Turning Books into Scripts

Scott Heim’s 1995 novel, Mysterious Skin, makes for an unlikely film. The story of two eight-year-olds from Kansas who are sexually molested by their little league coach is dark and sad, rife with poignant and haunting detail. To cope, one boy imagines that he was abducted by a UFO and lost five hours of his life; the other becomes a gay prostitute who remains drawn to the sexual predator who abused him. When Heim first set about the task of writing a screenplay version of his acclaimed book, he excised many of the most difficult episodes. “I just wasn’t sure how a film could depict children in some of the book’s dramatic situations,” he says.

But it wasn’t Heim’s rendering that eventually made it to the screen last summer. His script, like so many other author-driven adaptations, languished in development limbo for seven years until writer/director Gregg Araki got involved. He had long been a fan of the book, and he and Heim struck up a friendship. In 2003, Araki and producer Mary Jane Skalski reacquired the book’s option, and Araki himself wrote the screenplay. It was a much more dutiful adaptation.

“Gregg’s script is closer to my novel than mine was,” says Heim. “He stayed very faithful to the story and the atmosphere in the book, to my descriptions of settings, of interiors, and characters’ clothes and hairstyles and idiosyncrasies and all that.”

And the film, while not explicit in its depiction of what happens to the two boys, pulls no punches. One almost hopes to see a disclaimer during the credits: “No children were harmed in the making of this film.” Araki gave each of his youngest actors a specially edited script and through careful editing and blocking, he shielded them from the film’s most disturbing elements. Still, the audience experiences a frank and nuanced portrayal of their encounters with a pedophile.

“I wasn’t sure how [someone] could film a lot of the scenes in the book,” says Heim. “But Gregg, as a filmmaker and a really expert editor, figured out a way to present the film so that the audience certainly thinks they’re seeing things that they actually aren’t.”

The adaptation of Mysterious Skin is a blueprint for how independent producers and directors transform a novel into a film: It proceeded slowly in fits and starts and was ultimately driven to theaters by the engine of a writer/director who cared passionately about the book and producers willing to take a chance on difficult or risky material.

To be sure, adaptations are popular with both indies and
studios. Books often have a built-in following, they are useful sales tools when pitching a project to financiers or executives, and they contain a more complete and finely drawn world than most screenplays offer.

Studios, of course, Hoover up all the “sure things”: the Harry Potters, Seabiscuits, and Da Vinci Codes. They also frequently have book scouts and executives whose job it is to seek out likely properties and secure them. They can afford to buy dozens of options and pay to keep them alive for years at a time. Indies, in contrast, almost never have the budget for that kind of long-term investment.

“I don’t call up publishers and see what’s new that’s coming out, which producers with more financing might do,” says Skalski, who produced The Station Agent (2003), among others, for New York’s Antidote Films. “But books are seductive and you kind of can’t help thinking about what kind of films they would make.”

And though the average Variety reader might have reason to believe that the movie rights to every novel are snapped up immediately for mind-boggling sums, agents and producers maintain that there is plenty of material available to independent producers.

“I certainly do big movies, but as time goes on, adult movies are of less and less interest to studios,” says Ron Bernstein, a well-known agent with ICM in Los Angeles, who is presumably speaking of grown-up fare like Sideways (2004), not Debbie Does Dallas. “You take a book where it’s wanted.”

Indeed, book deals illuminate the almost completely divergent business models of studio and independently financed projects. “The studios are risk averse; independents like risky,” says Bernstein. “That’s what gets their audience into the theaters. If you’ve got something dangerous, studios don’t want it. If it’s offbeat, eccentric, oddball—that’s all for the independents.”

Independent producers also frequently mine books, like Mysterious Skin, that may not be hot off the presses. Heim’s novel took a decade to go from the page to the screen. “There are many good books out there that people have forgotten because they’re not in the public eye,” says Anne Carey of This Is That Productions in New York who, along with her partner Ted Hope, has produced a number of literary adaptations, including the September release Thumbsucker, based on Walter Kirn’s 1999 novel, and last year’s The Door in the Floor, which was based on John Irving’s A Widow for One Year.

Literary agent Rosalie Siegel agrees. “I’m getting options for books that weren’t published this year,” she says. “At any given time, I might be brokering for books two, five, even ten years after publication. It’s just a question of being tenacious and aggressive about submitting books.”

As seductive as a novel might be to a filmmaker, producers are usually wary of deals that hinge upon buying book rights, because an option adds an expense line to an already tight budget. Options become more expensive each year, and a producer must factor that variable into the amount of time he or she devotes to developing a project. “You’ve got a ticking clock for how long you’re going to control [the rights],” says Skalski. “You’re constantly aware that if you don’t get it out soon enough, you may run out of time. That’s a lot of pressure.”

As a result, indie producers usually wait for the project to come to them. The right writer and director are crucial to putting a deal together. “A studio will option a book because they think it’s a good property and then they’ll find a writer and then a director,” says Carey. “I can’t really think of a situation in which we would option a book if we didn’t have a filmmaking partner to work with. [Putting a film together is] an expensive and lengthy process. And when you develop for a filmmaker, you have a point of view and a commitment. They’ll work on it ‘till they get it right.”

When there isn’t ample money in the budget, having a team in place—and not just a keen interest in an author’s work—can help in wooing a writer. “It gives us the ability to go to the agent and the author and say, ‘We have a particular filmmaker who’s made these films and has this vision,’” says Carey. “That has proven to be a successful formula for us.”

Knowing the “team” is of paramount importance to many writers because when they sell the rights, they relinquish control of something that had previously been entirely their creation. “It’s my job to investigate the deal for my clients,” says Siegel. “I get as much information as I can about who they are, who’s going to finance it, what their ideas are. Authors don’t have creative control, so we try to get every bit of information we can.”

Heim, who had invested several years of his own career into a film version of Mysterious Skin, ultimately turned the reigns over to Araki because he believed in the filmmaker’s vision. As Araki notes on the Mysterious Skin website, the movie is his first book adaptation and he was drawn to the story because of Heim’s skill as a writer. “It’s really the only piece of material I’ve ever encountered that I’ve felt passionate and excited enough about to devote years of my life to making,” he writes.

“Everyone signed on to the project because they believed in, and were moved or excited by, the story,” says Heim. That was also the reason he was happy with the project, despite the fact that it was not particularly lucrative. “That’s a very different experience from a huge studio blockbuster, where often, I think, the cast or crew pretty much know going in that it’s not going to be anything close to a work of art, but the paycheck is going to be big.”

Heim is not alone. “There are plenty of people who would rather have their book made into a good movie rather than getting a lot of money up front and being embarrassed by what’s made of their work,” says Carey.

Once a producer has made a commitment to a book project and put a team together, the book becomes an invaluable tool. It can help with everything from financing to production and promotion. “I think people like the idea of a movie based on a book,” says Skalski of pitching the film to moneymen. “It can help make a script seem more weighty or prestigious.”

Perhaps the book’s most useful aspect is as a resource for the filmmaker. It is like a manual for the world of the film, much more detailed than any screenplay could ever be. “You can always go back to it and reread it,” says Carey. “You can give it to the production designer, you can give it to the [director of photography], to the costume designer, to the actors. It gives a lot of depth that screenplays, by their nature, can’t give.”

The film, in turn, can reincarnate the book, introducing it to a whole new audience. It is not unusual to see repackaged paperback editions of books made into movies. William Makepeace Thackery’s Vanity Fair was published complete with a picture of Reese Witherspoon on the cover in time for Mira Nair’s 2004 adaptation. When Carey worked on Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil (1999), she noted that the publisher reissued Daniel Woodrell’s Woe to Live On the novel on which it was based. The novel had gone out of print, but after the movie it found new life.

“It’s terrific publicity for the book,” says Siegel, who relishes the opportunity to leverage a film deal into new foreign rights or a new paperback deal for her clients.

Occasionally, publicists try the reverse process as well, ginning up a novelization of a film as a tie-in and promotional device. Miramax tried it a few years ago when they launched their book division. The Pallbearer, among other titles, made it to shelves. Novelist Jonathan Ames adapted MTV films’ 200 Cigarettes for that company’s book division. He did it without seeing the film, he says, and it took him 17 days. “[I made] the plot a little more logical, adding thoughts to the characters, and I wrote it in the third person, which I had never done in my own work.” There are few examples of this phenomenon outside of science fiction franchises, however, which suggests other marketing tools have fared better.

Ultimately, filmmakers all face the same tricky task in adapting a book, be it Ride with the Devil or the Da Vinci Code Whether the novel’s fan base sells more movie tickets or the film moves paperbacks off the shelves, a writer and director’s biggest challenge remains translating the written word into the moving image.

“In a book, you have access to the internal monologues, to the internal thoughts of the characters,” says actor and screenwriter Clark Gregg, who recently adapted a novel by a well-known author.
It’s hard to resist the urge to incorporate the language of the book into the screenplay. “A lot of times, if there’s a narrator or it’s written in the first person, it’s extremely tempting to keep that voice, especially if it’s good writing,” says Gregg. That’s a pitfall, he notes, since a narrator’s voice tends to distance the audience and bring them out of the experience of watching a movie.

“With screenplays, so much depends on the actors taking this thinner version of the story and really bringing it to life,” says Ames, who has also adapted his own novel, Wake Up, Sir!, for Ben Stiller’s company, Red Hour Films. “[They must convey] the pages of explanation that might have been in the novel with just the look of weariness in their face.”

For his part, Araki made use of more cinematic tools to bring Heim’s words to the screen. “Because the subject matter is so dark, I wanted the film to be incredibly beautiful and lush, the cinematic equivalent of the poetic language used in the novel,” he writes.
To know whether it worked, you’ll probably have to read the book and see the movie for yourself. No word yet on which should come first.

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