“Adapting Books to the Screen (and vice versa)”
by Liz Kerin
“To be honest, I liked the book a lot better.”
Adapting books to the screen is always tricky business. When we read, we’re given the freedom to imagine something that fits perfectly into our preferred worldview. Violence is as visceral as we want it to be. We might picture our romantic lead with a few personalized characteristics. The world just feels a certain way in our minds. A good author allows their audience imaginative space to do this. But a good screenwriter or director needs to make bold, specific visual choices. And sometimes, those choices come at the expense of something you might have really loved about that book. It’s always a balancing act.
A few months ago, I was asked to put together a pitch to adapt a series of YA novels in which the main character’s inner monologue really drove the narrative. Because of this, there was a distinct “voice” in the book, and a lot of the practical information about our world and how people felt about each other was conveyed this way. It was all very internal. My job would ultimately be to make that internal external—to make the story cinematic. And it turns out that can be really, really tough sometimes.
Sometimes you just can’t capture the essence, the voice of a good book. Hollywood loves mining IP from literally anywhere, and if a book is popular for any reason, someone is likely to snatch up the rights. Producers and studios don’t always consider the challenges of the adaptation.
It’s a strategic dollars-and-cents move: fans of the book will come out to see the movie. The property has a built-in audience. The writer (often writers plural) and director of the project often participate in a “bakeoff” of sorts. The person with the most cinematic, exciting take on the material gets the job. And, by the way, that’s not the “most exciting take on the material” as determined by fans of the book. It might not even be a decision the author has any say in. Tweet about your dream cast/director all you want. This decision is being made by whoever bought the rights to your favorite book.
Okay so, you’re an author. Cool, so am I! Nice to meet you. If you’re anything like me, you want your book to one day become a beloved movie that defies the odds and is received just as warmly as your book was. If that’s an end-goal for you, keep your future screenwriter and director in mind as you pen your manuscript. Make their job easier. Make sure your book feels cinematic.
“What does that even mean, though? How do you make something feel cinematic?” Well, simply put, it’s externalizing the internal. Novels, particularly literary fiction for adults, are often deeply introspective and character driven. They run the risk of meandering and feel more like a rhapsody on a theme than a hard-and-fast narrative. But take, for example, something like “Gone Girl,” a novel for adults whose suspenseful twists and turns translated perfectly to the screen. Gillian Flynn is a master at this, and she’s got a successful dual-career as both an author and a screenwriter.
Now, I’m not the authority on what goes on inside Gillian Flynn’s head when she writes, but I’d imagine it has to be similar to my own process. If I can’t write a book that also feels like a movie, I can’t write it at all. I consider setting—is this a world we’ll want to live in, onscreen? I think about my characters and how they move about this world—are they active and motivated at all times? Do they have a key objective, and is that objective something we can get invested in? Where’s the drama?
Three-act structure is king in screenwriting, and I also apply it to my book writing. The most successful book-to-screen adaptations I’ve seen are successful because the book and the screenplay had the same structure, the same DNA. It just makes sense.
“Well, what about when screenwriters go and change everything about a book that I liked! What gives?” This one is tough. We change things for all sorts of reasons, but you can usually trace it back to this whole question of what makes a story cinematic. Here’s an example: I was hired to adapt a book (and this project is still in progress, by the way, so you’ll forgive me for not naming it). The producers purchased the rights to this book not because the book itself was insanely popular, but because they saw potential in a very specific demographic.
When I first met to pitch, I was told I had free range to alter anything I wanted in the adaptation. The buyers weren’t satisfied with the story as it stood, and once I read it I agreed with a lot of their misgivings. It felt “soft,” which is a Hollywood way of saying the stakes were too low. I knew we had to up the ante and the tension. Our main character (who was super intriguing and cool!) had to face some really serious obstacles. It had to feel dramatic and dangerous. You know—cinematic.
I’m not sure how this project will be received once it’s produced, but I have faith that fans of the book will feel like we did right by our main character. We gave her an engaging world to inhabit with serious, emotionally complex challenges. Fingers crossed.
As for my book, I’m hoping I’ve managed to follow my own rules. My forthcoming novel “The Phantom Forest” was actually written as a screenplay first, when I was in my early 20s, new to LA, and knew nothing about anything. I saw it as a darkly whimsical animated film, like Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke.” Upon completing a first draft, however, I knew it needed to be a book before it could be a film. IP rules Hollywood, and I had the potential to create my own IP instead of waiting for a producer to dump somebody else’s into my lap.
I’m now writing my second book and planning for “Phantom Forest” sequels, as well as watering my screenwriting garden. For me, it’s been hugely beneficial to play both sides. If you’re an author, try adapting 10 pages of your book to screenplay form and see what sticks. If you’re a screenwriter with a script that just isn’t gaining traction, maybe that script is meant to exist as a book first. Try both! Try them at the same time! Wear all the hats! Worst case scenario, you’ll conduct a fun creative experiment and become a stronger writer.
Liz Kerin is an author and screenwriter. Her debut novel The Phantom Forest will be released by Inkshares in late 2018 and was shortlisted for the 2016 Launchpad Manuscript competition. To pre-order, visit: https://www.inkshares.com/books/the-phantom-forest
She’s also the co-founder of Script Prescriptions, a story consulting service. More info at www.ScriptPrescriptions.com
Today, Jason Pomerance is here to talk about his journey publishing his debut novel, Women Like Us.
Welcome Jason. First, I want to say congratulations on the release of your novel, Women Like Us, which hit shelves on July 26, 2016! How does it feel to be a published author?
Thank you for having me! I think pretty much almost nothing compares with holding your book for the first time. Most authors spend untold amounts of time — years most likely — thinking about his or her book, writing it, rewriting it, editing it, editing it some more, so that when it actually is a physical thing that you can leaf through it’s pretty astounding. Here it’s almost two years after pub date for Women Like Us, and sometimes I’ll pick it up and leaf through it and I still can’t believe it’s actually in my hands. Then other cool things happen — you see it on the shelf of a bookstore, or you see it’s been shelved at a library, or you look at reviews that pop up on Amazon or Goodreads, and if somebody really connected with it, that’s another totally sweet thing. Oh, and when it crossed over from hundreds sold into thousands. That was a nice moment.
Can you tell us a little bit about Women Like Us and what inspired the story?
The book actually began its life as a screenplay. I had in mind to write a mother/son road trip movie, but when I was outlining it, I just kept writing and writing until it began to feel more like a novel. So I just went with it and kept writing. But I have to say the whole thing didn’t really take off until the character Edith Vale started to take on a bigger role than originally envisioned. She sort of sprung to life fully formed; if you read the book you’ll see she’s quite bossy, and it’s like she started telling me what to do!! Anyway once she took on a life of her own, it became not just a story of a mother and son, but a story of a mother and her ex-mother-in-law. And people seem to love Edith, even though, quite frankly, she’s a little bit crazy. But probably everybody knows a person like her.
Is there a primary message in Women Like Us?
I believe there is. Women Like Us is really about family. Oh, it’s a fractured family to be sure, but it’s a family that comes together in a time of crisis. In any family good things happen and bad things happen, and I think the message is that even though bad things might happen, good can also come. It’s sort of a circle-of-life kind of thing too.
How much of yourself do you put into your books?
I think all authors put something of themselves into their characters. And of course often we’re writing from experience, even if the experience may be altered a little (or even a lot!).
#kindlebook on sale for just .55! Here’s what a recent reviewer said: “A wonderful read about human nature, emotions and family connections.” Check it out! #ebook #amazon #sale
— Jason Pomerance (@whowantsdinner) May 12, 2018
Have you ever incorporated something that happened in real life into your story?
If given the opportunity to start over, would you change anything in your book?
I still look through the book and find things I wish I could say differently — you know, a different word in a sentence, or a different sentence altogether. When it came time to turn the book in after the final edit, they pretty much had to pry the book from my hands. I love to tinker with words and sentences.
People believe that being a published author is glamorous, how true is that?
I’m pretty sure it’s glamorous if you’re lucky enough to get on a best seller list, but I think most authors toil away in a degree of obscurity that’s not exactly glamorous. But like many writers I’m sure, I’m not doing this for any other reason but to get a story out that I want to tell. For me, anyway, that’s the most important thing.
Do you enjoy book signings? And what is your setup?
I didn’t do a whole lot of book signings unless you count Goodreads Giveaways of signed books, which I actually love and did a lot of until Goodreads changed the price structure on giveaways. But I’ve been asked on a few occasions for signed copies, and I’m always happy to sign.
Tell us about an interesting encounter you had with a fan.
I posted about this on my instagram recently. I walk our beagles by several Little Free Libraries that have sprung up around our neighborhood. One lady had seen me leave a copy of Women Like Us in one, and after she read it she asked if I had written it. When I said, “Yup,” she said how much she enjoyed it and asked for a signed copy, So I was happy to oblige.
What do you do to market your own books yourself? Any advice on that front?
If you’re published under the Quill imprint of Inkshares you’re mostly on your own for marketing so, yeah, I’ve done tons of stuff. Closer to when the book was coming out, I did I whole bunch of guest blog posts — I reached out to a ton of bloggers really and got a good amount of responses but it’s a ton of work. I reached out to a bunch of local newspapers, big and small, and managed to get a little bit of press. Also, we decided to lower the price of the eBook, which I think is critical, unless you’re a brand — people are way more willing to take a chance on your book if it doesn’t cost them a whole lot. And if you want more readers, and you’re not a brand, I think there’s no other way. Then you have to get on a whatever discount ebook email blasters are best in your genre. I’ve had very good luck Book Gorilla and Ereadernewstoday. Promos on both got Women Like Us into the top 100 on Amazon in it’s top sub genre. Which was pretty amazing.
Have you ever destroyed any of your drafts and started from scratch?
I started and stopped and restarted Women Like Us many times until I got the right tone but I’ve never totally destroyed a draft.
When can the readers expect another book from you? Any details that you can share?
Hopefully soon!! It’s written, although I’m still sort of tinkering and editing. I’ve been in a long agent query process and it’s down to about one or two agents who are reading. If they pass, I’ll go indie and put it out probably via Ingram Spark for print and eBooks. I’m hoping not to have to go that route, but I will if I have to.
Some details? It’s called CELIA AT 39, and it’s sort of SWEET HOME ALABAMA meets MOONSTRUCK. It’s definitely more of a Rom-com than anything else. It’s about what happens when a package mysterious shows up at a front door 40 year after it was mailed. When Celia Bernhart (successful in her career and engaged to marry her longtime boyfriend) decides to try to deliver the package to its rightful recipient, her whole life is turned upside down!
If you were given the opportunity to join a book club with your favorite authors, dead or alive, who would you want to become a part of the club?
I’ve said this elsewhere, but I’ll say it again — I worship at the altar of Anne Tyler. I’m just such a huge fan of almost every one of her books, and I read and reread them over and over again (which I think any author should do). So Anne Tyler for sure. Charles Dickens, of course, because Great Expectations is probably one of my all time favorites, and then maybe one of the hard-boiled noir writers like James M. Cain, who was just brilliant.
What is your preferred method for readers to get in touch with or follow you (website, blog, Facebook, Goodreads, etc.) and links?
Readers can find me several ways!!
Twitter : @whowantsdinner
Facebook: Women Like Us has its own page here: https://www.facebook.com/womenlikeusnovel/
Goodreads (author page): https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/15205951.Jason_Pomerance
About Women Like Us
Susan Jones, a brash and ballsy chef who hopscotches from one demanding restaurant job to the next, was barely in her twenties when she married and had a son, Henry. But after her marriage to Andrew fell apart, she ceded most of the raising of the baby to her mother-in-law, the very opinionated Edith Vale, a woman as formidable and steely as her stiff blond bouffant, the veritable helmet that helps her soldier through life. Now, after letting Henry drift away, Susan is determined to make things right. But just as mother and son seem to make headway after embarking on a cross-country road trip, things take a dark turn. When the family reconvenes in California, everybody must fight to find courage and humor in the face of a situation that threatens to change them all forever.