Thursday, 12 January 2017

DON'T JUST SIT THERE, ADAPT SOMETHING.


Yesterday I got a parking ticket. I was very impressed by its potential, so I'm adapting it into a film. It's a high concept project and it will appeal to the most profitable contemporary audience demographic: people who will watch anything. I like to think the title says it all:

Parking Ticket - The Movie.

In fact, the title says so much that I may not need to write anything else. Writing tends to gum up the machinery of film adaptation, which is now an efficient industrial process that renders everything into the same product, whatever its origins.

Try this simple test: are these forthcoming film adaptations real or not? Answers below.

THE LISTICLE OF DR. SEUSS
The next film to be based on the work of Dr. Seuss is called Tomatoes, Tuna and Toilet Roll and is adapted from a shopping list found in a pair of his trousers.

POPEYE - ORIGINS
The charismatic matelot is re-launched as a brooding nautical avenger. As a boy, Popeye (Justin Timberlake) sees his uncle Bluto (Colin Firth) murder his parents with poisoned spinach. He runs away to sea and endures unspeakable abuse aboard a series of tramp steamers, from a series of tramps. A ship's purser, an undercover Tibetan lama (Denzel Washington), takes Popeye to a remote temple and trains him in secret techniques of enlightened violence. His final challenge is to face his worst fear: spinach. He eats it, and discovers that it unleashes an awesome power, which he vows to use only in slow-motion. He returns to confront Bluto, and to woo the enigmatic Olive Oyl (Natalie Portman).

SPEED LIMIT
Several big studios are developing films based on road signs. The most notable is the Tarantino project STOP, about a team of driving test examiners who are secret Ninja assassins.

Answers:

1. False. The shopping list was found in his raincoat.

2. True. Or it would be, if any of the studios I pitched the idea to would recognize its brilliance.

3. False. The only road-sign project to be greenlit (ha!) is a Charlie Kaufman script about a screenwriter writing a script about a writer trying to adapt a map of the Beverly Hills traffic flow system into a movie. The action is set inside a suitcase that has been left on a bus.

Producers want adaptations because they figure there's a better chance of people liking a film if they liked whatever it was before it was a film. Studios don't want to risk money on some crazy nonsense that a writer made up out of their own head. Why should they, when anyone can still walk into a kid's bedroom and find a toy, comic book or game that hasn't yet been used as the basis for a film?  By the way, if you're going to snoop around a kid's bedroom make sure it's your own kid's room.

There are good and bad adaptations, and many of the best are not rewrites, but reinventions that transform their source material. In Chimes at Midnight Orson Welles turned three separate Shakespeare plays into a new work about Falstaff; and Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet brought fresh energy and ideas to the tale (as West Side Story did before it) even if it offended some purists. They're the same people who object that  Shakespeare didn't write a version of The Tempest which ends with a crew of very camp sailors dancing a hornpipe around an octagenarian blues singer performing 'Stormy Weather', so why did Derek Jarman film it that way? Maybe because it's better than simply putting a camera in front of a stage play and expecting it to work as a film. However, adaptation can also be tricky for writers. You need to make the material your own, while respecting its origins. You're screwing around with another writer's work. It's even worse if you're adapting your own material, because the original author is always there, giving you a hard time.

So, if film adaptations, good or bad, currently dominate the market, can you still pitch an original idea of your own? Yes, with the reservations outlined in my article How to Have Someone Else's Idea. But here's another strategy: pitch an original idea but make it sound like an adaptation. Reassure producers it's based on something that's already been succesful. They're not actually interested in the source material, they just want to know that this thing didn't come out of nowhere. So, tell them you're not doing anything new, and then do something new. Sure, it will need to conform loosely to what they expect a film to be like right now. But everything changes, and meanwhile you do what it takes to work as a writer. We all have to see which way the wind is blowing, and make the best of it. We have to adapt.

NB: I'm running my one-day workshop: Adapt Ability - The Art of Adaptation in London on Saturday 4 February. Come and learn how to unlock source material and transform it into new work. This is a practical, hands-on workshop, not a lecture. Details and to book, click HERE.



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