Sunday, June 20, 2010

Adventures in the Screenplay Part II: the Short Story, the Novella and the Novel

Every so often when we talk about film, I hear someone say: “the book was better than the movie.” Of course it was. Don't be silly. I would love to stand on my soap box and say that books are always better than movies. It's a stupid comparison. They are indeed two very different things. The only thing they have in common, of course, is story. Story. That's it. So why would a book be better than its movie counterpart? Well, the average movie is about 90 minutes, and the average screenplay is about 114 pages. Now, compare that to the average modern novel which is in excess of 50,000 words. In a novel, the reader gains so much more perspective on the story. The reader has more time to get to know the characters making their relationship is so much stronger. A 90 minute movie is hardly enough time to get all the information delivered that the novel has. I don't believe movies, especially the normal length of a feature, can capture all the events, plot, character development, setting, mood, or the essence a reader takes from a novel. The only real exception I can think about off hand is Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate. This movie was based on Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Club Dumas. The Club Dumas was a fantastic story about the cult of Alexandre Dumas, satanic rituals, and rare books. The Ninth Gate was developed not from the novel as a whole, but from a subplot. And really, it was created from the smallest subplot available in the book. So, a movie based on a novel? Yes, but only one small part of it. Very effective. Great use of the story, and a great use of my time as a movie viewer.
When it comes to it, and I know I'm not alone here, the best movies are based on short stories. Francis Ford Coppola has demonstrated this. Zoetrope is his forum, and the factory for short stories (and one act plays) into feature length film. The beauty of this is simply that a short story has the beginning, middle and end that we need as readers. Once a short story gets translated into film, the screenwriter, and the director can add elements to enhance the story rather than choosing which elements to eliminate.
Here comes my short list, from the shortest to the longest. Farley Mowat's “Walk Well, My Brother,” became The Snow Walker in 2003. The short story is a relationship between two people, a white man-pilot and an Eskimo girl who endure a plane crash in the northern frontiers of Canada. The short story, hardly more than about 5,000 words is stunning in itself. It is two cultures, two people, two languages, these differences of culture are a common theme in much of Mowat's writing. Now, how well do you think a 2 hour movie can do with these two characters who can't even talk to one another? The movie is stunning. The landscape is stunning. The basic premise and treatment are stunning. The dialogue aside, the scenery alone is the payoff. The filmmakers have also added a second story line, a subplot if you will. They include Charlie's life back home, and the people he leaves behind. Case in point, the filmmaker fills up the negative space, and adds another more tangible plot: what was left behind.
Mary Gaitskill's 1988 short story collection, Bad Behavior, has a curious little story in it called “Secretary.” Gaitskill tells the entire story of Debby, and her first job as a secretary in less than fifteen pages. The use of narration is intimately in first person. The 2002 movie was a wild adaptation of the short story. Again, the writers of this screenplay were able to figure out what to add rather than what to subtract. Much like The Snow Walker, Secretary is a movie basically of two characters.
Some movies-short story combinations are loosers. For instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald's “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and the recent movie have almost nothing in common. In fact, when the movie first hit the theaters, I doubt most movie goers realized how old the story was.
The longer short story, reaching up to the novella length story works pretty well too. Novellas, at least in my experience are like novels but without the subplots and back stories. I find them to be typically linear in nature. The three we'll discuss here are very linearly plotted stories. They each have a set of details and circumstances that almost have the feel of film.
Etgar Keret's “Kneller's Happy Campers,” comes to mind first and foremost. It's a simple hero quest story. Boy losses girl, boy searches for girl, boy finds girl. This delightful novella is the last piece in a collection of stories called: The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God. It's a quick read, an honest read. Mordy, the protagonist has committed suicide prior to the beginning of the narrative. The “afterlife” for suicides is a lot like here just worse. When Mordy finds out that the girl, Desiree, who was the cause of his suicide has offed herself too, he goes out in search of her. Pretty basic plot, right? The 2006 movie, Wristcutters, blew my mind. The movie followed the story well enough. What the filmmakers chose to change was permissible. Etgar Keret is Israeli, as is his protagonist Mordy. Since the film was made here in the United States, the Mordy character is American. Either way, great stuff. A relatively competent reader can get through “Kneller's Happy Campers” in about the same time it takes to watch the movie.
Next up, T. A. Louis's “Things that Hang from Trees,” and the movie of the same name, strike this dynamic even better than the last example. The novella is less than 78 pages. It's set in Florida in the 1960s. Knowing this at the onset of the story it is potentially dreadful what might be hanging from trees. The basic premise of the story is a little boy who needs a set of parents. How he gets them, well, you'll have to read the book or see the movie. The soft language in the book, the easy nature of Louis's style is such a treat to read. The 2006 movie did capture some of the language in the beautiful vistas of old Florida. Again, the novella can be read in the same amount of time it takes to watch the movie.
Despite what some people might say about Charlton Heston, and the final years of his life, he remains one of my favorite actors. How can I say that? He got to be the protagonist of three of the best dystopian movies of all time: Soylent Green(1973), The Omega Man (1971) and Planet of the Apes (1968).
Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes is a bit longer in size. It is a more typical novel size. I bring it up here for another reason entirely. As I said, the short story, or novella, is easier to develop into a film because the filmmakers can decide on additions rather than subtractions. Planet of the Apes has been made into a feature length film twice: 1968 and 2001. The basic story stays the same through each incarnation: the novel, the 1968 and 2001 movies. The basic bent changes however. In 1963, in France, Pierre Boulle's focus is the ills of animal testing. He writes of a distant planet where apes reign and they test on Human Beings, presumably in much the same way as scientists on Earth did in the 1960s. In the movie, in Hollywood in 1968, the general feeling is one of segregation. This theme is just as pertinent in 1968 USA as animal testing is in 1963 France. In Tim Burton's 2001 version of the same story, urban development and wildlife habitat encroachment seems to be the main theme. Over dinner, the Helena Bonham Carter character says as much, she tries to explain that human's are not the problem, but rather the loss of their habitat is. How can one story have so many different themes and maintain the same story? It just does. After all, by 2001, animal testing and segregation were no longer pertinent social issues.
The last example is a novel which needed subtractions. Sofia Coppola's 1999 Virgin Suicides is a beautiful movie, and I will defined that statement. It got rave reviews and won 3 awards and eleven nominations, so I'm not alone in that. The novel by Jeffery Eugenides is such a quiet story, a potentially tearful read filled with so many wonderful details, I was glad that I read the book first. His story, set in Detroit in 1974, is so packed with images it warrants a workshop, or discussion all on its own. The narration is like a Greek chorus. We know within the first few pages than the Lisbon girls are the objects of desire, and that they all commit suicide. We know the end from the beginning. The movie held true to that, and Giovanni Ribisi's voice-over is a perfect tribute to the narration of the novel. However, the details Sofia Coppola chose to illuminate were limited. She used direct passages from the book. Two beautiful passages I read and loved were these:
The majority of dying happened during the Second World War when we did not exist and our fathers were impossibly skinny young men in black-and-white photographs-dads on jungle airstrips, dads with pimples and tattoos, dads with pinups, dads who wrote love letters to the girls who would become our mothers, dads inspired by K Rations, loneliness and glandular riot in malarial air into poetic reveries that ceased entirely once they got back home. (Eugenides 32)
Inside, we got to know girls who had never considered taking their own lives. We fed them drinks, danced with them until they became unsteady, and led them out to the screened-in veranda. They lost their high heels on the way, kissed us in the humid darkness, and then slipped away to throw up demurely in the outside bushes. Some of us held their heads as they vomited, then let them rinse their mouths with beer, after which we got back to kissing again. The girls were monstrous in their formal dresses, each built around a wire cage. Pounds of hair were secured atop their heads. Drunk, and kissing us, or passing out in chairs, they were bound for college, husbands, child-rearing, unhappiness only dimly perceived-bound, in other words, for life. (Eugenides 230)

As far as choices, Sofia Coppola did great work. The movie is visual and tightly packed. However well constructed, she had to make choices. As you read the book, you will undoubtedly have several pertinent and beautiful quotes of your own. Again, this 250 page novel was made into a 90 minute movie.

There is a school of thought here at the onset of 21 century that the pursuit of the next great screenplay has surpassed the pursuit of the great American novel. Who knows if that's true? Certainly there are plenty of movies that are lost as soon as they are released. Many books never make a second pressing. The audience is potentially wider with film. But as we began here, novels and movies are two very different things indeed.

Thanks again to Rockethouse Studios and Umbrella Factory Magazine and all the workshop participants for the my opportunity of teaching this.

Next time: Construction, from the premise and treatment through the ending credits.

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