Scott Rudin the Hollywood producer known for bringing adaptations of contemporary literature to the silver screen – he was responsible for Wonder Boys and The Hours, for example – may be on his way out at Paramount. This means that several forthcoming literary adaptations could be in jeopardy, including big screen versions of three new books: Ian McEwan’s Saturday, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. Farther along in their development are The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon and, of course, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Though adaptations can be a risky proposition, I do hope that some of these end up getting made if only to satisfy my curiosity. Here’s the story from the Hollywood Reporter.
For the last twelve years I have taught fiction writing at Delta College in Michigan. For six of those years I have also taught Introduction to Screenwriting as part of Delta’s Film Production program. Arguably, screenwriters and fiction writers are going about the same thing, even if in different forms: they are trying to tell a good story. I certainly can’t say that the ways I teach screenwriting and fiction writing are universal, but I have noticed that, while the two courses essentially focus on storytelling, my pedagogical approaches for each are very different.
When I teach fiction, I usually focus on the “craft” of fiction. I use words and phrases like “conflict,” “character development,” “backstory,” “interior landscape,” and “dialogue.” When it comes to plot, though, I find myself saying something cryptic like, “Plot comes out of character. Whatever your protagonist does must be true to his or her character.” It’s good advice, I suppose, but it doesn’t really help students understand what makes for a solid plot. When I talk about fiction writing, the vibe is mystical: “You don’t need to know where you’re going. Just sit down and write. Discover what you have to say sentence by sentence. Let the journey surprise you.” Sometimes I’ll even quote E.L. Doctorow who said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I love that simile, but the more realistic side of me notes that it’s also a perfect situation for crashing and going nowhere.
Screenwriting often seems so much more practical and story-oriented. Right out of the gate, I am talking with students about the importance of movie-mapping. Much more time is spent on the plotting of the story to make certain that “something happens” and that the movie is always escalating tension and conflict as it moves toward the climax. For such a modern form of storytelling – barely 125 years old – screenwriting seems to draw much more of its understanding of plot from Plato’s dissection of narrative structure.
Before my students begin to learn screenplay format, I first ask them to consider their film’s major dramatic question, or MDQ. In screenwriting, the major dramatic question is a yes-or-no question that is answered by the climax. For instance, in the 1977 classic Star Wars: A New Hope, the MDQ would be, “Will Luke blow up the Death Star?” Before ever writing, my students are encouraged to know their MDQ and to know the answer. They have to know what they are writing towards in order to make every scene lead the audience there naturally and believably. To understand how movie structure works, we talk about a movie’s Inciting Incident, Plot Point 1, Mid-Point, Plot Point 2, and Climax. Screenwriters are encouraged to know their ending before anything else, which seems very different from all of that driving blind in the fog business.
Star Wars: A New Hope provides a good example of the rest of the plot points. The inciting incident of a movie is the event that is necessary to get the movie going. Usually the first ten minutes of a film focus on character and situation introduction, but right about ten minutes in, something happens that calls the protagonist to his or her quest. In Star Wars, the inciting incident occurs when the droids escape Princess Leia’s ship with the plans to the Death Star inside R2-D2. (Notice how the inciting incident already alludes to the MDQ.) If the droids don’t escape Leia’s ship, then we don’t have Star Wars…or at least not the Star Wars that we know.
Right around 25 to 30 pages into the script, the screenwriter must begin to think about Plot Point 1. This is a moment in the movie that makes action on the part of the protagonist necessary. In Star Wars, Luke isn’t really sure what he’s doing with the droids. He’s chasing R2-D2 rather than making his own choices. Even when Ben asks Luke to join him, Luke says that he can’t leave his uncle’s farm. It’s only when Luke races back to the farm to find his uncle and aunt dead at the hands of the Empire that he can commit to his quest. Nothing is holding Luke back, and his hatred toward the Empire has been fueled.
About halfway through the script, screenwriters need to give thought to the Mid-Point. The Mid-Point often shows us a strength in the character that we have not seen up until this moment. In the first half of Star Wars, Luke takes a backseat to the much more interesting Ben Kenobi and Han Solo. It’s only when Luke is free of them that he can truly shine. Rescuing Princess Leia, Luke faces a daunting chasm. Storm troopers are slowly opening the door behind him. Across the chasm, stormtroopers fire upon him and Leia. Oh, and as you’ll remember, the bridge across the chasm is no longer functional. Probably unknowingly using the Force, Luke flawlessly tosses a grappling hook up to an overhead pipe and swings himself and Leia to safety. He does this on his own. That’s the movie’s midpoint, which helps the audience believe what happens in the climax because it reveals that strength of character that the audience had yet to see.
Finally, to escalate conflict and to make success that much more difficult, a screenwriter has to think about Plot Point 2, which is a major setback to the protagonist. In Star Wars, the setback happens when Ben is killed by Darth Vader. It’s a major blow to Luke, and it makes their entire mission against the Death Star seem that much more hopeless. Watch nearly any movie, and right around three-quarters into it, something really bad will happen to the main character. That event serves to escalate tension and keep the audience uncertain.
The rest of the movie now plays out toward answering the MDQ. If the movie has been plotted well, the climax is not only satisfying but believable.
It’s my belief that no novelist would be hurt by taking a screenwriting course or by studying a screenwriting text, not for jumping ship and becoming a screenwriter, but to understand storytelling from a new vantage-point. At Delta College, the students who take creative writing courses represent a small but passionate pool. They often take every creative writing course available. In Screenwriting, I will sometimes get students who want to adapt a novel that they are working on into a screenplay. More often than not, they actually end up learning what they have to do to make their novel work as a novel. It is the strict attention to plot involved with screenwriting that helps them see how they can make their story work better in prose form. At the end of the class they’ll tell me, “This class helped me understand my novel so much better, and now I’m going to rewrite the entire thing.”
There’s something sort of funny about listening to someone try to describe the structure of Cloud Atlas. Walking out of Symphony Space one evening last week — David Mitchell was the shy and extraordinarily charming guest of honor at the opening night of PRI’s “Selected Shorts” — I heard lots of people try to explain the book to their companions. “With the ship, and the Pacific, it feels like the last one,” a woman said as we shuffled towards the exits, referencing the first (and final) section of Cloud Atlas and Mitchell’s most recent novel, A Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. “Ah, well.” Her friend leaned in and said in a knowing tone, “I can see that, but once you get to Sonmi…” The same phrases spilled out onto 72nd Street: “story-within-a-story;” “Russian dolls;” “a bunch of cliffhangers!” One man shouted at his date, “And that leads to the next section!” People were waving their hands in the air, evangelizing a book and its concepts that, at first glance, could strike the uninitiated as inventive or contrived. I’d gone to “Selected Shorts” alone that evening, but had I brought along someone to whom I could evangelize, I’d have described Cloud Atlas as a pyramid — six different novellas set across six different points in time, building up chronologically. Each story is cut in half, and we must climb to the peak, to a dystopian far future (which is presented without pause) and climb back down to reach the conclusion of the other five stories. We begin and end in the mid-19th century. Narrative threads, from big themes to small gestures — the act of drawing a map, for example, or certain words that crop up again and again — extend and echo up and down the pyramid.
One protagonist of the six, crotchety vanity publisher Timothy Cavendish, expresses disdain for “flashbacks, foreshadowing, and tricksy devices” (the same character — he gets all the good lines — says that a critic is, “One who reads quickly, arrogantly, but never wisely…”). If you’re disinclined to appreciate tricksy devices, you might dislike the book outright; there are, as you can imagine, a lot of coincidences. Mitchell himself was surely aware of the risk: he references it in several self-conscious turns, like when Robert Frobisher, the troubled young composer at the center of the epistolary second (and then, the penultimate) novella, structures his masterwork, the “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” in a similar fashion:
Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a “sextet for overlapping soloists”: piano, clarinet, ’cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished, and by then it’ll be too late…
But by and large, Mitchell’s gamble paid off: Cloud Atlas has been widely acclaimed in the near-decade since its publication, not least of all here at The Millions, where it was retired from the Top Ten a few years back and voted #3 in a survey of the best books of the millennium so far. You’ve probably been seeing a whole lot of the book around recently, or of Mitchell himself, who’s been shuttling back and forth between New York and Los Angeles talking to the press. It’s all, of course, because of the film, the publicity for which has been hard to ignore, from the five-and-a-half-minute behemoth of a trailer released this past summer to the completely unhelpful teaser trailer that’s been running in heavy rotation on television (it’s 10 percent crazy sci-fi special effects and 90 percent Tom Hanks saying something folksy). The project is a collaboration between the Wachowski Siblings, Lana and Andy, of Matrix trilogy fame, and Tom Twyker, the German director of films like Run Lola Run.
Much has been written about the filmmakers’ struggle to find financial backing for the project: six storylines set in wildly different time periods and genres — it’s a hard sell however you spin it. And much, in turn, has been written about how they spun it: the process by which such a structurally unique book could be transferred to the screen, and if it could survive such a translation. Mitchell himself told Aleksandar Hemon, for a profile of the Wachowskis in The New Yorker last month, that, “As I was writing ‘Cloud Atlas,’ I thought, It’s a shame this is unfilmmable.” Some portions of the book — most notably, “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” a thriller set in the 1970s that’s the pulpiest of the bunch, complete with a ton of internal monologues — are fairly cinematic to start with. But it’s one thing to ask a reader to stop and start six times, and then repeat it all over again on the way back. In a movie, everyone agreed, this structure would never work.
But all three directors were so enamored of Cloud Atlas that they decided to give adaptation a go. They broke the book into plot points — “hundreds of scenes,” Hemon writes. “[They] copied them onto colored index cards, and spread the cards on the floor, with each color representing a different character or time period.” They pulled out arcs, drew connections, and read the reconstructed stories aloud. Then the cards went back on the floor, and were reshuffled and rearranged. They found an initial way into the eventual restructure with Dr. Henry Goose, a major character from the first novella, which is set aboard a ship in the South Pacific in 1849, and Zachry, the protagonist of the far-future dystopia, set a good deal after “the Fall,” when modern civilization seems to have totally collapsed. Henry is morally weak, cowed easily by greed and violent urges; Zachry spends most of his story struggling to throw off these same human impulses, cloaked in ignorance and fear. Mitchell’s six main characters are loosely linked by destiny, physically manifested in comet-shaped birthmarks and half-found (well, half-lost) works of art; the directors wanted to draw links between major and minor characters across every era, linked by common ideals and struggles.
And thus what Mitchell has characterized as the “‘transmigrating souls’ motif” was born: a single actor for multiple characters, certainly one of the most publicized elements of the film. Tom Hanks plays the two aforementioned characters, as well as a blackmailing manager at Frobisher’s hotel, conflicted nuclear engineer Isaac Sachs in the ’70s, and in the modern era, Dermot “Duster” Hoggins, a thug who throws a book critic off a balcony (at a screening of film critics, this earned some seriously awkward laughs). If you’ve read the book, you’ll be able to line these characters up side by side: it’s easy to see the moral arc here, and as a reader, it’s an interesting exercise to re-cast the book, as it were. Some actors — Hugo Weaving, as unwavering evil, and Hugh Grant, as an eternal sleazebag who always succumbs to it — play stagnant foils. Others — Jim Broadbent and Ben Whishaw — dance around each other in delicate balances of power. But the repetitive casting, the filmmakers’ big tricksy device, is one that, with the movie’s release, has drawn more ire from critics than praise. Many early moviegoers were distracted by the frankly bizarre-looking prosthetics, particularly in 22nd-century Nea So Copros, re-named in the film world a more recognizable “Neo Seoul,” where genetically-engineered clones, or “fabricants,” are bred to do humanity’s dirty jobs without complaint. And some of the accents — Tom Hanks is certainly the biggest culprit here — are distractingly poor as well.
There’s an obvious futility in comparing a book to the subsequent movie, but Cloud Atlas is no mere adaptation: it’s a big, ambitious structural overhaul, one that has been likened by Mitchell, amongst others, to a mosaic, all of his Russian dolls smashed to pieces and carefully reassembled. The plotlines are interspersed, with tight transitions between moments that often mirror each other in action or in theme. Sometimes that’s rewarding — it’s easy to get mired in a single section of the novel, and the quick steps between eras feel freeing by comparison at times. But we lose a fair amount of breathing room in the process, and fans of the book may mourn that loss. Sonmi~451, the fabricant hero of the Nea So section, still gives her orison to the archivist, but many of the meditative qualities of the year-long storyline are gone, replaced by fast and loud action sequences that boil down the sharp edges of what is in the book a deeply complicated narrative. In fact, grey areas turn black and white all across the six stories, either altered or overshadowed by the movie’s broader themes, or shortened for time’s sake.
And then there are the moments when Mitchell calls his own narratives’ truthfulness into question. Sonmi~451’s first words are, “Truth is singular. Its ‘versions’ are mistruths.” But Mitchell enjoys undercutting this idea, like early on, when Frobisher discovers half of “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” the account of the first novella, and writes, “Something shifty about the journal’s authenticity — seems too structured for a genuine diary, and its language doesn’t quite ring true — but who would bother forging such a journal, and why?” The film is always pressing forward in time, and is largely, unflinchingly earnest — there’s no halting for the novelist’s tricks, and the storylines seem shallower for it.
Despite all this, Mitchell has given the alterations his blessing, telling The Times:
None of the major changes the film made to my novel “threw me off” in the sense of sticking in my craw. I think that the changes are licensed by the spirit of the novel, and avoid traffic congestion in the film’s flow. Any adaptation is a translation, and there is such a thing as an unreadably faithful translation; and I believe a degree of reinterpretation for the new language may be not only inevitable but desirable…[The filmmakers] want to avoid melodrama and pap and cliché as much as I do, but a film’s payoff works differently to a novel’s payoff, and the unwritten contract between author and reader differs somewhat to the unwritten contract between filmmaker and viewer. Adaptations gloss over these differences at their peril.
But the language of the adaptation — and yes, it’s a little shameful to turn Mitchell’s well-crafted metaphor into something so literal, and I apologize for that — does leave something to be desired. Mitchell is a brilliant linguistic shape-shifter. In the South Pacific, Ewing’s Victorian diary entries are both lively and endearingly stiff. In the 1930s, Frobisher’s sentences fly past like whip-cracks, and the lyricism is oftentimes so charming that we’re distracted from his prejudices and his flippancies. Some of the lines remain, but the narrative voices are mere echoes of their originals. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Neo Seoul: in the book, in a world where people worship fast-food mascots and project advertisements onto the moon, language has been deviously corporatized — citizens are consumers, fabricants like Sonmi~451 are servers, and they all read sonys and watch disneys and drive fords and remove their nikes at the door. I imagine legal complications kept these terms out of the film. But even the language that carries over loses its impact aloud: Xultation is much more strikingly written. And in the far future, where English has shriveled to a bastardized pidgin strain — “Adam, my bro, an’ Pa’n’me was trekkin’ back from Honokaa Market on miry roads with a busted cart axle in draggly clothesies.” — it’s often much harder to follow the words aurally, rushing so quickly out of the actors’ mouths, than it is to read and translate for yourself on the page.
In the end, it’s a question of mosaics and Russian dolls — of a set of stories, a pile of reshuffled index cards, and the new stories that emerge. If the film is the book distilled, its characters and their choices are sometimes easier to follow and appreciate. But the depths and complications of the novel must lie at the heart of why so many readers — including the filmmakers themselves — loved it to begin with. We are told, for the entire duration of the movie, that everything is connected. But Mitchell doesn’t have to tell us outright: the six stories are, at their hearts, the same.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
I am a fan of nostalgic genres, as my last list testified: Not the least of the charms of the country house movie, following in the tradition of classical pastoral, is that the country house comes to represent a pre-Lapsarian, Edenic space associated with leisure, pleasure, and harmony. Usually this harmony is destroyed or interrupted (“Brideshead” is the archetypal example of this: Ryder returns to a decayed and abandoned Brideshead as a soldier during World War II, and begins to reminisce about the golden age gone by), but it’s the idea that – however fleeting or fragile – such happiness and peace and pleasure shared with friends is possible.Today I share with you another list, for another nostalgic genre: the school story. These pieces are often simultaneously nostalgic for the youthful abandon and friendship and simple pleasures of schooldays, and meditations on the betrayals and abandonment that turn children into adults. I largely exclude American high school movies (they seems a different beast) in favor of boarding school novels and films:Claudine a l’Ecole, ColetteNicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens (Oh, the horrors of C19th Yorkshire schools: now in a good movie adaptation with Charlie Hunnam and Jim Broadbent.)Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte (and numerous film versions)Vanity Fair, William Makepeace ThackerayThe Group, Mary McCarthyHow I Grew, Mary McCarthy’s autobiographical reminiscences of boarding school in Seattle, and a deflowering scene to match (outdo?) the famous one in The Group“To Serve Them All My Days” (BBC miniseries)School TiesRushmoreThe Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark (Maggie Smith in her prime playing the titular Miss Jean is a knockout)Picnic at Hanging Rock (awesome and insane – Victorian repressed sexuality done 70’s style – it will haunt with you)The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola was definitely watching Picnic at Hanging Rock before she made this)Young Sherlock Holmes (an early Barry Levinson movie – if you didn’t watch it in the 80’s as a child, do now)Flirting (great Australia movie: Thandie Newton, a very young Nicole Kidman, and Noah Taylor, plus a priceless scene involving boxing and Jean-Paul Sartre)The Children’s Hour, Lillian Hellman (women beware women)Frost in May, Antonia White (also the translator of Colette’s Claudine novels)Maurice, E.M. Forster (novel and film both great – the brief joys and inevitable tragedy of homosexuality in turn of the century England)Trouble at Willow Gables, Philip Larkin (one of my favorite books of all time – PL’s imitation/parody of 1940’s girls school novels is beyond delightful – sensual, campy, absurd, delicious)It Was Fun in the Fourth, Nancy Breary (an original 1940’s author of English girls boarding school novels – a hoot, and great read with the Larkin)Tom Brown’s School Days (oh, brutality. And now in a fine film adaptation with Stephen Fry as headmaster.)”Such, Such Were the Joys” (George Orwell’s essay on the horrors of the English public school, the full text is available at george-orwell.org)Harry PotterA Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnet (there’s a recent movie adaptation of this C19th children’s classic, but the book’s great – some problems with Orientalism, I grant you, but I stand by this childhood fave)Dead Poets’ SocietyLost and Delirious (Mischa Barton and Piper Perabo: A Separate Peace/Dead Poets’ Society for girls: also features falconry)A Separate PeaceCruel IntentionsBrick (I know it’s set in an American high school – but it’s so noir-y and all-consuming it feels like a boarding school: plus Joseph Gordon Levitt is becoming Heath Leger circa 10 Things I Hate About You – uncanny)The Skulls (It takes place at a college, but there’s something juvenile about a secret society)Goodbye, Mr. ChipsPrep, Curtis Sittenfeld (I haven’t read it, but I want too)The Emperor’s Club
As many of you no doubt have read in the trades (Wait, you don’t read the trades? What town do you live in, anyway?), Stephen Gaghan, the writer of such sprawling, multi-narrative films as Traffic and Syriana, is set to adapt Malcolm Gladwell’s latest quasi-scientific non-fiction potboiler, Blink (IMDb). Anyone who’s read the book can tell you, it ain’t going to be easy. Blink follows no central character, takes place in a multitude of settings, and covers such diverse topics as law enforcement, ancient art, and advertising.On the surface, this seems like pure folly, destined to lead to a Charlie Kaufman-esque exercise in navel gazing and postmodern self-reference. This Variety article seems to support this claim (By the way, check out the gaudy sum of money Gladwell pockets in this deal). According to the article, Leonardo DiCaprio is set to star as a jury selection expert who has a sixth sense about people based on first impressions. If that ends up as the plot of the film, it would be the worst adaptation since The Lawnmower Man (IMDb).But the more I thought about it, the more Gaghan seemed like the right choice, maybe the only choice, to adapt the book; furthermore, the book seemed like the perfect project for him. His last time out, Gaghan took two or three paragraphs from Robert Baer’s CIA memoir See No Evil and turned it into a two hour feature film that dealt with practically every aspect of the oil industry. The finished project looked so different from the book that it was nominated for the Academy Award in the best original screenplay category (The official credit says that the book “suggested” the movie, whatever that means). Putting his three major scripts in perspective, it would seem that Stephen Gaghan has hit upon a new and arguably better way to adapt non-fiction to the screen. He doesn’t aim to duplicate every twist of plot, every detail of character, but rather to hone in on the theme, the mood, and the message of whatever material he’s adapting and to riff on it. The result is a movie that works on the same level as the book, discussing the same subjects with a similar tone, but also functions as a work of art separate from its original source material. While this wouldn’t have worked for, say, The Godfather (“What? Why is Sonny’s character now combined with Fredo’s?”), it seems like the only way to tackle a book like Blink. Maybe if Charlie Kaufman had taken this approach, there might actually have been a film version of The Orchid Thief.