Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Macmillan New Writing: the Motion Picture


Last night a few friends and I went to see The Golden Compass at the cinema, and as usual, after watching a movie adaptation (typically a bad movie adaptation) it got me thinking about adaptations of my own novels and whether or not they would be any good.

The problem with being a self-confessed cinema-bore, is that I know what makes a good film, and what makes a bad one. This means if someone were to make a movie adaptation of say, The Secret War, and it was a bad one, I would be able to see the car-crash coming from a mile away like someone with no breaks heading towards a brick-wall at a hundred miles an hour.

But would I care? Afterall, a movie adaptation produces “pound-signs” (or in David’s case, “dollar-signs”) whenever a book is optioned. And that doesn’t include when or if the film is made; if it goes into production there might be more money, not to mention increased sales of the book in question (though usually that’s a big “if” – the number of film-adaptations languishing in development-hell would dash many an author’s dreams). And it’s not like Macmillan New Writing is a virgin to the movie business either; Michael Stephen Fuch’s Manuscript was optioned last year by a British film company, as I understand.

Yep, there’s money to be made in movies, folks. Get it right, and there’s lots of money to be made.
But get it wrong though…

Well, there’s the catch. It might be a small one, depending on your point of view but it is best described by a horror movie called Rawhead Rex. This is a diabolical movie based on diabolical character – a demon no less. It is also based on a short story by Clive Barker, one of many contained in the rather viscerally titled “Books of Blood”. This eclectic and often groundbreaking series of anthologies blew my mind back in the early 1990’s when I first got into Barker’s stories, but the movie adaptation of RR must rank as one of the worst horror movies in creation and probably one of the worst adaptations of a written work (and if you count the numerous bad Stephen King adaptations, that’s pretty bad). In fact, for some years Rawhead Rex was the only short story in the Books of Blood I hadn’t read because the adaptation was so awful I couldn’t bring myself to read the source material, fearing it would be a different shade of awfulness.
(In the end, the short story was pretty good, one of the best in the collection as it happens.)

Now, if I had never read a Clive Barker novel/story before, after watching Rawhead Rex it is doubtful I would have ever tried to. And there lies the risk… A mundane adaptation, one that is forgettable, will not harm the author’s reputation - but an appalling car-crash of a movie will damage it, sometimes irreparably. And unlike your own written work, authors rarely have any control over movie adaptations (unless you’re JK Rowling).

The other issue is one of patience as well as control. It is very rare for an author to see more than one adaptation of the same novel during their lifetime, unless the first one was so terrible, and/or you live to be a hundred. That means only one chance to see your creation on the big screen. With that in mind, would you be pleased to let someone like Uwe Boll or the like, adapt your novel for the screen, knowing the result will certainly be utter cinematic-tosh, yet with the knowledge you’ll be getting quite a bit of money up front; or would you stick it out until the right director/producer came along running the risk that it won’t be filmed at all?

Personally, I like to think I have principles. I like to think that my writing career outside of Macmillan New Writing (where the world rights to the first two works rest in the hands of Macmillan Publishers as per the contract) will be one where I’ll personally vet each movie proposal that comes my way, to the point I would sacrifice some of those “pound signs” for a modicum of creative veto. That’s what I like to think, yet in this business, money can be quite blinding; the more money, the bigger those creative cataracts become.

I guess the argument is moot if no-one does adapt your book, but as I’ve discovered, surprises can happen, and there’s nothing to say that a big screen adaptation of say Shock and Awe, or Light Reading, or any of the other MNW titles won’t happen. Michael’s book certainly shows it is possible…

As for The Golden Compass… For the record, I thought the film was underwhelming. Something that could have been epic, with much emotional gravitas, was rushed and lacked any resonance. Creatively, if I were Pullman, I would be disappointed. Conversely, having seen the movie, I want to read Northern Lights (it was on my to-do list, but it’s now been bumped up a few places) as I gleaned from the film the potential for a bloody good story.
I for one won’t be going back to the cinema to watch the next two sequels, nor buy the DVD (unless it’s in the local HMV for a couple of quid – and even then I’ll probably regret wasting the money). But I think in this case it is another triumph for the humble paperback over a rather clueless movie studio, and I’m sure it won’t harm Philip Pullman’s reputation as a good writer either.

5 comments:

David Isaak said...

I've learned to expect the worst when it comes to movie adaptations, to the point where it doesn't even bother me.

Well, doesn't bother me much. But I really got my hopes up over Master and Commander. I'd heard Hollywood had been considering an O'Brian adaptation, had my usual inward cringe...and then I heard Peter Weir would be directing, and I let my expectations rise. Weir has directed some of my favorite films (Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli, Fearless). He might have the touch to adapt material I thought unadaptable.

Well, I was wrong. Although the special effects were nice, the script sucked. Hollywood didn't trust the material; they didn't even make an effort to include the interpersonal relationships that are the heart of O'Brian's stories; and, to try and make it a blockbuster, they invented this "Death Star" of a ship the protagonists needed to destroy. Pathetic.

Maybe the movie was okay, but as an adaptation of a book it was gawdawful.

So I'm back to having zero expectations...

Matt Curran said...

I think there are some adaptations that work well, but these are few and far between (Shawshank Redemption, Jaws, and depending upon your point of view, Lord of the Rings). But generally I agree – there’s a gulf between book and movie, and often your expectations have to be low even if sometimes you get that giddy, hopeful feeling when your favourite book is about to be turned into a movie.

Master and Commander felt, oddly enough, to be plot-less. At the time I guessed this was due to the film rather than O’Brian’s novel (having never read it), but like you said, Peter Weir is a bloody good filmmaker. I think these days Hollywood producers are pretty clueless about what the loyal and devout film-fans want to see and instead pander to the lowest denominator. They also see books as something to pillage rather than adapt faithfully and there lies the problem. Without using the whore metaphor too liberally, authors tend to let themselves and their books be *@&^! over for a wad of cash, and as the writers strike has shown, at the moment the big studios don’t invest in the “brains” or “hearts” of their projects, let alone do them justice.

David Isaak said...

"Shawshank" was indeed quite good, and "Jaws" was born to be filmed.

As to "Lord of the Rings," I think it was as good an adaptation as possible given the constraints. There was a time I would have clasified it as unfilmable.

The truly odd thing about "Master and Commander" is that it had nothing to do with the book of that name. The plot was mangled from "Far Side of the World," a much later book in the series. (You'd like the book "Master and Commander," I think.)

But I'm not too sure how vigorously writers need to defend their books--after all, the books are still there.

There was a time when Tom Wolfe was asked if he would like to be involved, as consultant or even screenwriter, in the film adaptation of his "Bonfire of the Vanities." He observed that he was better off leaving it alone: "If it's a flop, they'll blame Hollywood, and if it succeeds, they'll credit my novel..."

Hmmm. Of course, that probably works better if you're as well-established as Wolfe.

Matt Curran said...

I'll check out "Master and Commander" and add it to that ever-growing list of books to read in the new year (which, I might add, will commence after I finish Shock and Awe, which between the Christmas shopping and the day-job, I'm thoroughly enjoying!)

David Isaak said...

Happy reading, then!

One reason I think you'd enjoy the O'Brian books is that they are set in your time period. Well, a little before, but why get picky?