The Art of Adaptation

Here’s the funny thing about writing: Where we start is almost never where we end up.
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Here’s the funny thing about writing: Where we start is almost never where we end up.

When I was 21, I wrote a series of interconnected short stories that was going to change the world—or if not that, at least get some attention. It was my last semester of college. My collection, Ashes, Ashes, looked at disparate characters quarantined in an unnamed borough on account of an airborne illness causing deformity, insanity, and death.

It was exciting, it was thrilling, and after I graduated, it was just another project sitting unread on my hard drive. I joined the publishing industry, specifically a company with an eye on getting books optioned by film production companies in Hollywood. I started writing screenplay adaptations. And eventually, the possibility arose:

Maybe Ashes, Ashes isn’t a series of interconnected short stories.

Maybe Ashes, Ashes is a movie.

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Guest post by Harrison Demchick, the Deputy Publisher and developmental editor at Bancroft Press, specializing in niche books from Pulitzer Prize winning authors to emerging authors. Out of Bancroft's 10,000 -15,000 submissions a year, Demchick selects 10-15 books with film potential and writes the screenplay adaptation. His debut novel, The Listeners, adapted from his own short stories, became his first film option. His original screenplay, The Pursuit of Samuel Drake, won the 2011 Baltimore Screenwriters Competition. Bancroft has placed film options with major networks, production companies and independent producers. For more info Harrison, visit: www.harrisondemchick.com. For more information about Bancroft Press, visit www.bancroftpress.com.

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Now that was a fun ride. I wrote a screenplay. I pitched it to producers in Los Angeles. I got my first film option. There was a director attached. My producer was throwing around the names of actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman. We were going to film next year. My series of short stories was going to be a real movie that real people actually saw.

But—the financing never happened. The film never happened. And eventually, my boss suggested:

Maybe Ashes, Ashes isn’t a movie.

Maybe Ashes, Ashes is a novel.

Quite a few years, quite a few edits, and one title change later, The Listeners is my fiction debut. It’s an experience that has left me with a novel I’m very proud of, some pretty good stories, and a really good idea of what it means to adapt your work from one form to another.

Adaptation isn’t copying. It’s an art in and of itself. And if you think your work would be a more natural fit in another form, there are some important lessons to keep in mind.

EMBRACE THE CHANGE.

Different formats have different rules. What works for you in one format isn’t necessarily going to carry over into the next.

When I set out to adapt my short stories into a screenplay, I had some choices to make. A typical screenplay has one central narrative. Do I adapt a few short stories and turn out some sort of anthology? Do I mix them all together and develop some sort of post-apocalyptic Crash? Maybe—but that’s not really adapting. You need to reconceive the material for the new format. You need to rebuild it from the ground up, as if this format is what the story has always been.

So I picked one of the stories—a story called “The Listeners,” about a 17-year-old boy named Daniel who gets caught up with a one-eared gang/cult—and expanded it into a full narrative. But things had to change. This was a first-person story, but film is a visual medium. Voiceover was an option, but the emerging screenplay demanded something different, so the story became more distant and atmospheric. The beginning, once compelling, was dull and slow in the screenplay, so I wrote a more action-oriented intro. The story was reimagined in a screenplay’s three acts, and new scenes and an entire second part of the story was conceived. Daniel’s age dropped from 17 to 15.

He became 14 in the novel. The novel, a broader format, allowed the return of the characters and stories from the original collection. But the format changed again. A framing device emerged. The fundamental idea to take away is this: If you’re going to adapt, you’ve got to be adaptable.

PRACTICE. SERIOUSLY.

You’re a talented writer. You know that. But that doesn’t mean you’re instantly good at every format there is, because each format carries with it different ideas—a different language, really.

For example, as noted above, a screenplay has three acts, and while that’s not set in absolute stone, it’s pretty standard. It’s a format very strict about length (usually up to 120 pages), location of turning points (for a 120-pager, pages 30, 60, and 90), and what happens at this turning points (point of no return heading into second act, midpoint, and hero’s lowest moment heading into third act, respectively). If you think your story or novel already fits that format, start to adapt and you’ll probably learn you’re wrong. And if you think a lifetime writing prose has you ready to create a great screenplay, you’re probably wrong about that too.

They say it takes 7-10 screenplays to get good at it. In my experience, this is pretty accurate. But the same thing applies to a screenwriter trying his hand at prose, or a free-verse Walt Whitman acolyte taking a shot at a Shakespearean sonnet.

It doesn’t mean don’t do it. It means—study the form. Learn it. If it’s a different language, become fluent.

STICK WITH IT.

As I said at the beginning, where we writers start is almost never where we end up. I could never have imagined that my short story collection, more than seven years later, would be a novel. I’d never written a novel before. Yet I could never have written The Listeners without the screenplay. The screenplay gave me the cohesive narrative I needed.

And of course, I could never have written the screenplay without the stories.

Maybe your first adaptation proves the right fit for your idea. Maybe it takes several tries in several formats—or maybe you find out that you were right the first time. But maybe, just maybe, trying out that story as a play, then a novel, then, why not, a Homeric epic poem was necessary to crystallize your ideas, resolve the problems you were experiencing, and get you where you needed to be.

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