Jon has written feature film scripts for Manga Live, Palm Pictures and a multitude of independent producers. He has taught the UK Film Council Screenwriting course since 2004. Anyone Can Play Guitar (directed by Jon Spira) was released in autumn last year.
I recently watched the big screen version of Les Miserables. I was extremely conflicted about it. I really liked it, I’d enjoyed the experience and found it really fresh and unique and bold and epic and rousing and, you know, all the good stuff. Yet, as a screenwriting editor/tutor, I knew that it was, essentially, a shambolic mess. Still, like junk food and anything featuring Simon Cowell, we’ll always have a propensity to enjoy things that are essentially crap.
When I thought about it properly, the answer as to the mess of the story was fairly obvious. This wasn’t simply a screenplay. It was a screenplay adapted from a stage musical adapted from a novel. These are three completely separate methods of storytelling. Adapting one to the other is a hard enough job in itself but when you try to bring continuity between all three to the process, it all goes a bit crazy.
It seems like it should be easier, doesn’t it? I mean, there’s not one of us who hasn’t read a book and thought ‘this would make a great film!’ Why do we think that? Well, because it’s well-written. Because the author has done such a good job of putting a visual in our heads that we arrogantly mistake it as our own vision and imagine bringing it to the world. Worse than this, we think it’ll be easy. Surely it’d be easier to adapt a book into a screenplay, right? It’s pretty much just cutting and pasting. Isn’t it? Yes? No?
Let’s look at the three different mediums and how they tell stories, shall we?
The novel is the most straightforward and comprehensive. By using a third person (sometimes first, of course) narrative voice, the author gets to talk directly to the reader. The reader is omnipotent in this world, offered all the information they need as and when they need it. It might sound offensive but straightforward prose is by far the easiest way to write, the most concise and practical method of storytelling.
The musical is a completely different way of telling a story. I believe that a story is always about a point of change. Or it should be, at least. Musicals usually tell a fairly simple story but dwell more on the concept of emotional change. The characters express their inner feelings through song and we’re given more of an emotional map as to what’s going on internally than a detailed story. People don’t go to see musicals for the narrative or plot, they go for the songs and the emotions (romance, passion, comedy, style, that kind of thing)
A film is all about visuals. The film tells the audience a story visually. It’s about framing, about glances exchanged between actors, about the juxtapostion (christ, I hate that word) of shots to create meaning. Sure, there’s dialogue – and sometimes voiceover – but these, in the best cases, are used more to enhance than to inform the audience. The camera should be telling us what to look at and how to translate it. A film should be able to tell its story without the actual need for dialogue at all.
Now, these three things are very different. This is not to say that they can’t be interchangable or adapted but my point is that you should question your motive for adapting in the first place. Most stories or ideas lend themselves to one format in particular. Adaptation does seem to be the key format for musicals, but I’m fairly sure that has more to do with commercial issues than anything else. And therein lies the reason for pretty much all adaptations – commercial issues. Why do they make films of succesful novels? Why do they make musicals of sucessful films? Why do they make novel adaptations of succesful films? Because it makes money. Adaptation is for the businesspeople, not the artists.
Adapting is never, ever easier than just sitting down with your own original idea and expressing yourself through the most suitable medium. If it is, then you’ve done it wrong. Adaptation is like trying to deconstruct a washing machine to build a car. It takes a lot of expertise, a lot of experience and – hey – a lot of money. It’s not for the aspiring or amateur. Adaptation is really not a dream worth dreaming.