This essay was inspired by a private correspondence I have been having with another writer. I realized my experience might be helpful to others and so I decided to make this into a blog post.
Every writer has specific strengths and weaknesses. The differences are as different as the writers themselves and their own life experiences. Back when I was in high school I was a member of our forensics team. In this context, forensics means public speaking and has nothing to do with autopsies.
Being involved in competitive public speaking not only helped me develop self confidence, but it enhanced my own inherent flair for drama, working within time limits and knowing how to engage an audience. I was involved with three different categories during my four years of competition. In my freshman year I was a member of our "multiple." Multiple Interpretation is a category for a group of speakers (between three to eight) and our selection was to be between ten and fifteen minutes in length. We were not allowed to have physical or eye contact with one another. The only props allowed were stools and scripts.
The selection we used during my freshman year was a script from an episode of the old television series "The Twilight Zone." The story was "Monsters are due on Maple Street" and it dealt with space aliens causing the residents in a small American town to turn on each other.
Being part of a multiple meant that I was part of a team effort to succeed. It was similar to a mini-play competing onstage against other mini-plays. Everyone involved in that year's multiple was a first year member of the team and we practiced everyday after school for months working on our performances and our timing. We made the final round in tournaments a few times and even placed second in one invitational, but we did not do as well as we had hoped.
One aspect of being on the forensics team is that our coach had a large filing cabinet with hundreds of scripts. Some had been used in previous years and were considered "winning scripts" that were to be inherited by a new generation of team members. Those proven scripts were outnumbered by ones purchased from a catalog and had never been read before being put in a file.
My sophomore year I was able to change categories and tried my hand at Humorous Interpretation. That was a solo competitive event where the speakers would rotate two different comedic scripts that were five to eight and a half minutes in length. I spent the summer looking for my own selections and settled on editing an essay from one of Erma Bombeck's books and a short story from Shirley Jackson. I was okay, but my talents were not really suited for that category.
In my junior year, I switched to Serious Interpretation and found my groove. The major difference between Serious and Humorous, (other than trying to make the audience cry rather than laugh), is that your selections alternated between poetry and prose. In the beginning of the tournament a drawing would be held and it was announced which of the two formats would be read in the first round of competition.
Because many poems are short, there were some competitors who read collections of poems to fulfill the time requirements. I found that approach to be lame. I also found myself getting bored when I heard the same poem being read by numerous people. "Patterns" by Amy Lowell was one of those overused poems. One tournament I heard that poem read three times and by two different girls in a single round of competition. It was popular because it was a single poem that when read fit the time requirements, was written by a woman poet and most of the competitors in Serious Interpretation were female. I found the poem boring and mentally tuned out when I heard it announced in the introduction. I wondered how many of the judges had similar reactions due to its overuse.
That was another reason why I thought it was better to find my own selections rather than depend on my coach to recommend something.
In my junior year I remember one of my competitors had written his own selection based on a novelization from the movie Apocalypse Now. I had not seen the movie, but was astounded at his performance, and felt that its difference from the majority of the scripts helped him stand out as a competitor. Later, when I saw the movie, it felt as if he were sitting next to me, whispering in my ear. That is how good his adaptation of the movie was to encapsulate its essence into eight and a half minutes.
That inspired me to do something similar for my senior year's selection. I read the memoir Playing for Time by Fania Fénelon. She was a Holocaust survivor who had been a member of the all woman orchestra in Auschwitz. Her life was spared, but she was still in a death camp and was forced to play music up to eighteen hours a day. The reason the musicians were allowed to live is because they played impromptu concerts for SS officers who found it relaxing to listen to orchestral music after a long, hard day of killing people.
I remember reading the book with a highlighter in one hand and marking up several particularly emotional passages. I wrote my script using portions of scenes along with transitions making it fit my time frame and knew that no one else would be reading the same work.
That strategy worked for me.
After the regular invitational season was over in my senior year, my coach told me something that spurred me on to doing another adaptation. This time it would be for the Multiple Interpretation category.
Our team was so large and successful that we had more members on it than could be entered into the District Tournament. So there were many teammates whose season was going to be over unless he did something creative. He told me that he was thinking of dusting off the "Monsters are due on Maple Street" script and create a second multiple to enter at Districts. I cringed at the thought. It was an okay script, but I did not want to see it used again. Especially since judges had seen it only a few years before. I knew my teammates who would be asked to be a part of it might feel as if they were leftovers thrown together in a hastily prepared soup.
I went home and grabbed a book of short stories by Stephen King and banged out a script for what I titled: "A Taste of Horror." I made sure that it fit the time constraints, typed it up and made a few copies. On the next school day, I told my coach that I had a different idea for a multiple and handed him the script. I also offered to direct.
It was far more than he expected from that little chat we shared on the bus. He also accepted my offer. We only had a few weeks of rehearsals, but I was proud of the performances by my teammates and I am certain they felt more confident with that script when they competed against other teams' multiples who had been together for months.
Then I entered college and didn't have any time for creative writing. Or drama. Or much else besides watching an occasional movie.
After I finished college and began working full time, I felt there was something missing in my life. I realized that I longed for an outlet for drama like I had back in high school and that one of my greatest strengths was recognizing dramatic scenes and adapting it for presentations to audiences.
I decided that I would try that on a larger scale, and so I took one of my favorite novels Whispers by Dean R. Koontz and try to adapt it into a screenplay. I owed college loans and was making entry level wages, so I certainly did not have any ability to buy the movie rights. I did however, decide to adapt the novel as a writing exercise to see if I had the talent and stamina to do such a project. I went back to using a highlighter and marking up scenes, then transferring them into my computer in a screenplay format. It took several months, but I finished the task and it was in the 110-120 page range for a two hour movie. (The working rule is one page of a movie script equals a minute on the screen.)
I was proud of my work, but I also knew that as an unknown writer with no credits I would never get hired to do film adaptations. So in order to have any chance in pursuing that career path, I first needed to write my own screenplays.
I took two screenwriting classes at Wayne State University and learned a lot. I had to write an original screenplay for the course and I realize now that it was spectacularly depressing and would never have been made into a movie had I pursued trying to get an agent. (It seemed like a good idea to me at the time, but hindsight can have better visual acuity than foresight.)
During this time I purchased several scripts of movies that I enjoyed. I re-watched those movies with the scripts in hand and analyzed any deviations. I also began watching movies before and after I read the books and compared the adaptations. I took copious notes including writing down each and every scene in a movie and realized for the first time how many different scenes there are. Sometimes over a hundred in a two hour movie.
I have been devastated when a beloved story's lifeblood was leeched out when it was translated to the silver screen by oversimplification of plotlines and elimination of characters, etc. and I have marveled at how the essence of a story was enhanced by condensing timelines, characters, etc.
I learned by this extended critical analyses that novels and movies are two different mediums and what works in one does not necessarily work in the other. In novels, you can spend an entire chapter in a character's head learning their inner thoughts, but on a movie screen that could be accomplished by a close up of a raised eyebrow or summarized into a single line of voice-over narration. Another thing I learned was the importance of having scenes with conflict and action. A stage or movie script has bare bones descriptions, whereas novels need to describe the setting, the actions/reactions of characters so that the readers "can see" these important details as well as the characters are wearing if it is important to the plot.
I have been told by many of my readers that they can see my story as a movie. I take that as a compliment that my years of analyzing what works in cinema and translating it into a different format has paid off.
My adapting the epic poems of Orlando innamorato and Orlando furioso is a result of my years of experience of larger narratives and culling portions then changing its format so that it will work for a different audience.
I still love watching movies based on books and analyzing the differences between the two forms and formats. One movie adaptation that I am looking forward to watching is the forthcoming, Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters due out August 7th.
Please let me know what some of your favorite or cannot stand adaptations from novel to screen are in the comments. By the way, I did watch the movie adaptation of the novel Whispers by Dean R. Koontz. It was awful! My script was far better.