Adaptation : Experience and Script Yorkshire Workshop

Posted: March 2, 2014 in Uncategorized
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Adaptations are the bread and butter of the script writing trade at the moment. Get them right and you promote the source material (usually a book) and gain support for your own work. Get them wrong and the source material’s fan base will rip you to gooey little shreds and plaster your insides across the interwebs. The stakes are high folks.

In my very short experience as a writer I’ve already tackled two adaptations; one for screen, which never crawled out of development, and one for stage which I was received pretty well by the audience, which means I did my job right.

Yesterday, I attended my first Script Yorkshire workshop on the hot topic of adaptation, run by Lavinia Murray  who has a lot of experience in adapting various materials, especially for radio. The session got me thinking about my first adaptation and the errors I made through lack of confidence in the value of my creative voice.

I was attached to my first adaptation within a year of graduating from my MFA, I’d found an agent and she had been sending my family adventure script around as a writing sample. One producer liked what I did and we had a chat about adaptation projects they were interested in. I bought the book the next day, eager to prove I was a proactive and enthusiastic new writer. It was a children’s book set in a near and alternative future.  Elements of the story resonated with me immediately and there were certainly sections that were incredibly cinematic. I told my agent, she told the producer and I was given a chance to produce a treatment.

The error I made, because this was my first go, was to stick too closely to the book. I performed mannerist feats of story sculpting to keep all the original plot and character elements in but it just wasn’t working. The producer was exasperated [who could blame them] and I got a very stern call from my agent telling me that if I didn’t pull it out of the bag I was going to lose the job.

That’s when, super stressed, I confessed that I had different ideas about adaptation, but didn’t feel I had the authority to just rip the book up. My agent told me to throw the book away and tell the producer my own take.

I should have had the confidence to take the story my own way from the start.  I realised I could keep my integrity to the soul of the story without keeping all the elements. I had a lot more fun working on the film once I could express my own interpretation, removing elements that worked in prose but were clunky for a screen story. The ultimate failure of the project was a due to the myriad of factors that are in play when working on any large budget production. I can’t say that I wasn’t disappointed, very disappointed, but my time on that adaptation taught me an awful lot about the industry.

Which is a very long set up for the Lavinia’s adaptation workshop which emphasised the script writer’s interpretation of the source material and encouraged us to think well beyond the box in what we could do.

Based around a short story by L.Frank Baum The Glass Dog   Lavinia started the day with a discussion about the parts of the story that we liked and disliked. It’s always surprising how much you can draw out of a seven page short story; the hollows and gaps in the piece allowing for each reader to bring in their experiences to the piece.

Then we were tasked with picking a genre, any genre, and then adapt the short story to fit that genre. A terrifyingly daunting idea. We were given lunch to stew in our creative panic.

To help us along Lavinia had a useful website handout and, as usual with workshops, I found out about a great online resource I hadn’t heard of before, behold the periodic table of storytelling… http://designthroughstorytelling.net/periodic/ hours of good old procrastination for all scribes.

After lunch the workshop was silent as we all scribbled away, figuring out what would need to be changed to fit the genres chosen. Then Lavinia dropped the next bomb, she wanted us to write the first scene of our genre-ized adaptation for radio.

Radio? I’ve never done radio before. How does it work? Panic!

Lavinia’s main writing experience is in radio and she gave a wonderful, short explanation of the differences and advantages of this medium. I calmed down instantly. Radio seems incredibly creative and freeing once you get your head around how much you can do with sound. I feel I might dabble in radio, when I have time, in the future.

By the end, when we began to share ideas, I was stunned by number of really different interpretations: a ghost story, a comic American gothic, a western and my own little contribution in sci-fi noir [what else would it be?].

Of course I shouldn’t have been that surprised, my research trip to the Kubrick Archive to read some of the early drafts of A.I: Artifical Intelligence,  based on the story Supertoys Last All Summer Long by Brain Aldiss, had shown me how weird and wonderful the imagination can be once allowed to experiment [more on that in another post]. Then there was Frozen [see my thoughts here] which was a very creative re-imaging of Hans Christian Anderson’s Snow Queen.

The thing is we all bring our very different, individual voices to writing which are shaped by experience and everything we’ve ever read/watched/heard and loved, or hated.

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Comments
  1. Lexy Denman says:

    This is really interesting, and made me wonder if you’ve read Howl’s Moving Castle (by Dianne Wynne Jones) and seen Hayao Miyazaki’s film adaptation of it? It’s just an example that springs to mind of a film that in some ways differs vastly from the book and brings a lot of new elements to the story, yet works extremely well – I’d really recommend both. Anyhow, great post!

    • Max Gee says:

      Yes, the piece we read for the workshop made me think of Dianne Wynne Jones’ stories. I have seen Miyazaki’s film but not read the book. I think there’s a whole post on anime adaptations of western source material for example Gankutsuou which was an adaptation of the Count of Monte Cristo. Inspiration for my next post, thanks!

      • Lexy Denman says:

        The book is definitely worth a read. More anime adaptations of western source material sound like a wonderful thing – where might I find that post?

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