Dispatches | September 18, 2004

[By Glenn Deutsch]

More than half the films nominated for 2004 Academy Awards were adaptations of novels, including House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III; Charles Frazier’s 1997 National Book Award-winner Cold Mountain, Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring; Denis Lehane’s Mystic River; J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, originally published in 1954; and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which compressed 20 Patrick O’Brian novels into one two-hour movie. Since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences began handing out Oscars in 1927, nearly 30 of the films that won in the Best Picture category have been based on novels; only 20 were made from original screenplays.

So how do novels get made into movies? A writer’s book agent may send manuscript or bound galleys to filmdom literary agents or book scouts. A few lucky authors are contacted by producers who offer to buy movie rights to a book after seeing a review. New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani’s rave review of Alice Sebold’s debut novel The Lovely Bones reportedly generated enough interest from the Hollywood community to attract the attention of producer Luc Besson, who subsequently optioned the book.

An option is a kind of down payment for the exclusive rights to the story for a designated period of time. When this period ends, usually after 18 months, the producer either negotiates to renew the option or pays the author the complete, agreed-upon sum to purchase film rights.

That’s usually the extent of the author’s role: permission to use the book in exchange for money. As Robert Eversz, the author of five novels—two of which have been optioned—says, “The real money for the typical writer is the sure money, and option money is sure money.” But sometimes the author is hired as a screenwriter for the project, and that’s when the difficult work of adapting a book into a screenplay begins.

John Dufresne and Mark Jude Poirer are two novelists currently involved in adapting their work for the big screen, and both of them are quick to admit that the process of writing a screenplay is very different from writing a novel. “Screenplays can be frustrating because you have to get so many people to say yes to it when they all want to say no,” says Dufresne, a creative writing professor at Florida International University and the author of three novels. His fourth book, a collection of short stories titled Jonny Too Bad, is forthcoming from Norton in February. Dufresne has written, by his own count, 21 script versions of his 1994 debut novel Louisiana Power & Light.

Dufresne’s decade-long involvement in the project started when movie producer Bonnie Timmermann offered him an option. “She got the option cheap,” Dufresne says. “I can’t recall how much, maybe a thousand dollars, with the stipulation that I do the screenplay, and later, if it shoots, I get to work on the film in some capacity.”
His first draft of the screenplay of Louisiana Power & Light attracted the attention of Billy Bob Thornton, who expressed interest in directing as well as acting in the movie. Twenty drafts later, Miramax renewed the option. “I got my first payday,” Dufresne says. Although authors turned screenplay writers are generally paid well for their work in adapting books, most screenplays are never produced. The financing of a film is predicated on three things: a script, a director, and a star—and over time, any or all of these can go awry. As Variety reported a couple of years ago, it can take a year or two or longer for a novel to be turned into a final script, and “without a passionate champion in Hollywood, a storm of buzz, a nifty literary prize or major bestsellerdom, plenty of first-rate novels fall through the cracks.”

Louisiana Power & Light came close to becoming one of those novels. After Billy Bob Thornton won the 1996 Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for Sling Blade, he decided not to direct Dufresne’s adaptation. “So now Bonnie [Timmerman] was back looking for a director and actresses,” Dufresne says. “[Thornton] was still going to act. My friend Dennis Lehane happened to meet Billy Bob’s manager at the time and told me the manager hated LP&L. Billy Bob and Miramax were at odds over one of his films—cutting minutes or something. Eventually Miramax dropped the project. Bonnie took it on herself to get the movie made, and that is what she’s still doing, bless her heart. She is my champion, and she’s determined to get the film made.”

Mark Jude Poirer has spent a year writing two drafts of the adaptation of his 2001 debut novel, Goats, for Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope Studios. Although he won’t know if Zoetrope will produce the film until he’s finished his second draft of the script, Porier says he enjoys his relationship with director Chris Neil (who happens to be Coppola’s nephew). He started rewriting this past spring, after spending a few weeks with Neil. “We went through the first draft and the novel, and worked out a detailed outline. It was a pain in the ass, but it’ll be worth it,” Poirier says. “I feel like I know Goats better now than I ever have. The director knows the novel better than anyone. It’s been interesting and enlightening to dissect and reconstruct the story in a new way, especially with the director so closely involved.”

Dufresne offers a startlingly different perspective on the process. “It’s like house painting, which I used to do,” he says. “Somebody says paint it Prussian blue and you do. Then they decide they don’t like it, and want it ultramarine. So you do it ultramarine.”

In filmic terms, a novelist is the executive producer of his book; he is also the choreographer, set designer, costume designer, and director. Writing a script, however, is just one small step in the long process of making a movie. Pride of authorship is elusive and scripts, Dufresne says, are ephemeral. “What you write is fated to disappear,” he says. “Screenwriting, of all writing, including poetry, is fated to have the smallest readership. At most a hundred people. It gets a series of weighted and intrusive readings. Everyone who reads your screenplay will try to rewrite and re-imagine what you’ve done. And they only do that if they like it.”

Robert Eversz, whose L.A.-based Nina Zero mystery novels (a fourth comes out from Simon and Schuster in February 2005) spurred a Chicago Tribune critic to liken him to Nathanael West of The Day of the Locust fame, calls screenwriting a Faustian bargain for novelists. “Screenplay writing offers many of the satisfactions of writing fiction, such as the development of plot, character, and theme, without the labor of writing literate sentences.” He says fiction writers who temporarily stop writing fiction in order to make a fast buck in Hollywood (“and every fiction writer I’ve spoken with has always sworn that the move is temporary”) usually underestimate the difficulty of returning to fiction, because “they don’t realize screen writing changes one’s work habits and attitudes toward the dramatic form.”

Poirier says that, while writing a screenplay is more formulaic than writing a novel, his time spent adapting Goats has been a refreshing change of pace from fiction. “Screenplays are logic games,” he says. “When I’m writing a screenplay, I feel like I use the same part of my brain that I used when I was in physics or chemistry classes in college. It’s nice to stretch my brain in that way every once in a while. It’s a nice break from fiction writing.” A former screenwriting fellow at the Chesterfield Company Writers Film Project, sponsored by Paramount Pictures, Poirier describes his second novel, September 2004’s Modern Ranch Living, published by Miramax, as even more plot-driven than Goats. “I think that’s because I was working on a few screenplays as I wrote it,” he says.

In a 300-page novel, a writer has plenty of room to explore the nuances of a character’s personality, describe the details of setting, and build on the progression of the plot. “A novel has no real budget beyond the premium you put on your personal time. You are free to fully explore all of your obsessions and curiosities, and you can get much more deeply into character,” says Alexander Parsons, a 2004 Chesterfield fellow who won the Thomas Dunne Novel Award from the Associated Writing Programs (now the Association of Writers and Writing Programs) for Leaving Disneyland (Thomas Dunne Books, 2001). Not so with a screenplay, which is at the most 120 pages and puts a premium on action and dialogue.

“If a writer doesn’t have a natural affinity for plotting, screenplays are more difficult than Scrabble to a dyslexic,” says Eversz. “The writer can’t lose herself in language, environment, and character to sniff out the faint vapors of a plot; indeed, plot in a novel is a much more flexible instrument, often settling comfortably into the background of a novel rather than pushing insistently into the foreground.”

Some authors moonlighting in Hollywood say film is harder to plot than novels because of the imperative to be original in a screenplay-an abbreviated form generally prohibiting internal thought, digressions, or beautiful rhetoric outside of dialogue. “In a screenplay, you have so little space,” says John McNally, author of The Book of Ralph, a novel-in-stories published by Free Press in March, and a 2004 Chesterfield fellow. “Therefore, you can’t get away-in a commercial movie-with scenes that don’t have much to do with the main story. Everyone will point those out to you: your friends, other screenwriters, producers, their assistants.”

Characters’ internal thought can be even harder to work into a screenplay than plot digressions. Although literary novelists may balance interiority with external scenes, or make up for none-too-active scenes with aesthetically pleasing sentences, “You don’t have that luxury in film,” says McNally.

Film is obviously a visual art form, and pages of descriptive prose can be visualized in a few seconds on the screen. But a visual sensibility doesn’t necessarily go to waste in screenwriting—it just gets used differently, says Parsons, an assistant professor of English at the University of New Hampshire. When writing fiction, he says, “I have to know what the surroundings look like before I can enter a scene with my characters. It’s a framing device that is automatic for me,” one that helps his scriptwriting.

McNally, an assistant professor of English at Wake Forest University, says: “When I think of ‘visual’ in fiction, I think of filtering details through the perspective of the narrator. In film, when I think of ‘visual,’ I think of avoiding stasis. Does the audience feel that the movie is ‘moving’ or do they feel that it’s standing still? If it feels as though it’s moving, then it’s visual to me.”

Curiously, some writers find they lead with a different sense when writing for film. “I hear scenes when I’m writing a screenplay,” says Poirier, “and I see them when I’m writing a novel. I often have to go back and add some descriptions in my screenplays because I’m so caught up in the dialogue alone.”

The key to being a part-time screenwriter, say several novelists, is to bear in mind that you are doing it for the money. Poirier, for one, says he hopes to use the money he earns from screenplays to finance several years of fiction writing.

Adds McNally: “I’d be lying if I said part of my goal didn’t include making a lot of money. But I’m sure that this goal comes out of growing up in a blue-collar family and then spending most of my adult life in teaching positions that offered unlivable wages. I’ve spent nearly forty years piecemealing my income, and I have to admit, it gets tiring.”

“If you get too involved in money and success,” says Parsons, “it’s easy to forget what got you into the business of storytelling. I think this is the big risk of Hollywood. You can make a lot of money but, not surprisingly, such a payoff comes at a price.”

The industry has never been secretive about its need to put business first, starting with the story, the writing. Theoretically any gamble might pay off at the box office, but the fact is, Hollywood movies cost an astronomical amount of money to make. In 2003 the top seven studios spent an average of $63.8 million to make and another $39 million to market their films. “Divide $102.8 million by the 120 pages of your script and that’s $857,000 a page,” says Dufresne. “Is each page of your screenplay worth that? That’s pressure, isn’t it?”

Short stories versus novels as film sources

Transmogrifying a novel, especially a serious one, into a successful screenplay—extracting the plot, cinematizing the tone, eliminating minor characters, and the like—can take years, which is one reason why certain directors—most notably Alfred Hitchcock—have preferred adapting short stories. Generally, the short-story form is nearly as suitable to film adaptation as the three-act play. Indeed, the film industry’s appetite for short fiction helped to kick off the early-20th-century short story boom, says Timothy Corrigan, a film professor at Temple University and author of Film and Literature (Prentice Hall, 1999). Nowadays, though, short stories lack something many novels have: a “pre-sold” status. Film producers like assuming that if the public bought something once, they’ll buy it again. Corrigan sums up the short story versus novel adaptation question as one of “textual suitability versus marketability.”


Glenn Deutsch is a doctoral associate in fiction at Western Michigan University and the editor of WMU’s Third Coast. His articles have run in magazines including Poets & Writers and his latest short story appears in the Summer 2004 Notre Dame Review.