For a good while now, I’ve worked with Bancroft Press, a Baltimore indie publisher, to adapt some of their titles into screen, stage, and teleplays. This isn’t a line of work I ever imagined I’d end up in. Adaptation? But I’m an editor! I’m a writer of original fiction! —Of course, I now know just what a boon this kind of work can be to editors and writers, the kinds of skills and instincts it can help you develop, as well as the respect it can instill in you for other artists and art forms.
What’s most fascinating about novel-to-screenplay adaptation, at least to my mind, is that you get to take something special, a work of art that someone spent months or even years creating, and begin to entirely re-imagine it. This doesn’t mean rip it to pieces and tear out its heart till the only thing left of the original story is the title—this means reconsidering the execution of the story, not the story itself. This means realizing that every story—no matter how it’s told—has some unchanging, constant core.
As an editor and author, I’ve always believed that Execution is King. Everyone can have great or weird or even transcendent ideas, but the drive and ability to translate those ideas into art is where the actual art comes into play. For this reason, I always try to remain mindful during my adaptation process that the author chose the written word as the most perfect medium for their story. This means that, by its very nature, any non-written version of a novel or short story will mean creating a new story in some respect. (Hence why, I think, screenwriters still get to put their names on adaptations with just a Based On for the original author—it’s not just about the hours and hours put into the 110 page screenplay; it’s about acknowledging that this is a new version of an older tale.)
It’s always dangerous to pick favorites, but in what is perhaps my favorite book, Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ Women Who Run With the Wolves, she discusses just this phenomenon within the context of folklore, myths, and fairy tales—how “classic” stories become “classics” by being passed down from storyteller to storyteller, their delicate surface-level clay altered each time by new fingerprints and palms, yet their hard inner-layers remaining unchanged and constant. And it’s this sort of reverence for the author’s original vision that I attempt to carry with me into each and every adapted screenplay, teleplay, and stage play that I write. These aren’t just contracts with a publisher; these are pieces of something LARGE, something that I’m now lucky enough to get to be a part of.
This may sound like a lot of romanticization, and perhaps it is. I’m not saying, after all, that I’ve loved (or even liked) every book I’ve ever adapted. But when I stop to really meditate on what it is I’m doing—which I try to remind myself to do as often as I can—I’m always struck by the deep power that lies in storytelling and in the work of passing stories along from one set of hands to another, as if the story itself is searching out its Ideal Reader (thank you for that term, Mr. Stephen King; I love it and think about it all the time), its Ideal Listener, the person it was always meant to be told to.
But apart from the romance of being involved in passing along a story from one hand to the next, like a baton in some endless, thrilling race, I love how the work of adaptation has and continues to help me become a better editor and writer of original fiction. There’s nothing like breaking a story down to its component parts, playing with its blood and guts and love and pain, to really remind yourself of just how exactly it is that a good story works, how its parts all then fit back together, how its blood flows and what kinds of things its guts can and can’t chew up on their own.
The art of adaptation then, at least as I understand it today, might be boiled down to a few simple points: respect the author, respect the work, respect your own work, and always, always be open to what each new story has to teach you.