Books into Movies {Memoir Writing Series}

Strictly speaking this isn’t applicable only to memoir but is inspired by the talk given by Dan Watanabe at the LA-Genre Writers Conference in October and I loved this talk. What better than hearing a professor from LA Valley College talk with passion about the thing he knows most (movies) in the city where movies are made.


Dave Watanabe

                Dave Watanabe

Photo and bio from LA Valley College page: LINK.

For over twenty-five years, Dan has been in the entertainment industry, primarily as a development executive/project consultant. Sixteen of those years were spent at the company now known as FremantleMedia, where he served as the Vice President of Current Programming, which included front office, on-set, post-production and distribution/marketing duties. One-hour dramatic series he supervised included Baywatch, Air America, Sirens, numerous movies of the week, pilots, and game shows (Family Feud, To Tell the Truth, The Price is Right). Graduated Cum Laude from the University of Southern California with a BA in Cinema, Critical Studies (1985). Current in process for an MA in Digital Cinema Production at National University.

What Dan talked about primarily was adaptation from book to screen  and what he said is that you have to consider your medium for story telling. Books and movies are quite different and it means taking the written story and reinterpreting it for a visual format. Some things naturally work better than others. He says that in order to adapt something from the page into something for the screen you MUST understand the medium of film. Wise words; and this guy knows, right?

He claims that what you have to do is change it into a new form while still capturing its essence.

He also said something that stayed with me, and that’s that like the short story, films are made to be taken in one go. I like that. He said actually plays and shorts are often easier to adapt than the longer fictions. And he makes the valid point that the movie does not have the same level of introspection as the novel and this is why some novels just don’t work in the film format, especially literary novels that are character-driven and sometimes all set in a character’s head.

Franci Ford Coppola is especially good, Dan says, at adapting novels and he uses The Godfather as an example.

It’s the more commercial number one best selling books that usually make better movies than the award-winning literary books.

What was interesting was when he talked about thinking of adaptation as visually transforming a story and naturally for a new format, things must change and often the hope is this will add depth, augment some aspects that work better visually.

Francis Ford Coppola had HUGE success with The Godfather but followed on with his screen adaptation of The Great Gatsby but this one struggled to reach the same heights, and he claims this is because in literature the novel was very nearly perfect in its field so harder to adapt in a way that would give it the same power, so it flopped. The newer adaptation is better and he says this is because it assumes the reader has not read it and so this allowed more scope for changes.

There are two ways of taking a novel and adapting it to screen. I am sure those out there who are screen writers and movie buffs will know this, but as a novice this was all new information to me.

These are David Selznick and the Alfred Hitchcock methods. I will tell you what these are to whet the appetite and resume the lesson tomorrow…

So the Selznick adaptation is to make a meticulously accurate adaptation that stays true to the novel in detail and yet the movie still works commercially and is able to mimic the commercial success of the book. In 1937 he did just this with Gone With The Wind  and all it did in terms of change was left some parts out but he was still able to capture the emotional essence of the book, it spoke to people in the same way.

In contrast the Hitchcock school of thought is to make complete changes yet still capture the heart of the story and still achieve the same level of commercial success. Dan says it’s using the source material but finding what he calls the ‘jumping off point’. Vertigo might be a good example.

Rebecca as an interesting example of an adaptation because Hitchcock worked with Selznick so now we have a process that uses a combination of these opposing viewpoints. Hitchcock gave into Selznick in allowing the adaptation to be faithful to the book, however, Hitchcock still got his way and you will see his stamp on it if you look. Again this had HUGE commercial success.

I will leave you with this and return to this fascinating discussion tomorrow. This talk really whetted my appetite to study film.

Have a great Wednesday folks!


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