At a Literary Festival last week, a young writer came up to me and asked how she might start a career working on adaptations. The question startled me; working on an adaptation seems like a luxury, something that you move on to once you’ve experimented and established your own voice. It’s also something a writer is usually invited to do – there’s little point, as a novice, sitting down and cracking open Middlemarch if no-one’s asked for it. Adaptations are expensive, they frequently involve complicated copyright issues, writing them requires some technical experience and collaboration.
Yet the first screenplay I ever wrote was an adaptation, a version of Sam Shephard’s stage-play, Simpatico, which I co-adapted with the film’s director, Matthew Warchus. Starring Jeff Bridges, Albert Finney, Sharon Stone, Nick Nolte and Catherine Keener, the movie was very far from a box office hit, but received some fine reviews, and still shows up fairly frequently on late-night TV. But as novice screenwriters, we floundered horribly. Scenes were too long, too short, made no sense, led nowhere. We struggled to find a filmic equivalent for the strange, poetic stage language of Sam Shepard, and constantly found ourselves torn between respect for the stage material and something that would engage a cinema audience, something more conventionally ‘thriller’-like. We didn’t even know how to lay the script out on the page; we’d never heard of Final Draft, the screenwriters’ essential tool. The film’s producer had to show us how to use it.
My favourite adaptations are on the Independent site, here.
Since then I’ve worked on many other adaptations alongside my own original scripts and novels. I’ve been lucky enough to write scripts based on works by Charles Dickens, Blake Morrison, Thomas Hardy, William Shakespeare and Scott Fitzgerald. I’ve also adapted each of my own novels for the screen (the latest, One Day, is currently underway). Some of these projects have been produced, some of them are still ‘in development’ and some of them will almost certainly stay that way.
Some adaptations have been faithful – Tess was, for long stretches, almost a scene-by-scene transcription of the novel, with almost every word of dialogue taken from Hardy. In contrast, my adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing for the BBC’s Shakespeare Retold season, set in a provincial TV news studio, was scarcely an adaptation in the traditional sense, more an original play inspired by Shakespeare’s work. A modern screwball-comedy based on the very first and greatest screwball-comedy, it bore the same relation to the original as West Side Story does to Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare, after all, was the great adaptor – barely a single one of his plots is his own creation, yet each of his re-workings easily surpasses the original.
But if adaptation is a pleasure, it can also sometimes seem like an indulgence, a way of avoiding the imaginative part of the creative process i.e. the difficult bit. Given a choice on a grey Tuesday morning, it’s far more reassuring to sit down with a much-loved, beautifully constructed masterwork rather than face the blank page. I must confess to sometimes feeling guilty about doing this – it’s a little bit like being caught tracing in an art class – and this is why I’ve always tried to combine it with original work. Adaptation utilises a different part of the brain; technical, editorial, practical, rarely - in my experience anyway - very personal or emotional. While writing One Day, my forthcoming novel, I simultaneously worked on the adaptation of Tess, and found it perfectly possible, a pleasure in fact, to alternate between the two. I certainly couldn’t have switched between two original works, but it was a relief to be able to leave the recent history of One Day at lunchtime, and spend the afternoon in 19th century Wessex.
If it sometimes seems the safe option for a writer, that’s not to say adaptation can’t be creative or inspiring. The best of them can bring a book to life, widen the author’s audience, draw out themes or ideas that the reader wasn’t initially aware of. Sometimes a good adaptation can transform pulpy, mediocre source material turning the conventional and clichéd into real art.
There’s a great deal more to say about the subject, and I hope to return to it in later postings. But in the meantime here are ten notable adaptations, plus one of the absolute worst. I make no claims to these being the ten greatest films of all time, or even films I particularly love. These are just movies and TV series that take the source material and either capture its essence or transform it into something new and wonderful.