Reading in the Dark 

How Books Become Films

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a giant insect.

How will you film that sentence? It opens Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis, first published when the art of cinema was only two decades old. Movie language has come a long way. Plenty of techniques can now be used to convince your audience that this is one morning, this is Gregor Samsa and he is awake, and, thanks to the power of suggestion or the good people at Pixar in Emeryville, this is a giant insect.

But your task is subtler. When adapting the novel for film, you must evoke for viewers what readers would feel to read that curious first sentence, and all that follow. You may subvert his formal choices, but your task is to honor the author's intentions. You'll be asked hundreds of questions, including tricky ones. Of course you'll be asked how much it will cost to turn Samsa into a giant insect, and when you provide an answer, you'll be told that you are wrong. You may be asked to settle for turning him into some other vermin instead because it's cheaper.

Before long you'll surprise yourself by declaring Kafka the author you hate more than any other, though a few weeks earlier he was your favorite. This will pass, but you will be surprised again when one of his relatives tries to sue you, and one of yours tells you that you deserve it.

These are the privileges of literary adaptation, which allows artists to engage each other's work in the most personal and creative way, but often requires them to kill each other's darlings. Books and films might both be used to tell stories, but these two sister arts maintain a stiff sibling rivalry. Immersion in a book or a movie is almost as satisfying as an argument over which one is better.

The short story on which In the Bedroom is based takes only eleven words to reveal a crucial event that the film, for a full act, withholds. No, make that one word: "Killings," which is the original story's title. Todd Field's film and Andre Dubus' tale differ structurally, but thematically they don't. Plot points are arranged with an eye to the characters' needs and to the story's essential subject, namely how people cope with emotional trauma and grief.

But William Steig's delicate voice and strikingly feathery drawing style can't be found in Shrek. The film, an unequivocal marvel of computer animation, is touted for its "realism," which one look at Steig's book will suggest can't possibly be the point. Then again, the movie's popularity increased sales of the book by about 400 percent. The author, who earned half a million dollars for the rights, likes the movie just fine.

In fiction and nonfiction alike, fidelity is in the eye of the beholder and even the best intentions are easily undone. Consider Ron Howard's exclusion of unpleasant facts about real-life schizophrenic mathematician John Nash in his film A Beautiful Mind, based on Sylvia Nasar's book. Is Nash gay? A bad father? Anti-Semitic? The book goes there; the movie doesn't. Yet if reality is the issue, no one seems to mind that the real Nash did not age fifty years in a span of two hours, nor is he a two-dimensional projection of light and shadow in the form of Russell Crowe. Film fans may be fickle, but they are more than willing to suspend disbelief.

It brings to mind the recent news from some wet blankets down at Stanford that Tyrannosaurus Rex, the real star of Jurassic Park, was not, in fact, a natural-born sprinter, as Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg have so irresponsibly led us to believe. Nor, for that matter, has anyone actually cloned the beast from intact 65-million-year-old DNA, and allegorically allowed him to run -- or even walk slowly -- amok. But we knew this; no need for the forlorn headline, "Hollywood Got it Wrong," which itself seems somehow allegorical.

Most movies are adaptations. And adaptations can be bookish and still good, as Ismail Merchant and James Ivory very politely insist, or almost anti-bookish, as David Fincher's Fight Club insists less politely. They can be as obedient as Chris Columbus' Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, or as assertive as Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring. As voicey and sharp as Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff, or as voiceless and dull as Brian De Palma's The Bonfire of the Vanities. And so on.

Less common, at least outside of science-fiction circles, is the novelization, the book based on the movie -- noted by Woody Allen in Manhattan as "another contemporary American phenomenon that's truly moronic." It is safe to say that no one has yet written the Great American Novelization, probably because no one really wants to.

In any case, the progress of anything onto the big screen is a long and difficult journey. Films adapted from actual events require a negotiation for "life rights," which is as Faustian as it sounds. Films adapted from books require extensive "development," in which, typically, an agent auctions the work off to the highest-bidding production company, which pays for the exclusive option to film it within a certain amount of time. Before the option expires, the company must attract financiers by assembling a "package": a known and "bankable" director, a star or two, a screenwriter or six. The book might be a Penguin Classic or an astonishing nonfiction account or a John Grisham bestseller, and it might get partway there -- but without a Julia Roberts or a Tom Cruise or a Ridley Scott, it might never be a movie.

It costs novelists little more than time, though sometimes lots of it, to sit and write. But cinema, which may or may not be the most expressive of the arts, is certainly the most expensive. That's why, with films, packaging is absolute and authorship is relative. Annie Proulx's idiosyncratic novel, The Shipping News, for instance, was almost filmed by Billy Bob Thornton, who directed Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses, and almost filmed by Fred Schepisi, who directed Graham Swift's Last Orders -- but that privilege was eventually granted to Lasse Hallstrom, who directed Joanne Harris' Chocolat and John Irving's The Cider House Rules (which, though it took thirteen years and four directors, remains Irving's favorite; he wrote the script himself).

One of several Shipping News screenplays was written by Laura Jones, who adapted Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady, Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, and -- coming soon -- A.S. Byatt's Possession. But what Hallstrom finally filmed was written by Robert Nelson Jacobs (also of Chocolat), who later told the New York Times that he was afraid to meet Annie Proulx because he admired her so much.

The morass of development has resulted in countless stalled projects and as many sad stories (some of which are suitable for adaptation). One noted fiction writer, for example, is prevented from using his own characters again because a studio has paid for them and owns them -- and isn't using them either.

There is also the occasional against-the-odds success story. The screen version of Dan Clowes' graphic novel Ghost World took many years, simply because Clowes wanted Terry Zwigoff to direct it, the two of them to write it together, and Steve Buscemi to star: three conditions that made studio support hard to find. Clowes and Zwigoff reportedly revised the script about fifty times. But at least the revisions were theirs, and so is the movie.

According to John Fowles, author of The French Lieutenant's Woman, "To assemble a book with a considerable and deliberate number of elements you know cannot be filmed, and then to disassemble and reconstruct it out of the elements that can, is surely an occupation best left to masochists or narcissists."

Adaptation is akin to the translation of poetry -- it requires the poetic intelligence to read an entire work metaphorically. At its best, the process is elevating and transformative. It unites the solitary acts of writing and reading with the collaborative and communal acts of making and watching movies. But then again it can also be ominous and painful and alienating -- you could say Kafkaesque.

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