The Last Word
Long ago and in a land far away, I worked as a principal’s secretary in a small middle school. The assistant principal had one of those joke desk calendars, the kind that you rip off one day at a time and have some sort of theme going, like cartoons from the New Yorker or quotes from famous people. This one consisted of 365 made up words. Not exactly neologisms, more like weird hybrids that, somehow, sounded perfect for the equally made up definition. The one that struck me the funniest was Cinemutation: What happens when a book is made into a movie.
Who hasn’t expressed frustration when a movie doesn’t live up to the book that inspired it? "The book was better” is more frequently overheard than the opposite, that the film was as good or better, although it can happen. There are two things to bear in mind about cinemutation. First, a film is a distillation of hundreds of printed pages. Think Moby-Dick, that’s a lot of pages to condense into an hour and a half. The screenwriter is handed the task of synthesizing, or miniaturizing, the essential elements of a given book. Working within the constraints of screen time, he or she must decide what tells the story best: what are the salient points, the emotional necessities, the interesting bits. In the movie version of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, there were several subplots that were intricate and compelling to read, but weren’t included in the relatively simple story being told on the screen. The most important subplot was there, just distilled into short, comprehensive back-story sorts of scenes, enough to let you glimpse a secondary character’s motivation, but not chapter and verse of his whole sad story, and yet very effective. The discarded subplots, although fleshing the book out, really weren’t necessary in the movie version.
Secondly, the reader who goes to a movie expecting to see a precise replication of the words on the page is likely to be disappointed, not because the screenwriter did a poor job but because every reader reads every book with his or her own imagination. What I see in my mind’s eye is not what you see in yours. The author can painstakingly draw a room or a view or a face, and your reading imagination is going to bend it to fit your experience and interpretation of those words. A film is the culmination of the screenwriter’s interpretation.
Then there are the books that seem destined for cinematic retooling; books that you finish just knowing that you can’t wait to see the movie. The Devil Wears Prada, with its constant wardrobe changes and focus on a very visual and shallow world, mutated easily onto the big screen. I think that the more ‘visual’ a book, the more likely it will enjoy a second life as a movie, which may be why a book like Mystic River works so well as a movie.
Adaptations are a variant on book-to-movie, where elements of a story are re-written as a whole new story. Emma, Jane Austen’s Nineteenth Century comedy of manners, morphed into Clueless. The story line is all that survives, adapted to a modern audience. Even Shakespeare isn’t immune to such transliteration, witness Twelfth Night re-imagined as She’s The Man. I can’t imagine that the Bard received any option money on that one. Of course, one consequence of a new life as a movie is when a long-out-of-print book enjoys a renaissance with a re-issue boasting new poster-inspired cover.
When my first novel, Beauty, was optioned by a film company, I was thrilled, but cautioned that an option wasn’t a movie. It was the right to make the movie. Most options run out and that’s that. Not so with Beauty. Miraculously, amazingly, Citadel bought the rights. At least two years passed before I got a call from my agent with the extraordinary news that Beauty was not only made, but about to be telecast on CBS. Now, in my fantasy, I’d have at least gotten a chance to get on the set and meet the actors, but, alas, this was a Sunday movie of the week and no such courtesies were observed. Nonetheless, it was a pretty exciting thing to have a movie, even a television movie, made out of one’s book. I gathered a million close friends, bought a case of champagne, a rented a big television, dressed up, complete with tiara, and settled in at our own little Premier Night. Which happened to be on a critical football night. The nine o’clock broadcast was delayed until ten. My guests drank all of the champagne and the friends with VCRs set up to record ran out of tape before the end. It wasn’t until a week or so later when I’d gotten a master copy of the film that I sat, all by myself, to watch the movie. And, yes, it was an out of body experience watching Janine Turner, Jamey Sheridan and Hal Holbrook breathe life into my characters. The writers had so closely approximated the world that I had created in my mind and on the page that it was frightening. They’d even included an exceedingly minor character. But, and this was the best part, they’d ended the movie exactly where I had originally wanted to end the book. When I turned the manuscript in to Ann Patty, my editor at Crown, she hadn’t liked my ending, calling it ‘too fairy tale’ — which, being a re-telling of a fairy tale seemed fine to me. However, being a publishing virgin, I accommodated her wishes and wrote a conclusion that I’ve taken no end of grief over in subsequent years. When the movie ended precisely as I had done it in the original, I was validated as a writer.
Bets on what books from the last couple of years are going to appear on the big screen? My money is on The Kite Runner.
Susan Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist. She lives in Oak Bluffs. Visit her web site at www.susanwilsonwrites.com.