Writing the range

One of the many interesting sidelights to doing script translation is becoming familiar – at one or two removes – with the scriptwriting process. (And I’d like to mention at this point that I am not working on a screenplay of my own. I think I’m possibly the only person involved in the industry who isn’t. I’m pretty sure all the gaffers, grips, insurance underwriters and caterers listed at the end of the credits are all working on their own screenplays.) One project I worked on recently provided an interesting case study.

I remember wondering, as a boy, “Why aren’t movies more like the books they’re based on? Why not just take the book as it is and film it?” I’ve heard other people asking the same question.

Well, this particular recent project appeared to be an attempt to do just that. It looked like the screenwriter (and I won’t even tell you if it was a he or a she, and I’ll change all the details, because of my non-disclosure obligations) was the novelist themselves, trying their hand at a screenplay for the first time. They had simply transcribed his/her/its book straight from page to screenplay. And it didn’t work at all.

Imagine a scene in a movie of any genre – we’ll make it a Western because you’ll know right off the script I was working on was not a western. A cowboy sits on his horse, in the rain, and the camera watches him sitting there. He’s just thinking. In the novel, we could go straight into his head and hear his thoughts. But this is a movie. If this cowboy is thinking about, oh, Miss Sally at the saloon, and whether he’s going to marry her, and what they’ll do about buying a ranch, and the social disease they now share, it would take a pretty outstanding actor to convey that particular information just through his facial expressions and body language.

No, you’ve got to take that interior monologue from the book and transform it into visual and audible information. You have several options for doing this.

  • Voiceover: This is closest to the original book, but it’s out of fashion. Audiences find it corny, unless employed for stylistic and ironic purposes.
  • Flashback: You can cut back to a scene between Ol’ Cowpoke and Miss Sally. This is a good option, but it’s a change from the book. A sub-option is to change the plot a little and add an earlier scene dramatizing this problem.
  • Invented dialogue: You can create a conversation which doesn’t occur in the scene in the book. You can have Ol’ Cowpoke confide in one of his buddies over coffee around the campfire. Or he could even talk to his horse, which would provide a challenge for the actor.

Offhand, those are the options I can think of for handling this problem.  And most of them involve altering the story.

Books and movies are different media, and they work in different ways. You can’t get away from it.

One thought on “Writing the range”

  1. I remember the LOTR writers talking about options in adapting the books to the screen. I thought the movie played out very well and didn’t think of it as a change from the books at all, not like some of their other decisions later on. But you’ve said it well. Movies have to rearrange or summarize things from the book in order to flow properly. Which may be the reason The Scarlet Letter has been made into terrible movies, because the book requires great interpretation to be adapted and the interpreters don’t understand it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.