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10/05/2005 - Larry Turman's Thoughts (No. 8)

Adaptation is another topic I address in "So You Want To Be A Producer." Even though it can be easier to adapt a novel into a screenplay rather than start from scratch, "it ain't necessarily so." The more solid and strong the book, the easier the adaptation, unless the book is so massive that winnowing it down becomes a problem. A novel should, and often does, give you some semblance of a storyline and hopefully rich characters. But there's still the problem of selection and compression in trying to figure out what will work for a movie. Ernie Lehman, who brilliantly adapted the musical plays The King and I, The Sound of Music, and West Side Story, as well as novels Executive Suite and Somebody Up There Likes Me said, "Sometimes the best adaptation is changing nothing. Other times the best is changing everything." Really helpful, huh?

So where's the bell that chimes to tell you what to do. There ain't none. Ninety percent of the screenplay The Graduate came verbatim from the book, but that in no way diminishes Buck Henry's screenplay (Calder Willingham also got writing credit). The tone of the movie through casting, through directorial emphasis, became completely different than the tone of the book. In the novel, Benjamin Braddock's character was a whiny pain in the ass; you wanted to spank him. In the movie, he may have been feckless, but he was vulnerable and sympathetic.

Conversely, The Flim-Flam Man novel gave us a relationship and some incidents, but it took the inventive construction of writer William Rose (It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Guess Whose Coming To Dinner, The Ladykillers) to turn out a script which was a cohesive whole building to a dramatic, satisfying climax.

A novelist has two big advantages over a screenwriter. One, he can write what a character is thinking. A screenwriter has to be explicitly clear in dialogue and action (but subtly and artfully) to accomplish the same thing. I remember in the screenplay for my first film, The Young Doctors, Joseph Hayes wrote a stage direction, "As the tension mounts" - except he didn't have dialogue or action that showed any tension mounting in that particular scene. This is the same Joe Hayes whose novel The Desperate Hours became a huge Broadway stage success and an excellent and successful film starring Humphrey Bogart and Fredric March under the direction of William Wyler. Even the best sometimes screw up. It's the producer's job to keep those screw-ups to a minimum. The second advantage a novelist has is length, the sheer number of pages. Most screenplays are roughly 120 pages with a lot of whitespace. When's the last time you read a novel that short?

Often a producer will hire the writer of a novel to do the screenplay adaptation. After all, who knows the material better than he. Sometimes, you can make a better deal that way. But I subscribe to what novelist Calder Willingham once told me: "Doing an adaptation of your own novel is like performing an appendectomy on yourself." I like a fresh sensibility, a new look at the material. I assume the novelist has given us his very best shot, and now I want to look for ways to improve upon it, if possible.


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