught up in with this film. At the same time, there were a lot of articles shooting around the web as to how the screenwriter got ARRIVAL made – it’s never an easy task, but his journey was a notably lengthy one. One of these articles led me to discover that it was adapted from a short story by a well-known sci-fi writer. Again, not being a sci-fi fanatic, I was not familiar with his work. But from what I could tell this writer’s claim to fame was making sci-fi accessible and character driven instead of world-driven. So I ordered the book and immediately flipped to the short story that ARRIVAL was adapted from. I was surprised to read how strikingly similar the screenwriter was able to make it (which upset me even more that the filmmakers didn’t stick closer to the script). All of that aside the thing that stood out the most was how the short story opened – the same, ‘do you want to make a baby,’ scene was in the book. This was the bookend so effectively used (granted I cringed when I first read that line in the script, I thought it was sappy and unrealistic which may be why the filmmakers left it out of the beginning – I don’t know.
The rest of ARRIVALS 1st 10 pages are fairly close to the script, but once the film gets going it changes substantially. I feel for the screenwriter, it was a passion project he struggled to get made and finally did – yet his (better) words were adapted to something else.
So, when I got the script to LA LA LAND, I made a point NOT to read it until I saw it. Unlike sci-fi, I’m a sucker for a Hollywood homage and a musical to boot. I couldn’t wait to see this. As it opened and the throngs of LA commuters hopped out of their cars to sing, all I could think of was, ‘how did they close a section of the LA freeway to film this elaborate shot?’ I couldn’t wait to see how these opening pages were written…
(LA LA LAND has gone on to win best screenplay, director, actor, song, etc… from the Golden Globes and other awards – it is remarkable and deserving)
BUT those first pages… the big song isn’t really written here, which is understandable, it would be 30 pages of lyrics if it had been. The thing that really stands out is that cutaway that introduces us to our leads in the film is not on the page. It is not written that Emma Stone’s character rehearses her lines. It is not written that Ryan Gosling’s character cuts her off. It is not written that she, in turn, flips him off. These are great scenes that set up their relationship in the opening moments. But they were not in the script (at least the one I have). Now LA LA LAND is written by its director; so his liberties and process may be different from most, but even so, he adapted his words to what best told the story cinematically.
A MONSTER CALLS is an award-winning book which I have read a few times, long before the movie went into production. The book’s writer is also the screenwriter so one would think that he would want to remain as close to the source material as possible.
Once again, I held off reading the script before seeing the film. I enjoyed the film – a lot. It was clear to me how and why they adapted the unique style of the book and how they made it cinematic. Honestly, I couldn’t recall the opening pages of the book, but I was struck by how there was no dialogue for the first few minutes as we were pulled into the mindset of the young boy, Connor. I left the theater happy with the adaptation, fully understanding why they added the scenes they did. My son like the film more than he did the book.
But when I opened the script – anxious to see how they wrote those first scenes where he awakes from the nightmare and does laundry and gets ready for school… I was (almost) surprised they weren’t in the script at all. I was more surprised at the weird technical aspects of the script – which I can only HOPE were some random formatting glitch that really didn’t show on the actual file that was used to get the film into production.
All three of the scripts are here (in total – not just the 1st pages, I can do that because it’s awards season and they are out there now).
But back to the question posed — given that filmmaking is such a team effort that even once the team gels and the directors and editors deliver a cut they love, focus groups and marketing departments step in and steer that work in another direction, the fact of the matter is – RARELY does a film make it from script to screen without creative adaptation from what the writer has put out there.
What can you do? Take a deep breath and embrace the collaborative process. If you are a screenwriter, know that even if you direct your own material – it will take a different form by the time it makes it to the silver screen. If you are an author – let it go. Your baby was born in another world when it becomes a film it is an alternate universe. If you are merely a fan, don’t expect to see your favorite characters doing the same thing over and over in every format – that’s just not good storytelling.