Friday, January 4, 2013

Book to Film ... Is That A Good Thing?

by Mindy McGinnis and R.S. Mellette

A conversation between a Hollywood screenwriter and a Midwestern librarian about the different mediums for delivering a story, and the perception that one is better than the other.

MM: Lately I've been thinking about books becoming movies. Especially with the current YA trends, I've had a lot of people asking me if my book is going to be a movie. As with The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, the general public reaction when a much-loved book is turned into a film is—"Well, FINALLY!" I feel like there's a pervading perception that the film is the epitome of the story being told, not the book itself. As if graduating from paper to screen is a step up, if that makes sense.

I'm wondering why this is. Is it because film is a more easily digestible media that reaches more people? Is it because the amount of money required to create a film as opposed to a book implies that there is more worth in those stories that "make it" to becoming films?

RSM: I think it's the fact that it reaches more people. We all want to share our experiences, whether it's a book, play, movie, or whatever. Think about when you see one person notice someone else reading a book they've read: "I love that book!" and—Wham! An energetic conversation will start between two people who otherwise might have never met. Of course, e-readers ruin all of that, but that's the topic of another post.

With the mass marketing of a movie, the whole world shares the experience of that story. Even if they don't go to the movie, they can say something about it. It's a shared story, and I think human beings need that like we need food.

MM: We don't ever see movies being made into books. No one ever says, "Hey, you know that awesome movie blah blah blah? It's a BOOK NOW!" And people run out to buy it. That doesn't happen.

RSM: (laughs). No, it doesn't, does it? I think they used to write books based on movies, but I don't know if there's still a market for it. That would be more of the fault of the people producing the books than the fans. On Xena: Warrior Princess, the books were terrible. A marketing person years later told me, "None of us really got Xena." They novelized the series, but the fans didn't buy the books. They could tell there was no heart in them.

MM: There is a counterargument there in that movies directed at children do become "junior novelizations" and such, but to me that's much more marketing and dollar-driven than actually saying, "Wow, this NEEDS to be made into a book."

RSM: Yeah, and it's a shame, because—if done correctly—a book can tell the story more thoroughly. I've adapted novels into screenplays, and screenplays into novels, and I can tell you, a movie is just a sampler plate of the entire meal of a novel.

Plus, an artist has more freedom in a book. There is no budget. On Xena, when she faced an army, it was fifteen people on horseback because that's all we could afford. I read an early draft of the first book, and the author did the same thing. In my notes, I suggested that she open it up. An army should be the size of an army. Ink and paper (or now, electrons) costs the same no matter what the words are. And you don't have to feed them every six hours.

On another note, I imagine people are salivating over your book becoming a film, and that must feel weird to you, huh? What's that like?

MM: Yeah, it’s definitely odd. I’m not sure how I feel about it, to be honest. My books are exactly that—movies in my head. So I know exactly what it looks like already. No one is going to be able to reproduce that, and I’ll have to adjust.

I feel like it already is a movie with an audience of one, cast with people who don’t really exist and don’t look like famous actors. And it’ll be like that in the head of every reader I get my hands on. They can cast themselves as the main character, their friends as the supporting characters, their crush as the love interest. Doesn’t having it cemented in place by Hollywood kind of ruin that?

RSM: I think it absolutely ruins that, but be honest—don't you fantasize about what it would be like to be on the set of your own movie? How have those expectations changed from before you had an agent, to before you had a deal, to now?

MM: I think about it, sure. But like I said, I’m definitely not convinced it would be a good thing. I’ve read stories about authors showing up on set and being endlessly controlling and making it a horror for everyone until they leave. I don’t want to be that person, and I know my place. But I also don’t want to see someone else’s variation of my story being the one that gets the mass media attention.

How has that changed? Actually it kind of went backward. Before I had an agent or a deal I was convinced that was exactly what I wanted—the big film, the big exposure, the must-see movie of the season. Now I’m not so sure. If it’s not mine, or I’m not involved with it in any way, does it actually bear any relation to me?

RSM: Absolutely it relates to you. Without you, none of those people ruining your work would have a job! One thing that's good to keep in mind if you're writer on a film set is that you worked as hard as any of the crew for months or years before they even knew there was a movie to make. Some crew don't realize that, so they think the writer is useless. If you're not careful, you might find yourself believing it, too.

MM: I think that's a very valid and pervading fear for me. That once it's out of my hands it has become its own thing, and I'm no longer of consequence. I've always been under the impression that writers in Hollywood are unsung heroes. Is that the case?

RSM: In LA, if you tell people you're writing a screenplay, they look at you like you have plague. But if you say you're a novelist, you can hear respect in their voice as they say, "Really? Good for you."

MM: Yeah, but what if you say you’re writing a novelization of a screenplay?

RSM: I've heard, "That's a good idea." If only they knew that finishing a novel and finishing a movie are equally difficult.

How do you feel about books being made into movies? Does it make you cringe at the idea of someone else executing your story? Or do you think it's the culmination of years of your effort?

Mindy McGinnis is a YA author and librarian. Her debut, NOT A DROP TO DRINK, is a post-apocalyptic survival tale set in a world where freshwater is almost non-existent, available from Katherine Tegen / Harper Collins September 9, 2013. She blogs at Writer, Writer Pants on Fire and contributes to the group blogs Book PregnantFriday the ThirteenersFrom the Write AngleThe Class of 2k13 and The Lucky 13s. You can also find her on TwitterTumblr & Facebook.

R.S. Mellette is an experienced screenwriter, actor, director, and novelist. You can find him at the Dances With Films festival blog, and on Twitter, or read him in the Spring Fevers and The Fall: Tales of the Apocalypse anthologies.


Joey Francisco said...

Outstanding article Mindy & R.S.

Mindy, I'm like you in the respect my m.s. has been the little movie in my head and I just write down the action and dialogue I see taking place scene to scene.

And R.S., it is so interesting to see your take on this topic with your knowledge of the film industry. Glad to know a novelist can still carry some clout in tinseltown.

Debra McKellan said...

Very interesting conversation!

I think the fascination with film adaptations is that we had the written word for so long, and then suddenly, we had silent movies then talkies that could (hopefully) put what we saw in our heads onto the silver screen.

Some movies I can say I wish they didn't jack up, like A Clockwork Orange. I don't see how people who read the book like the movie at all! Others, I say I wish they'd remake that to be more like the book, like The Good Earth and Fahrenheit 451. Then, there are the ones where I thought, "Oh my God, it's just like the book!" ie, The Green Mile and The Outsiders. There are also ones that I thought were really good but the book was even better, like Primal Fear. Then, movies like LOTR, I thought were better than the books (I never finished LOTR lol).

I've always wanted my books adapted, but I've also always wanted to be on set and in charge of the script so they don't mess anything up. ;)

Elliot Grace said...

...great insight on an always interesting, sometimes controversial topic ;)


RSMellette said...

@Debra, careful what you wish for. Remember Dune? They let Herbert do the screenplay, but he had no experience in screenwriting. I think it's the worst adaptation ever.

And if they remake Clockwork Orange, which ending should they use? The one from American Publishers or the British one?

Mindy McGinnis said...

Joey - thanks for reading! We had a good time doing the post.

Eliot - Definitely! The idea came to me while overhearing a rather heated Hobbit discussion :)