Only in Key West, where pretty much anything goes, could you find a panel that includes both fiery screenwriter and former Scientologist Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby) and Judy Blume, author of children’s books that have sold 80 million copies worldwide (Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret).
Along with Irish writer-director Terry George (In the Name of the Father, Hotel Rwanda), they sat down at the Tropic Cinema, a well-preserved tribute to Florida kitsch, as part of the Key West Film Festival to discuss what makes for a successful film adaptation of an existing book.
There were two camps – the male filmmakers versus the lone female author. Haggis and George said that they read the original work through just once, then set it aside. You could almost hear the gasps from the audience: they read the book I loved so much only once? How can they do it justice?
Haggis explained that he uses the elements of the story that stick with him to craft an entirely different thing – a movie script. George does about the same, leaving his reading with the essence of the story that he will tell. George quoted David Magee, the screenwriter of Life of Pi, about his process – writing himself a note after each page and letting the book go. (Perhaps that is the key to making a movie out of a book that initially no one thought could be made into a movie, including Magee; and to receiving an Academy Award nomination for it.)
While the book-loving movie-goer normally grades an adaptation according to how faithful it is to the book, Haggis and George have no interest in making such films. Film is an entirely different medium, with different requirements, they said, so that a good adaptation is more like a translation than a reproduction.
Haggis gave an example of a female character in love with a man she hated being in love with, but felt powerfully drawn to. In the book, the author just said so. In film, because the viewer does not have the same access to the thoughts and feelings of the characters that a reader does, Haggis had to figure out how to show rather than tell about this conflict. He had the character purchase a fine watch as a gift for her lover, but balk at giving it to him. Instead, he showed her wearing it herself, watching in the mirror as she caressed her own shoulder, as the lover might. She stopped, then walked over to a sink filled with water, and dropped the watch in. No more watch, no more man, all without words or access to the character’s internal dialog.
The other camp was represented by Judy Blume, standing in for all authors of books long labored over and finally proudly delivered. She had remained quiet during the discussion so far, and seemed reluctant to enter the fray. The moderator finally got it out of her that her limited experience with having her books turned into a film was a great disappointment, and not one she would repeat. As a diplomatic and gentle person, she did not name names.
She described being on set but feeling powerless and dismayed as filming proceeded. George jumped in to declare that he would not let an author anywhere near one of his movies in progress. He and Haggis agreed – if you sell your book, wave goodbye. The story is in other hands now and the author has no further claim.
Blume sighed. Clearly, she would never collaborate with either of these two. But if you know screenwriters of the other persuasion, willing to stay faithful to the original work, she did mention that she has an adult novel Summer Sisters that would lend itself nicely to film.
The session ended with consensus: there are great stories that need to be told to audiences that eagerly await them, and great storytellers who reserve the right to tell them in their own way. For me, I’m going to drop my demand that one work duplicate another, and let the Haggises and Georges of the world show me what they can do. Leave it to Key West to pry open a closed mind.