Diss Approval, continued - Complications Ensue
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Monday, December 18, 2006

Several people think Clive Cussler is right for sticking up for his vision of his novel Sahara as it was being adapted into a movie -- see the comments in my previous post. Here's why I don't agree.

a. It's clear from the article that Cussler has no clue what a screen adaptation entails. He's insisting that one character have black hair and green eyes, like in the novel. That may be important to Cussler, but it speaks worlds to me. Is Brad Pitt going to dye his hair black? Maybe not. Maybe he looks dumb in black hair. Should the producers have to ditch Brad Pitt over hair color? This kind of literal-minded attachment to specific details suggests to me that when Cussler is insisting that certain scenes stay in the movie, he's probably wrong about those, too.

b. I don't think selling ten million copies of your novel makes you an expert on screenwriting. Anne Rice has sold ten million copies. She was wrong to say Tom Cruise would make a lousy Lestat, and she had the grace to take out a full page ad saying so. Picasso was a great painter, but he would not necessarily have made a great motion picture production designer. (Yes, I know he did some nice sets for Diaghilev.) A novel is an entirely different beast than a screenplay, as anyone who's tried to adapt one into the other knows.

c. Features are not a writer's medium. They're just not. They're a director's medium. You want creative control as a writer, run a TV show. Or direct the feature yourself. (See Crichton, Michael.) And even then, it's not really creative control -- it's creative responsibility. The studio or network has creative control. It's their money. Should screenwriters have creative control of their movies? Sure, as soon as they start paying the tab for the production.

Personally, I think there are somewhere between very few to no people who ought to have total creative control of their movies. Woody Allen is a good argument for creative control. He writes and directs and edits, and he brings his films in on budget, so he can pretty much do what he likes. But I don't think he's made a movie as good as Annie Hall, which is about when he stopped working with co-writer Marshall Brickman. Creative collaboration is good. Does anyone thing George Lucas has made a movie as brilliant as Star Wars since then? I think he'd be a better producer/director if he had to satisfy at least one creative collaborator. And there are any number of disasters one can point to that resulted from someone attaining creative control who badly needs not to have it. Think Heaven's Gate. Think One From the Heart.

I think by and large, novelists write very bad adaptations of their own novels. They're bound to be attached to the novel's perspective. They're likely to be attached to scenes that work on their own but get in the way of the flow of the story. The process of adapting a novel is more akin to pillaging it for ideas, characters, and details than to a gentle pruning. The perspective often has to change. The ending often has to change. Characters merge. Subplots vanish.

I'm up for an adaptation right now. I believe I can make a good movie out of it. But the movie will be its own critter. It won't be the novelist's version of his story. It will be my -- and the director's and the producer's -- version of that story. If I had to run my pages past the novelist for approval, I'd be nuts to take the job.

Now, I agree the producers behaved atrociously. They're probably getting what they deserve for lying to absolutely everybody. And it's nice if once in a while, producers get held to the letter of their contracts. And it is completely their fault for giving Cussler creative approvals. And who's to say that Cussler's draft would have made a worse movie? (I have my suspicions, but who knows?)

But I don't think writers should be privileged. We have our own shortsightedness. It is easy enough to write things on the page that don't work on the screen, or miss opportunities that a director will spot. And that's part of the fun of writing for the screen, seeing what the director and the actors and the editor and the composer bring to the words you put on the page.

5 Comments:

Question: What's your opinion on William Goldman's screenplay for the Princess Bride? While there are a few minor subtractions, on the whole, the movie is faithful to the book in almost exacting detail--even down to 90% of the characters' dialogue.

True, Goldman was a screenwriter in his own right before the Princess Bride was ever published (unless - of course - you consider the original publishing date of S. Morgenstern's manuscript), and was deeply familiar with both forms. Is he the exception that proves the rule?

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:35 PM  

Alex:

Ok, but we can't have it both ways. How many times has an adaptation of a book produced a piss poor movie? I agree that writing a novel doesn't necessarily equate writing screenplays but it's clear in this specific instance, the producers had no clue what the hell they were doing.

I've seen Sahara. It's God Awful. In my opinion, maybe it would've done better with a bit more Cussler and a little less Baldwin.

But the main point is this: Just because Cussler's an asshole doesn't make him wrong. If the writers of A Sound of Thunder were hired to write a screenplay from my book, I'd probably freak out too.

By Blogger Tenspeed & Brownshoe, at 12:04 AM  

Alex, first off - I agree that novelists by and large should be kept away from the scripting process. I agree a novel is a different beast to a screenplay, etc, etc. And I agree that Cussler was probably overbearing, ignorant and arrogant in his actions in this whole sorry mess.

However, the point is he sold the rights to the book on condition that he kept creative control. That was in his contract and that's what the producers agreed to - they were stupid to do that, but having done so, they were bound to honour that agreement. They didn't. They lied, obfuscated, dodged, ducked, dived, etc. So, they're toblame on two fronts - stupidity and dishonesty. Which doesn't excuse Cussler's ineptitude in this genre, it just makes him legally right.

And I agree too that features are director driven. I also suggest that's why the majority of good work in the visual media is being done in TV where writer/producers are in creative control.

By Blogger African Den, at 2:06 AM  

You'd think established produers would know not to give up so much of the farm to the writer if such adaptations are usually unusable.

I'll bet Warner Bros is glad they didn't give such a contract to Lawrence Block. Can you imagine Block insisting on Bernie Rhodenbarr being played by a white man rather than Whoopi Goldberg? Clearly, the producers of "Burglar" knew what they were doing.

By Blogger Ryan, at 4:30 PM  

As both a novelist and a screenwriter, I agree that a novelist shouldn't adapt their own work. And that's why I haven't, despite everyone suggesting that I do it. I think as a screenwriter, you need to be detached from what made the book a good book versus what makes a good script. That means deleting, restructuring, etc. until it may not look like the book you spent all that time writing.

By Blogger Lawrence, at 1:09 AM  

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