When you read a novel – what is the FIRST thing you focus on trying to translate to a new medium? Tone? Character? Story?
I think deeply about the story before I agree to adapt a novel. That’s probably self-protective, because I’ve fallen in love with literary novels solely because of the author’s tone; or because I get haunted by a character. I love a good story; my husband says I’m a junkie for narrative. Yet, still, if a novel is insightful and well-written, if the prose if good, if the themes interest me, if the situations between the characters are complex, if the time period and setting is exotic and fascinating in itself – I’ll become completely seduced, even if the story isn’t terribly strong. What’s strange about that – for me, and for a lot of people – is that when we’re engrossed in a movie, a strong narrative becomes much more important. For a screenwriter to hook an audience, we have to create a story that’s rich with the essential elements of drama. Character is foremost, naturally, but character is entwined with story, because the narrative drives forward largely through the actions of the protagonist. Both pace and the dramatic stakes rise from such actions, creating the story’s momentum. There’s a weird double-standard here: We’ve all read and enjoyed novels in which not much happens. Novels are oddly free to pleasantly meander, to change course through small unrelated actions, so long as the novelist’s thoughts, or the thoughts & emotions of the characters, grip our interest. The same is rarely true in movies. Concision and causality are absolutely critical to the telling of a film’s story. What a character does in Scene A causes the actions that unfold in Scene B, and the events in Scene B cause Scenes C and D, and perhaps also set up the actions that unfold in Scenes J and K, as the story tumbles forward. When I’m thinking about adapting a book, I try to puzzle out whether a somewhat quiet novel’s story can be eased into a greater sense of causality. I consider whether its main character takes at least some of the important actions that drive the narrative. And I look for something contradictory in the main character, something complex psychologically that has to be worked out within the character before the story’s end. The inner story and the outer story both have to feel compelling, when it’s a movie.
What questions do you ask when you are thinking of making changes to the source material?
I don’t think about making changes to the source material until I have spent a lot of time with what’s there. I make a kind of “road map” of the novel, if I’m adapting from a book, which is like an “as-built” blueprint that an architect might make for a completed building. If I’m adapting from something based in historical fact, I’ll read deeply in the subject, often encountering the materials that the author used for their own research. For me it’s a slow process of coming to know what is there; and then I begin to ask questions of the material: If it’s a novel, what is the author’s intention in the book? In this chapter? In this character? In this line of prose or dialogue? What’s the core, the theme that secretly underpins the novel? I know that if I can respectfully maintain the author’s intention, even if I have to make story changes, or compress material from the book, the adaptation will have integrity.
That’s the contemplative part of the process. But there’s also a stage that feels much more like panic, when I’m filled with questions about whether I can make the story work dramatically. I pull apart the story, asking things like: Does anyone really need to see this movie? Why? Does the main character cause the story to happen because of who they are and what they’re doing? Or, are they a passive passenger being dragged along by a chain of events? What is the protagonist contending with in their own character, that makes for an interesting narrative ride? Where are the juicy emotional scenes? Do they distribute themselves throughout, at flexion points in the story? Does the juiciest emotional stuff happen late in the story? Or will I have to re-order scenes, or use a non-linear narrative to make the story work in dramatic terms? About the main character, I ask: Does this person change because of their experience? Alternatively, do they remain the same, while others around them are forced to change? Transformation is an essential dramatic element. In story meetings, development people use a short hand query about a character, “What’s their A to B?” Audiences don’t feel they’ve been on a real journey unless something important – the protagonist, a family, an institution, or the world – has been altered, in a meaningful way.
Have you worked on projects where you have collaborated or consulted with the original author? What does this relationship look like?
I’ve had the pleasure of working with with Alice Hoffman, when I adapted Practical Magic, and also with Karen Joy Fowler, when I adapted The Jane Austen Book Club, and with Christine Bell, who wrote The Perez Family. I also spent quite a bit of time with Edgar Doctorow and his wife Helen when I adapted E.L. Doctorow’s short stories “Wakefield” and “Assimilation” (sold to HBO, wasn’t made). My husband Nick Kazan and I didn’t meet Roald Dahl before we adapted Matilda, because Mr. Dahl had passed away; but we got to know his widow Liccy Dahl, who generously let us rummage through some of his papers.
Certainly my experience as a screenwriter was greatly enriched by consulting with these authors; though I honestly can’t know whether the resulting work on my end was shaped immensely by my opportunity to ask questions etc. I can say this: In every case, I learned something that I believe helped me approach the adaptation in a more informed way. For example, in one of my conversations with Edgar Doctorow about “Wakefield”, he stressed that the protagonist Howard Wakefield wasn’t mentally ill. He very much resisted anyone depicting Howard as anything except sane. I was grateful for that guidance, because when I was writing the first draft of my screenplay, Edgar’s insight helped me feel how critical it was for the audience to not have an easy out. If the movie gave us permission to dismiss Howard as a lunatic, we’d emotionally step back from him, abandoning Howard to his strange journey, and we’d miss the uncomfortable and transformative experience of identifying with him.
To me, the relationship between novelist and the adapter of the novel can by nature sometimes be a little uneasy. It’s perhaps similar to the relationship between a playwright, and the actors who are doing their play. During the weeks of rehearsals, the actors are eager to connect, bringing questions to the playwright as they feel their way into the role. Yet once the play opens, an unexpected queasiness enters the friendship. I recall a British playwright who describes going back stage on opening night, and encountering a certain evasiveness in the actors; detecting in them the general sense that they’d borrowed money from him. I do feel tremendously indebted to the novelists whose books I’ve adapted – and yet I know, just as the actors know on opening night, that in the end what I create as the screenwriter (or screenwriter/director) is something that must stand alone in its own right — all the while owing everything to the original mind that made the novel.
How do you feel about the phrase ‘faithful to the book’? Is this important to you?
I don’t want to write a faithless adaptation. At the same time, on occasion a “straight adaptation” that hews closely to the source simply doesn’t work, in dramatic terms. You’re left to use your own judgment, as the screenwriter. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, his protagonist Benjamin was born during the Civil War, and died 60 years later during the Jazz Age. There’s a thin narrative thread, and biographical details are slight. Button’s boyhood dream (as an old man) is to play football for an Ivy League college. He spends his adult life working in a hardware store, till he grows young enough to go to college, and can realize that football dream. I knew that writing a feature adaptation – for a late 20th century audience – would require my reinventing the story from whole cloth. What I kept was the “high concept”: An infant is born as an old man, and ages backward into childhood as he matures into a man. But I couldn’t simply discard Fitzgerald. I still went through coming to terms with what I saw as the core of Fitzgerald’s themes in his story, because I wanted to be faithful to his intentions.
What research went into your work on When They See Us?
I was fortunate enough to be flanked by writers Attica Locke and Tom Bradshaw and researcher/Writer’s Assistant Hannah Baker when the four of us began the work of unearthing the story for WHEN THEY SEE US. As a starting place, Ava DuVernay gave us transcriptions of conversations she’d had with the five exonerated men over the past few years. Generously, Netflix had compiled a fat file of contemporaneous news stories for us covering the arrests and trials, sparing us weeks of Googling newspaper archives. We plowed through a number of books that had been written in the aftermath of the trials, which gave us the prosecutor’s and D.A’s point of view, and also the POV of a female African-American journalist who had covered the story at the time. We read a book written by the victim. We also watched the complete interview footage that Sarah Burns had amassed for her documentary “The Central Park Five”; and we also read her book, which filled in more of the background stories.
Going in deeper, we watched the prosecutor’s taped confessions of the young boys, who were coerced during their interrogation to admit to crimes they didn’t commit. We read the law enforcement manual that the NYPD used in its method of interrogation; read the trial transcripts; read depositions and lawyers’ notes. And we spent a full week interviewing each of the exonerated men, individually, for 9 hours each, after Ava had arranged for Netflix to fly these men to LA. We spent long days asking thousands of questions, in a deep and very personal debriefing with each of the men. Ava and Attica did phone interviews with their families. Throughout our process, daily we filled in detailed timelines for each person involved. Their timelines began in early childhood, and extended through the next thirty-some years; through the attack that night in Central Park, where these young boys had casually gathered their first night of spring vacation; taking us through the details of their arrest and interrogation; the two trials, their experiences in incarceration, their experiences of probation, the lives they cobbled together after prison, and eventually, their full exoneration. When we stopped our research phase, our Master Timeline filled several huge binders, cross-referencing every scrap of information we had gathered.
Was it insane to take such an obsessive approach? The decision stemmed from a conversation that we writers shared on Day One, in the writer’s room. We agreed that because these five men — since childhood — had heard nothing but lies told about them, publicly and privately, in courtrooms and in the press, we needed to be certain that what we put on the screen was, finally, the unaltered truth.
What is your favorite adaptation?
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s adaptation of Howard’s End. She’s the master.
Questions submissions have been edited for length and clarity.