Clunky words & fuzzy imagesAt the intersection of literature and film
Film & Lit – a cross-fertilization
There are quite a few stories around the web which explore the subject of adapting a novel into a screenplay, and ultimately film. There are also numerous stories which go into the advantages of turning a screenplay into a novel from a business stand point. What I would like to do is to take a look at these issues from my personal experience while writing my debut novel.
I believe that the cross-fertilization process between these two mediums offers a wealth of opportunites for us writers. I would like to share with you how the process of writing my novel “A child made to order” looked. What worked, what didn’t. And how a screenwriter/author might marry two such differing approaches in order to write a finely crafted Story.
“Up until then, whenever anyone had mentioned the possibility of making a film adaptation, my answer had always been, ‘No, I’m not interested.’ I believe that each reader creates his own film inside his head, gives faces to the characters, constructs every scene, hears the voices, smells the smells. And that is why, whenever a reader goes to see a film based on a novel that he likes, he leaves feeling disappointed, saying: ‘the book is so much better than the film.”
― Paulo Coelho,
The unifying aspect
But instead of focusing on how wildly different these mediums are, I would like to take a peek at the striking similarites of these two. Because although they are such different beasts, they still have one thing in common. The most important thing. The Story itself.
The underlying structure of the novel and the screenplay share exactly the same DNA. These genes are what we call Story. Every meaning, metaphor and analogy which the story carries, can be approached and thought of quite similarly in both formats. The two mediums will communicate the Story quite differently, but the inherent moral quandaries of the protagonist, the obstacles she encounter along her inner journey, they are both at the core of the Story.
That doesn’t mean the plot can’t change. It most often does. And surely the characters can and will be cut, especially when adapting from novel to film. But I believe that when people talk about maintaing the Spirit of the novel during an adaptation, they are talking about the underlying story. The core meaning, and the values which the author intended to communicate.
Story is also certainly the most difficult part to get right. To elevate the external plot, and the character’s inner arc into something which speaks universal values.
A flurry of concealed emotions, and unexpressed feelings. The inner world of our protagonist. (Image: Karen Steenwinkel, Model: Melanie Norder, Tessa Brix Makeup artist: José Velasquez, Designer: Jolanda de Meester (Cutting the Cake)
The literary & the cinematic image
Many people state that film is such a visual medium. Of course they are right, especially if this is done right. But I would argue that a novel, or the written word in general, has the power to be just as cinematic, or maybe even more so, than film itself.
Paul Coelho’ quote goes to the heart of this matter. The written word has the power to drill itself in such a profound way into the subconscious of the reader and thus provoke a wide interpretation. An inner vision of the characters, and the world, which will wildly differ from reader to reader.
This doesn’t mean the power of suggestion can’t carry over to film. It certainly does. The cinema frame can also carry an ambivalence, a multitude of meanings which the viewer can transform with his own psyche. It’s far from an easy task, especially under a heavy production pressure, excruciating time constraints, to get that psychologically ambivalent portrait of the character. But if done right, it can be a shattering experience. Just like the best photography has the power to do.
But if one is to avoid the pitfalls which Paul Coelho mentions in his quote, then the image can’t cram an explicit and objective vision upon the viewer. It has to contain a mystery in itself, one which will lend itself flexible and malleable enough to a multitude of interpretations.
Coelho also points to something else. And that is the matter of preconceived notions we fabricate in our imagination when reading a book, and at a later point in time, the confrontation with that vision in a cinematic form. He is right about one thing. Disappointment is bound to happen if one tries to replicate the novel’s structure, plot, characters and images way too literally. Here is the biggest challenge for the screenwriter. And something which I will go more in-depth in the second installment of this article.
“For a writer, it’s a word. For a composer or a musician, it’s a note. For an editor and a filmmaker, it’s the frames. The one frame off, or two frames added, or two frames less… it’s the difference between a sour note and a sweet note. It’s the difference between a clunky clumsy crap and orgasmic rhythm.” – Quentin Tarantino
To submerge into the character’s inner world
So we have the image and the story. So far so good. But the trouble really starts when we begin to look at the dissimilarities. And the biggest is, and in my mind the most important one, the inner world of the protagonist.
It is inherently built into the novel format. Available at all times with unlimited freedom to change the POVs of the participating characters. The writer only has to choose his lens and unveil the inner workings of the character. Although, like with everything in art, the results may vary wildly. Because when you think about it, the written word can leave as little left to the imagination as the images from the latest Transformer flick courtesy of Micheal Bay.
Still, the screenplay is more tricky. Simply becuase it has far fewer options when it comes to communicating the psychology of the character. Where the novel is such a lush forest for the exploration of the psyche, the language of cinema is more akin to a severe desert. Depending only on external action to show something as intimate as inner torment.
So how do we submerge into the protagonist without being blunt, and heavy handed?
Immediately, the dreaded voice-over comes to mind. For some it seems the most obvious choice. Wouldn’t it be just wonderful to use all those finely crafted words? In some cases the answer would be yes.
A project named StoryVid, initiated by the excellent author Etgar Keret, aims to launch literature into the next century by making a literary music video. And I think it’s an amazing initiative, because it works within a convention.
Certainly it has the power to work, if done with finesse. Jean Pierre Jeunet and his extremely long voice-over narrations are a good example of that. Witty, charming, they support the tone of the film and simultanouesly tell something of value about the character. But his films, especially the movies Amelie and Delicatessen, are also within the bounds of the comedy genre. And personally, I think it’s a little bit easier to approach a voice-over with a comedic lightness than go full head on with soul-wrecking drama.
So what’s left to do then? The filmmaker can certainly do it through character’s action, and the image. But maybe even more subtle methods are available.
Watching films like Insomnia (the Norwegian version, Erik Skjoldbærg), there are quite a few scenes where Skjoldbærg manages to get inside the head of the Protagonist through exquisitely subtle means. Not done with some abrupt and literal cut ins or flashbacks. Instead Skjoldbærg uses the camera, and in the most harrowing psychological moments, he upsets our sense of spatial orentiation, often by jumping across the axis, or hiding completely/partially the main character outside of the frame.
These sublime approaches, instead of the literal flashback, or symbolic in your face imagery, are what elevate film into art. Often barely detectable, they glide our psyche into an alternate world. Seemingly the same, on the surface innocent, but beneath the surface, they demolish our sense of comfort.
And when you think about it, this sense of unease can be built in so many ways, not only thorugh framing, acting, but also through production design, editing and certainly sound. Maybe the biggest challenge is to make it stylistically seamless, undetectable.
Finally, there is one more difference which begs to be mentioned. One which has an enourmous impact on the final outcome.
Whereas the novel can certainly be called an auteur’s work, with the writer having almost unlimited artistic control, the finished movie, even if independent and made under intimate conditions, is still a joint collaboration.
Nothing wrong with either one of them. But they are certainly different approaches.
The schizophrenic facets of the protagonist’s psyche? (Image: Karen Steenwinkel, Model: Melanie Norder, Tessa Brix Makeup artist: José Velasquez, Designer: Jolanda de Meester (Cutting the Cake)
This was the first part of “Clunky words & fuzzy images”. If you want to read the next installment of this story, please subscribe to Storygeist’s facebook stream to be notified. Or just come back to this site.
In the next part, I will go into the process of writing the screenplay and the novel, A child made to order. The goal will be to see how this intertwined process, and the two mediums worked upon each other. What were the advantages and disadvantages of working with such an approach? How did the development process work, and what were the biggest obstacles in alternating between these two?
And if you have the gracious heart, please visit Amazon and check out my novel, published by the London based publishing house The Book Folks. Little would make an author more happy, than to hear your opinon.
Finally, I would like to extend deep gratitude to Karen Steenwinkel for letting me use her images for this story. Personally, I think that the vibrant, and painterly quality of her photos hold such a soulful beauty.
As long as I can remember, a part of me has always been a keen, albeit very quiet, observer of the world around me. And another part has been a wide-eyed wonder boy who, from the get go, wanted to escape into another dimension, some yet undiscovered version of the land of Oz.
This combination of character has, on more than one occasion, shown itself to be a tad aggravating, and maybe even quite unfortunate to the outside world. And since my verbal skills are still locked away in some deep recess of my being, a talent still awaiting discovery, I had no other choice than to become a visual storyteller dressed up as filmmaker. During that process I also fell in love with words, quite many of them, actually. Since then, there was no turning back, and I became a scribe of the written word.
Through this blog, and through my stories, be they written or told in moving images, I would like to share with you what I feel, think and dream of. And if anything on this blog connects with you, mail me, I would love to hear about it.
Karen Steenwinkel (photographer) started 8 years ago with this “nouveauvague” technique, trying something different on her holiday in Florence. It was raining and so she had more possibilities with long shutterspeed. Afterwords this got an addiction, also as a reaction to her advertising work, with this kind of photography she could put more “soul” in the images.
Later she worked with Jolanda de Meester (instagram.com/cutting.the.cake), who is a designer and also makes her own dresses, the combination with models, makeup artist and fashion designer gives these images an unique kind of feel.
(instagram.com/nouveauvague) (models: Melanie Norder, Tessa Brix, makeup artist: José Velasquez, designer: Jolanda de Meester (CuttingtheCake)