Adapting screenplays and novels

On a writing forum recently, someone asked a question about why novelisations of television dramas and films were always so badly written. The answer is they were written by screenwriters, who aren’t used to writing description or thoughts and feelings.

Film scripts are economical – they have to be. The dialogue and the plot are in the hands of the director and actors and they bring it to life in how they react and interact. At most a screenplay will be 120 pages long – a novel can be as long as the market and the story requires.

Writing a novel from a screenplay needs a completely different set of tools and skills than the screenplay requires. Fewer characters, perhaps fewer locations in the screenplay but the novel allows as many characters as the reader can deal with, because the brain takes in the information differently. The novelist isn’t hampered by budgetary constraints either – characters can go to Mars, travel back 500 years and as long as the reader believes them, the cost is the same as placing their story in the 21st century in a supermarket.

There was a trend in the 80’s for books the size of doorstops with so many characters there were lists of them at the beginning, to help the reader identify who was who. It seemed like people had forgotten that the human brain could only hold so much information and keeping it simple worked. When stories originated they were drawn on a cave wall long before they were spoken – woolly mammoth and man with spear – job done. Even when storytellers gathered around campfires, there were likely only a few characters, if that, in their tales – look at the traditional stories:  Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel.  Walt Disney and Pixar might have had a problem with their multi character casts.

There are some on-line blogs that start off talking about adapting a screenplay into a novel but half way through drift into talking about the reverse process, which has been the accepted trend for years.  Advice is that you choose the major characters from the novel and the stand out scenes and write your script around them, keeping in mind the end of the story.   You can turn this advice around for the reverse process but you could end up with a scaffold of empty rooms through which the characters move.  Adapting a screenplay to a novel is like moving to a different country and setting up home there.  To be able to write well in both mediums is a formidable talent – as Graham Greene displayed in The Third Man, both screenplay and novel.

Prose has to paint pictures for the reader and this is something that screenwriters aren’t used to doing.  The script is a tool to produce the entertainment, the novel is the entertainment.

 

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When Rock and Roll came to Liverpool

Yesterday was a black day for all the people who voted Remain, because the majority of the British people who voted, did so to Leave the European Union.  It’s understandable that many are concerned for the future and their jobs that they are worried will disappear as will the EU funding that’s supported countless enterprises and projects.

But this is not a political blog.  It’s a blog about reflection and also hope – this particular entry found its inspiration in a Face Book post  when a distraught Remainer complained that the British were ungrateful for the EU funding that had supported so many creative projects, although we have contributed our share to the communal purse.  I know there is wide spread concern in the creative industries for a future without this support or European co-operation/partnership.    We should remember, however, that Britain has been spectacularly creative in the past and we can continue to be so in the future.   Political institutions do not control what goes on in our heads or our imaginations and talent will eventually succeed.   Artists will always find ways round barriers and across borders.   It is too early to say – “we are doomed” – the politicians may think there is a line drawn in the sand but soft breezes and gentle tides can change all that, when there is mutual benefit.  Art, in its conceptual stage, does not need huge funds.  Europe may close its doors but there is the rest of the world.

In the mid 20th century, one of the greatest revolutions in music took place in a north west English port against all odds, without  EU funding, though industrial decline and social deprivation would have made it a shoe-in for such if it had existed.  However, it was Liverpool’s sea links with  America, from where Scouse sailors returned with records of a new kind of music and guitars, (mostly smuggled, hard-to-come-by in post war Britain) that created something that spoke not just to Liverpool and then the UK but to the rest of the world.    If we could do it then, we can do it now.  Have hope, faith and create.

And anyway, twelve gold stars on Ringo’s bass drum –  would never have worked.

 

 

 

 

 

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Saturday

Most of us have had that “I remember where I was” moment, when we hear of something that is so dreadful, the memory imprints itself forever.  It’s like  we’re outside ground zero but caught in the aftershock.  That’s the way I remember Hillsborough.   It was a sunny afternoon twenty seven years ago; I was in the garden with the kids.  They were digging in a flower bed and I was promising them a sandpit.  The phone rang. I went indoors to answer it. It was my sister-in-law – her son had gone to a football match and something terrible had happened and she couldn’t get hold of him. She didn’t know if he was dead or alive. I switched on the television. Outside my children were playing in the sun. Inside on the TV screen, other people’s children were dying on a football pitch.

It was a terrible day, waiting, listening, not telling the children what was happening,  until the news came – my nephew  finally arrived home safe but the shock and the horror of those scenes of what started as an ordinary Saturday didn’t go away.

A week later I took my children into Liverpool to buy them that sand pit. I can remember there being few people about and there was a strange atmosphere. Half way across Clayton Square in the city centre, suddenly everyone stood still. I can’t remember if there was a signal, a church bell or a ship’s horn but suddenly there was silence and nobody moved.  It was the exact time that the football match at Hillsborough had been halted seven days before.

I stood, holding one end of this large plastic sandpit with my son holding the other end while my daughter, unnerved by the silence, moved closer and grasped my hand.  Then through the stillness came footsteps and a man hurried past, staring straight ahead.  He didn’t look to left or right.  It was almost as though he was alone in that whole city, as though we were all of us invisible to him.   In a way it was symbolic of how the next 27 years would be as the families of the men, women and children who died at Hillsborough fought for truth and justice.

In 2005, I started a short film festival to showcase the work of new film makers and amongst the entries was a film, Bar to Bar from Mike Forshaw, a local emerging Director.   I saw a lot of films over the next few years but the ones that stand out are those that strike a chord.  I remember the images on the screen and connect to the characters and their emotions.  I remembered the clarity of the images and the honesty of the characters’ portrayal in Bar to Bar.  A few years’ later, we showed another of Mike’s films, Slippin’, which had been shown at the London Film Festival the previous year.  Again  I found this same connection to the characters in the clear story telling.

Next month in London, Mike Forshaw’s most recent film, Saturday, will be given its UK premiere at the London Sundance Film Festival.  Saturday is a powerful retelling of that day in 1989 through the eyes of a young boy who stays home in Liverpool, whilst his brother goes to the match.  It has already been shown at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in  the US but could not be screened in the UK, until the enquiry into Hillsborough had reached its verdict on the deaths of those 96 Liverpool fans.  Finally their families had truth and justice after 27 years.

The day after the verdicts, 30,000 people stood on Lime Street, not silent this time, nor invisible to the passer-by but singing the Liverpool FC anthem, ‘You’ll never walk alone.’  A scene that is beyond description but burned into the being of everyone who saw it.

I understand that the filmmakers of  Saturday  will be bringing this powerful retelling home to Liverpool after its UK premiere. I understand this because for in that strange way that Fate links and connects people and events, my daughter, Jennifer Monks, the little girl who held my hand nervously in that silent city, 27 years ago, became the Line Producer on  Saturday. 

Sundance Film Festival: London 2016 – Short Film Programme

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Save the writer!

So Google has won in its legal battle to perform wholesale theft of authors’ work, arguing that its digitisation project ‘fell under’ fair use of protected works and that it served the public interest. If it wasn’t so serious, this would be hilariously funny – Google is interested in serving the public interest!

Like everything that has a commercial aim, Google’s “short term public benefit” has a price as does everything that rips off creators, from the pirate dvds or the on-line unofficial films to the sections of writer’s works displayed for free.  Somewhere down the line, writers are going to ask themselves why they should go through all the agony of wrestling their ideas into print if they are not going to get paid whenever anybody logs in for a quick free read.  Maybe they’ll just stop doing this thing that keeps them awake at night because writers are the same as everyone else – they like a full stomach and a roof over their heads.

Mary Rasenberger, Exec Director of the Authors’ Guild in America thinks  this is exactly what will happen.  Authors in the USA are already among the most poorly paid citizens.  If they cannot make a living in the future, then … “only the independently wealthy or the subsidized will be able to pursue a career in writing and America’s intellectual and artistic soul will be impoverished.”   The “price of this short term public benefit might well be the future vitality of American culture …”

This is something that is also of concern in the UK where ALCS, the Authors’ Licensing and Copyright Society investigation into writers’ earnings found that in the last ten years, the number of full time writers had dropped as had their incomes.

In 2005 40% of writers earned their living from writing but by 2013 this had fallen to 11.5% and their earnings are well below the Living Wage.

Owen Atkinson, Chief Executive of the ALCS, echoes Mary Rasenberger’s words “These are concerning times for writers. This rapid decline in both author incomes and the numbers of those writing full time could have serious implications for the economic success of the creative industries in the UK.”  So it is in all our interests, not just the whingeing writers’ – a creative pool that reflects the diversity across society is healthier in every sense of the word and even the minnows in that pool should be valued as highly as the big fish.  Even tiny fees for excerpts of their work that are published on Google can make a difference.  Over a year, they all add up, as Google very well knows.

The last word on the subject has to be from the writer, Joanne Harris:  “Not everyone can be a high earning, high profile writer but all creators should have the right to be paid for what they do.”

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The trouble with not writing is you can’t stop thinking about it.

So the 80,000 word first draft is in a binder behind me on the bookshelf – well it is physically, but it may as well be in my hands as I try to get on with some other stuff – other stuff being not the novel that’s preoccupied me for so long.

Now’s the opportunity to write one of those short story ideas that have plagued the life out of me for the last six months and been slapped into place on the to-do list (the one in my head) because I needed to do one thing and one thing only – get to those two words that have beckoned on the horizon, glimmering in a literary, glowing, writers’ Shangri-la way – THE END.

Except the book won’t go away – it’s neither the characters nor the story – they’re lost somewhere in a mist. Instead in my brain the book is a solid object, with no name. It can’t be opened – it just sits there, a massive block of imaginary concrete that’s infuriating me and stopping me going anywhere, creatively anyway.

There’s always research – may as well check out those facts I wove into fiction – and there’s the concrete block again. Free range reading’s out – skimming, scanning and recording’s in. Everything to service the book again.

The deadline looms for the first edit. I console myself – who was it said “The first draft is always s**t?”

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The magical, wonderful world of children’s writing

Once upon a time in the world of publishing, there were adult books for adult readers and children’s books for children and never the twain crossed. Then Harry Potter was born and suddenly both children and adults were reading the same book or as it turned out, books as long as they began with the words “Harry Potter and …”

Suddenly it was okay for adults to read children’s books. Filmmakers tapped into this appetite for fantasy and fairy tales and plundered Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson in search of magic. The same adults, who wouldn’t have touched the books, found it okay to go and watch the stories on the big screen.

And the totally cross over market emerged. Children’s publishing which had never reached the figures of the adult market was suddenly booming. More books than ever were being published for children. It was adults who were buying them for their children and grandchildren but it was adults who in many cases were also reading them.

A children’s novel, The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge has just won the Costa Book of the Year while another children’s book, The Fox and the Star has become Waterstones Book of the Year. This is only the second time a children’s book has won the Costa and the first time one has won the Waterstones. What is it then that raised them above the other novels, mostly written for adults? Could it be that they fulfil a desire for wonder, excitement, the unexpected and the need of our inner child to truly suspend our disbelief and go back to those strange worlds that captivated us?

Those worlds where anything is possible, where you can fly with the help of a friendly dragon, restore order or defeat evil with a spell from your magic wand and combat and win against almost unassailable, overwhelming odds – how could anything grounded in reality compete with the chance to become a child once more. I don’t know why there’s so much fuss about the news – but I suppose some people are born grown-up!

Oh yes, and to celebrate Libraries Day today – five out of ten most borrowed books from UK libraries were children’s!

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In with the new, hang on to the old

Excuse the paraphrasing but why get rid of the old just because it’s a New Year. It’s only a way of keeping time not like anything drastic happens except if your birthday’s right bang at the beginning, then you could be entitled to feel a bit down in the mouth just because you’re another year older and haven’t finished that great masterpiece that was going to win you fame and fortune but worse than not finishing is never having started at all.

Forget the resolutions – which always look a bit like you’ve never done anything with your life until the 1st of January, year whatever and are usually so draconian you’re never going to keep them anyway. Instead of looking forward into the unknown with a list as long as a mile or kilometre, depending on your preference for imperial or metric, time travel back to the 1st January 2015. Where were you at in your writing ambitions and now fast forward 12 months and see what you have achieved. A word of warning, if you’re measuring success by having a three book deal with Random House and a film option with Steven Spielberg, this is not the blog for you.

If you’re going to carry on doing what is one of the most difficult jobs in the world, except for being perhaps a trainer in a flea circus, you need to value yourself and what you’ve achieved and resolutions just seem like whipping yourself for no reason at all. And we writers are very good at doing that already!

Who have you met that inspires you, makes you want to write? What books or films have you seen that have changed the way you think? What skills have you learnt or honed to help you and can you see the difference?

The only resolution worth making is to avoid anything negative and in the face of difficulties such as rejection – usually by people who don’t know what they’re talking about, resist tears, four letter words and sinking into black dog depressions.   Do not compare yourself with more successful acquaintances – as someone very dear to me once said “You’re doing different things,” and instead search out anything that makes you feel better – things that have gone well, phrases you’ve plucked from the air in a moment’s divine inspiration, images you’ve caught from the corner of your eye that have seared your writer’s soul and will return to haunt you until you bring them alive with words and then, there’s that old standby for when you’re questioning your sanity – quotations by writers but don’t make a habit of it, in case it becomes a bad one. It can amuse, divert and also make you realise you’re not totally alone in this profession we’ve chosen but it’s not a replacement for writing.

So, for today, here’s my quote:  “In the writing process, the more a story cooks, the better.” Doris Lessing.

Happy exploits in your future writing.

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