Out of Film: Leaving the Camera Behind

I began my illustrious writing career by writing screenplays, largely because I felt more comfortable writing dialog than prose.  I also had access to film equipment and local community actors, so I was able to turn some of these screenplays into microbudget films, and, in that sense, publish them.  However, some of the ideas I had were a bit out of my reach as a filmmaker.  It’s difficult to do a historical film on a shoestring budget, for example.  So I began to write out my ideas as short stories and novels.

One screenplay that I was never able to make into a film, due to technical constraints, was a werewolf short.  After about three years of trying to find a way to realize it on film, I finally decided it would be better to turn it into a story, rather than let it languish forever as an unfilmed screenplay.

My first attempt to turn one of my screenplays (about a boy battling an evil coven) into a novel, years before, had failed, because I’d approached the project as if all I had to do was “fill in” the screenplay — as if the dialog in the screenplay was most of the story, and I simply needed to add some description.  This turned out to be absolutely the wrong approach.

Now, coming at the werewolf project, I have a few novels under my belt and that’s given me some new insights into the process.

Let’s take a look as the opening scene from my werewolf screenplay:

EXT. CABIN – DAY

A rustic log cabin with a broad front porch sits at the end of a dirt road.  Behind the cabin is a deep forest.  Although nobody can be seen, at the moment, there is a beat-up truck parked near the cabin with “Jack of All Trades” stenciled on the side.

A car comes up the road, stops, and the driver climbs out.

SEAN is in his late twenties, blonde with a boyishly- handsome face.  He is wearing jeans and a t-shirt with his favorite rock band on it, which makes him look all the more like a teenager.

SEAN
Hey!  Jack!  You home?

There’s no response, so he moves around to the back of the car and opens the trunk.  As he’s retrieving his bags, a dark-haired man appears from behind the cabin, dressed in dirty jeans and a flannel shirt.

This is JACK, and although he’s the same age as Sean, he comes across as more serious and somehow a bit older.

JACK
You moving in?

This works (I hope) as the opening to a film, but the information is far too sparse for a prose story.  We have a brief description of the cabin, but only mentioning details that will be important later in the film, and brief descriptions of our two main characters.  The description of Sean might do, in a story, but the description of Jack is useless.  Frankly, it wouldn’t pass muster in a professional screenplay, either, but since I wrote the screenplay for myself to film, I didn’t worry that much about description.  Generally, the director doesn’t want too much description in a screenplay, anyway, because, unless it’s essential that a character be blond, or have blue eyes, there’s no point in restricting the choice of actors based upon those traits.

But character descriptions are much more important in a novel adaptation.  Here is the description I came up with for Jack:

     After a minute, the man came around from the back of the house, wiping dirty hands on a red checked flannel shirt he was holding.  He looked good, Sean couldn’t help but notice.  The last several years, working as a handyman around town, had kept him lean, and added some definition to his stomach and chest.  Sweat was running in tiny rivulets from his dark brown hair, streaking down his face and neck to pool in the hollows of his collar bones, before spilling down his naked torso.
     Jack looked at Sean for a long moment, before tossing the shirt over one shoulder and saying, “Hey.”

Since Sean is the viewpoint character, I worried less about describing him physically and more about what was going on inside his head.  And if we’re going to be listening in on Sean’s thoughts, we might want to start the scene just a bit earlier, because his anxiety about the reception he’ll get from his old friend certainly begins long before he pulls into the driveway.  We don’t want to go back too far, but a bit of him driving along the road, fretting can help set the story up:

     The old Mazda shimmied so much on the dirt road that Sean could almost forget that his hands were trembling.  But not quite.  It had been so long.  Would Jack be happy to see him?  Sean felt as if they’d had a fight.  But they hadn’t, had they?  Not really. Things had just gotten…weird.

The description of the cabin can more or less remain the same, but we’ll flesh it out a little, and add some atmospheric detail:

     Sean thought about turning back, as the road narrowed and the brush seemed to be closing in on him.  But just as he had decided he couldn’t risk going any further, he rounded a bend, and there it was: a log cabin with a broad front porch, just as Larry had described it.  The clincher was the beat-up, hunter green pickup in the yard with the words “Jack of All Trades” stenciled on the side in yellow letters.
     Cute.
     Relieved, Sean pulled his car up alongside the truck and stepped out.  The late summer air was hot and muggy, and his t-shirt was already clinging to his torso.  Now that he was standing still, mosquitoes began to savage his skin.

But by far, the most important thing to remember is that, in order for the adaptation to be more than a dull transcription of the screenplay, you have to breathe life into it, as a novel.  This means doing what you would do for a novel that you were writing from scratch — allowing the characters to live and breathe on the page, and act according to what motivates them.  In some cases, this can mean deviating from the dialog in the original screenplay.

In this scene, we have things spelled out fairly explicitly in the dialog, because, frankly, that’s the best way for the audience to learn about the characters’ history:

SEAN
(disappointed)
You’re making me sleep on the floor?

Jack moves past him, towards the bedroom, pausing in the doorway to look back.

JACK
Or the couch.

He sees Sean’s disappointed look and smiles wryly.

JACK
There’s only one bed, and I’m not sharing it with you.

SEAN
We used to share beds all the time, before I went off to college.

JACK
There’s more beer in the fridge.  Help yourself to anything you want to snack on.
(pause)
But stay inside.

But it isn’t necessary for characters to say everything out loud in a novel.  Some of this dialog can be made internal:

     The pleasant buzz Sean had gotten from the beer began to fade, as he realized things weren’t going to be that easy, after all.  Jack opened the door to his own room, clearly not inviting Sean to follow.
     “You’re making me sleep on the floor?”
     “Or the couch.”
     Jack hesitated in the doorway, and gave him a wry smile.  “There’s only one bed, and I’m not sharing it with you.”
     They’d shared beds all the time, before college separated them.  But clearly things were different now.  Sean tried to think of something to say that would restore the casual relationship they’d once had, but his mind was blank.
     “There’s more beer in the fridge,” Jack continued.  “Help yourself to anything you want to snack on.”  Then, just before he closed the door, he added, “But stay inside.”

I’m still in the process of adapting this screenplay, so no doubt some of these passages will be modified in later drafts.  But you get the idea.  The point is not just to adapt, but also to create something new.  Films have an advantage over novels, in that they can present events in a more active, visually exciting format, enhanced by sound effects and dramatic music, but the advantage novels have over film is the ability to delve more deeply into the characters and their emotions.

For more of my ramblings on the writing process, come visit me at my blog:  http://jamiefessenden.com

6 Comments

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6 Responses to Out of Film: Leaving the Camera Behind

  1. Very intersting, Jamie!
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. lsylvestre

    Jamie, Carol’s comment reminds me I’ve forgotten to thank you for blogging this. I do have a question, though. For me, I’d more likely be looking at the reverse, turning a story into a screenplay. Have you done that with any of your work? Any plans to do so?

  3. Hi, C! Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Lou, I’ve never really done it. I do pay close attention to how others have adapted novels into film. It’s not an easy process, since novels rarely have enough dialog by film standards, so more needs to be added, on a per scene basis. But at the same time, a film is much more condensed than a novel, so unless you have plans for an epic four hour film, or a two-parter, you’ll have to decide which scenes can be dispensed with. Sometimes you’ll want to add something that wasn’t in the novel, at all, to make it work better, as a film. (But we’ve all seen examples where the Writer/Director went nuts on that and ruined the adaptation.)

    And thanks for having me!

    • lsylvestre

      You’re welcome! About the screenplay thing, I see what you mean. I’m as guilty as the next person of seeing a movie and saying, “the book was better.” I can see where it would be harder than the uninitiated (like me) would assume. Funny, in those movies I’ve always noticed what got left out, but never noticed extra dialogue!

      • “Practical Magic” is a good example of a book that was pretty sparse on actual dialog, if I recall. The filmmakers had no choice but to make up dialog and scenes. The result was a bit cutesy, but I like it, overall.

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