Adaptation and playing with other people’s toys

I do quite a lot of adaptation work, mostly book to film, although I have also adapted for the stage and am currently adapting a musical to book form. That last one is particularly fun! It’s science fiction too!

Sometimes this adaptation is from complete stories and sometimes it is from treatments and outlines. The point remains, you are working with somebody else’s ideas and characters. You have been put in a position of great power here, and with great power comes great responsibility. (Now that’s a line for somebody).

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's Super Adapterman. (need to work on the name)
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Super Adapterman. (need to work on the name)

For me it is like being a child again and going round to somebody else’s house and being invited to play with their toys. It’s really exciting, loads of fun, but you make doubly sure you don’t break anything – these are not your toys after all. You are in a position of trust.

When ‘adapting’ writing gurus such as Syd Field go on record as saying, ‘The original is the source material. You are not obliged to remain faithful to the original’ and Robert McKee says, ‘never be afraid to reinvent’. I tend to disagree, I think you should fall over backwards to stick as closely to the original as possible, WHILE RECOGNISING THAT YOU ARE WORKING IN A DIFFERENT MEDIUM WITH DIFFERENT REQUIREMENTS. That last bit is of course crucial.

I don’t think you should work with somebody else’s ideas and characters and remake them in your own image. I also happen to think far too many directors have been cavalier in their approach to pre-existing stories, but that’s another matter. If there are things about the story material you have problems with, don’t get involved. By the same token the ‘originator’ has got to recognise that producing a script from their work will probably involve some changes to get it onto the screen. Films work differently from books and plays and that’s part of the joy of experiencing story in different forms.

The point is that you don’t go round to a new friend’s house and break their toys deliberately.

When starting a project I always say the Dr Tel pledge:
“In brightest day or darkest night…” Sorry, that’s the Green Lantern pledge. Oh yes, it’s this one:
I, the aforementioned Dr Tel, will do everything in my power to help (FILL IN NAME HERE) deliver the script for the film/musical/play/book he wants to see made from his story and not the one I want to make, while recognising the requirements of the chosen medium.
So help me,
Dr Tel.

After all, I’ve got plenty of my own toys to play with too. Which reminds me, where did I leave Nicely again? It wasn’t looking too good, there’s a goblin with a shooter and he’s just round the corner!

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nicelystrongoak

Author and scriptwriter, Terry Newman

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