The best education I received as a screenwriter came from reading scripts. When I started out I read any script I could get my hands on. I still do. When I have the time. Screenplays also make the best reference material when it comes to analyzing and breaking down a scene, especially when you're stuck on one of your own. So when you read as much as I do, you digest a lot of pabulum. But every once in a great while you come across a screenplay that sucks you in and demands to be read. A script that refuses to let you put it down, until you've read every word, from Fade In until Fade Out, every time you pick it up. A History of Violence is one of those scripts for me.
Based on a graphic novel (comic book), the screenplay adapted by Josh Olson was nominated for an Academy Award, a BAFTA, the WGA award, and an Edgar in 2007.
Which segues into this week's topic. Adapting scripts from other mediums, whether it's a novel, a play, a comic book or a video game, is a different breed of writing. You would think it would be easy; after all, the story and character are already developed which leaves the writer the simple task of transcribing it for filming. You would think that... but it ain't so. I know firsthand because I've written several adaptations, including an M.O.W based on a biography of J. K. Rowling and I can honestly tell you that it was more difficult to write than some of the original scripts I've written.
So when it came time to discuss adaptations I went to one of the best, and one of my favorite writers: Josh Olson.
Writer of the cult movie, Infested, Olson broke into the studio world when he sold his original script Three Guns Blue to Paramount Pictures. That led to his first studio assignment, adapting the graphic novel A History of Violence. Since then, Olson has collaborated with legendary author Harlan Ellison on an adaptation of Ellison's "The Discarded" for the ABC TV Series Masters of Science Fiction. He's also worked on adapting the hugely popular video game HALO for producer Peter Jackson and has adapted the Dennis Lehane short story Until Gwen, which he will also direct. Additionally, he contributed the script Have I Got Story for You to the smash hit Batman: Gotham Knights project. More recently, Olson wrote a sequel to The Wizard of Oz for Warner Brothers and has just finished adapting the Lee Child bestseller One Shot for Paramount.
He is currently developing a TV drama, Pleased to Meet Me, with the legendary guitarist Slash, and is writing the pilot for Meanwhile, a dramatic series he created and sold to producer Peter Chernin and the Fox Network. Olson can also be seen commenting on classic film trailers at Joe Dante's website, Trailers From Hell.
His Village Voice essay, "I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script" became an internet phenomenon, getting upwards of two million hits, and is spawning a book. (I wonder who will adapt it for the screen? Ed. Note).
Jeffrey Berman: How does the writing process differ when adapting a screenplay from a book versus working on an original idea?
Josh Olson: Every script is its own thing, whether it's original, or an adaptation. There are no set rules to any of them. I've done adaptations where I've only read the source material once, and I've done them where I had the book open in front of me every step of the way. Hell, the writing process differs from page to page, let alone project to project.
JB: With a comic book like A History of Violence you obviously have less material to draw on then you would a novel or a series of novels such as Oz. Does that allow you the freedom to develop original material or is there a fear of straying too far from the source? And does that make your job easier or more difficult?
JO: It's not about the quantity of material. It's about the material itself, and what you're going to do with it. With History, I took John Wagner's premise, title, and - god help me for using this phrase - "inciting incident," and then leapt off and told my own story.
The graphic novel was packed with story, it just wasn't a story I wanted to tell. It's a solid, smart and fun action thriller, but I was a lot more interested in getting into questions of identity. In the book, there's never a moment's doubt that the main character is the man the mob guys think he is. I felt like that was a missed opportunity. I thought it was a great chance to play with a classic "wrong man" scenario in which the wrong man is actually the right man. And that led me to start thinking about identity, and what it is that constitutes your "self." Is Tom the guy they all say he is? Or is he the guy he's made himself into?
The freedom to stray from the material doesn't necessarily come from the material, but from your own response to it. It also has something to do with the studio's needs, as well. If you're doing Harry Potter, there's a billion fans that the studio's trying to serve. If you fuck around with the fundamentals of the stories or the characters, you're gonna be out of a job. But with something like History, we were talking about a ten-year old graphic novel that had a very small print run. There wasn't a market-driven imperative to be faithful to the material, and it wasn't the enormous audience that compelled the studio to purchase the book. I found out when they hired me off my pitch that they'd had the same concerns with the book that I did, and had just been waiting for someone to come in and show them how to take it into a completely different direction.
In the end, it's gotta be a story you want to tell. I've written a lot of originals, but in the end, History was one of the most personal scripts I've ever written.
But, like I said, it's not about quantity of material. I adapted Dennis Lehane's short story Until Gwen a while back. It's a 15-page story, and it's very spare in terms of plot and detail. It's mostly flashes of memory, tiny details, and bursts of emotion. Very little to work with, in terms of traditional scenes, but one hell of a powerful story. For the screenplay, in order to create a feature length narrative film, I had to invent most of the scenes, many of the characters, and find a way to structure it as a visual narrative. In terms of what a screenwriting 101 teacher would call "adaptation," there's maybe 20 pages of the thing that are directly based on Dennis' story. However, from the first page to the last, I was being absolutely faithful to Dennis' story and his vision, at least as I saw it.
That's what it boils down to for me - writing is all about taking what I see and feel and communicating it to you. In the case of an adaptation, it's about showing you how I saw something. Because I'll never be able to really know what Dennis' real vision was. All I can do is tell you how I connected to it, and hoped that it touches and moves you. In the case of something like Until Gwen, I'd also hope that it would inspire you to seek out the source material and let it have its way with you as well.
JB: When adapting a classic story like Oz, how closely do you keep to the source material and how important is that for any adaptation?
JO: Like I said, they're all different. There's no way to generalize about any script, adaptation or original. I wasn't adapting a specific book, but I wanted to get across some of L. Frank Baum's magnificent characters and settings, as well as write a movie that could stand as a sequel to the MGM classic. The story I sold Warner Brothers was my own story, utilizing characters and settings and information from the first few Oz books. The hope was to come up with something that would work as a sequel to the movie as well as satisfy fans of Baum's world.
With the exception of the characters from our world that I created, every character in the script is from Baum. But I put them into my own story.
JB: Before you start to adapt a novel for the screen, such as One Shot by Lee Child, how do you determine what parts of the story go into the script and what parts are left out? And why is it necessary to leave anything out?
JO: One Shot was a project where my mandate was to introduce a very popular fictional character to a movie audience. In that One Shot is actually the ninth book in the Jack Reacher series, it necessitated changes that would allow us to make this the first movie. But beyond that, there's almost always some basic nuts and bolts things that have to change. In One Shot, for instance, the book is paced rather leisurely. Jack spends a lot of time going back and forth between the same two or three locations, and while it works great in the book, it would have left us with a very static movie. I had to come up with ways to combine the net result of several scenes into one, all while not just being faithful to Lee Child's fantastic character, but also introducing him to a larger movie audience that won't be familiar with him.
JB: What advice would you offer to writers who are driven to find stories from other mediums to adapt as feature films?
JO: We're at a point in the film business where it's harder than it's ever been to sell originals. We could discuss and argue the reasons for this 'til the cows came home, but in the end, it wouldn't change that fact. Studios are heavily invested in doing material that has some semblance of built-in recognition. The trick, for me at least, has been to find material that I click with personally. In the case of Until Gwen, it was a short story that just gutted me. In the case of History, it was a premise that allowed me to take the story into an entirely new direction and explore ideas that are of deep personal interest to me. With One Shot, it was a chance to fill a void I've been feeling for many years - the absence of smart, American tough guy movies. The book came to me the morning after I'd shown my girlfriend the first two Dirty Harry movies, and we'd talked about how sad it was that no one was making movies like that anymore. With Oz, I got to take books that I loved as a kid and use them to comment on the state of imagination today.
People often perceive adaptations as somehow easier than originals... "coloring between the lines," if you will. But if you find the way into them, the way to make them personal to you, they can be as challenging as satisfying and as difficult as an original. Sometimes more so. The vast majority of directors don't write their scripts. In essence, they're adapting someone else's work, translating a singular vision from one form to another. It's all a challenge.