Craig Sisterson begins by introduces each member of the panel and their backgrounds. Kevin Wignall is an author who has had some of his books adapted for the big screen. Chris Dolan has written novels but has also done screen and radio plays for Taggart and Rebus. Alexandra Sokoloff was a Hollywood screenwriter for ten years and has now turned to novels. Sisterson adds that it’s a mistake to assume that storytelling in a book and on a screen are the same thing as the reality is that they are very different.
Sokoloff says she found the transition from screen to paper quite a jump. She was used to working in a very visual medium but suddenly she had to get inside someone’s head. Some of her favourite movies were adaptations of books but she also finds that some adapt very well while others Hollywood seems to go out of its way to ruin them.
Wignall explains that he has had two works with the same characters adapted for the big screen. One was a short story that became a short film and he found that one of his characters sounded wrong. He couldn’t figure out why and then realised that they had decided an Australian couldn’t be scary and made him Serbian instead. When the cast list for the film of the book was released (a separate project to the short) he discovered that his Australian turned Serbian was now a Spanish woman. However he also knows that finance decisions have a huge influence and the process of scriptwriting also changes things. The first writer works from the book and then the second writer works from the script of the second writer and this continues in a cinematic game of Chinese whispers. Sokoloff confirms that this is common and that she had been fired from jobs in Hollywood for attempting to speak to the original writers.
This is a stark contrast to TV where writers are always working as part of a team. In TV the writers are also in charge, they are the producers and the writers room is the centre of the production. Sisterson points out that TV became a writer’s Valhalla about ten years ago and Sokoloff explains that this happened because of contractual changes in Hollywood, writers saw that their jobs would become more difficult and frustrating and fled to TV. However, Dolan feels that the British TV industry is conservative and slow to change. A huge number of shows are adaptations of books because they’re scared to spend the money without a guaranteed audience.
Wignall feels it’s too easy to paint Hollywood as shallow when it’s actually filled with passionate and brilliant people. The problem is the labyrinthine structure of the industry and the length of time it can take to bring something to the screen. It’s common for 10 years to pass between the filming rights being purchased and the film actually being made. In that time you can have a dozen complete changes in the team of people involved and multiple rounds of Chinese whispers rewriting of scripts and then the finance or marketing departments can turn around and change things. The finance aspect alone is hugely complicated, especially as it becomes more common for multiple studios and production companies to be involved in one project. He received a 57,000 word document explaining where all of the money from the film of his 62,000 word book would go and how and why each company was getting the share they had been allocated.
Discussion moves on to the actual process and structure of screenwriting, and how it can be useful to novelists. Dolan says that his screenwriting played into his novel writing but he’s also noticed more and more writers breaking their work down into scenes and essentially writing toward the ad-break. The rhythm and structure of storytelling on screen has become so ingrained that some writers automatically follow that structure. He has read some books where he thinks they would have been vastly improved if the writer had understood that structure and process. Writers block doesn’t exist in screenwriting because the structure tells you where your problem is. He was once told that if you had a problem on page 88 it meant you’d missed a problem on page 3, advice that he has found to be very true. Sokoloff has written a book on screenwriting, partially because she kept being asked to teach workshops, and found that many novelists don’t understand the story structure. The audience is tuned into that screen rhythm and being able to implement it is an advantage.
When the session opens for questions someone asks if they feel there are adaptations that have been too faithful to the book. The first two answers are Harry Potter and the DaVinci Code, though there are probably fans of Harry Potter who would disagree and argue that they weren’t faithful enough. Dolan then adds that Stonemouth by Iain Banks was a brilliant book but the TV show was dismally bad as it was so utterly faithful to the book. In contrast Crow Road was such a good adaptation that Iain Banks thought the show was better than his original book. Sokoloff then finishes the answer by adding that there are rare faithful adaptations that work. Wonder Boys and To Kill A Mockingbird were very faithfully adapted but, for once, that was a choice that really worked.
It was an interesting hour filled with the intricacies of both the American and British industries. Discussion also strayed into the fact that there are circles of good and bad people in Hollywood, which inevitably intersect and have to work together. Sometimes you get lucky and you have lots of good people working on a project. However, anyone who’s had the film rights to their book optioned should be aware that the industry is a labyrinth in constant motion and sometimes things are bought on the premise alone without anyone thinking about the actual contents of the book.