To adapt or not to adapt. That is the question many authors are asking themselves.
When I set out to start the adaptations on The Pillars of Dawn and The Life Erotic, I thought it would be a simple one-for-one swap on the content. While I knew there would be some switch-ups and content would need to be rearranged to make it fit a new medium, I assumed it would still balance out and land pretty much in the same lane as the source material. Almost two years later, a ton of hands-on personal coaching from a talented (and very patient) producer, a crash course in scripting, and a dozen re-writes later… we are finally shopping the work. I would not have put myself through this if he hadn’t stepped in and developed me and the work with as much enthusiasm and effort as he did.
I’d still be a bridge troll in the woods writing my books and swigging Scotch if he hadn’t said, “I think you’ve got something and I’d like to help you.”
To be honest, I nearly said, “No, thanks.”. I didn’t want two decades of my work to be mauled by Hollywood’s track record of butchering source material for a quick buck.
He provided a twenty-page analysis of my books with an explanation of how they could be adapted and what he liked most about them.
He sold me on it when he picked out the very things other producers and studios before him had attempted to cut—he emphasized how important it was to save those aspects. He had no prior knowledge of my dealings with other producers, directors and studios—but had asked me to adapt with respect to, and focus on the parts I actually treasured the most about the work.
“You should write it the way you want it to be done. Only make the changes you’re comfortable with as the creator. That’s what we’ll take to market.”
Well, then. In that case, sure, I can try writing a pilot and building a show bible. I mean, how hard can it be? *Insert two-year learning curve, lots of swearing and drinking here*
My goal as the creator was to keep it all within the spirit of the story. Spirit of the story can mean a lot of things to a lot of people—but it means something very specific to the creator of the worlds. By spirit of the story, I also know what’s coming down the pipeline in future publications, so choices I made up front were needed in order to support the overall spirit of the story from beginning to end. Because I created it, I know where all the Jenga pieces are load-bearing. I also know where all the bodies are buried.
I know I’m not alone when I voice frustration with adaptations butchering the original source materials. The books are better 99% of the time. Why is that?
Now I have a much better idea of why that happens. No author wants to spend twenty years building a world, fleshing out characters, and finding an audience only to have their work meat-balled for a skimpy paycheck and an inbox full of hate mail from pissed off readers. It’s not fame or fortune or accolades that push authors to sell their options. It’s the hope of reaching new audience and bringing new readers to the universes they’ve created.
Why does the meat-balling happen? What causes the breakdown from book to screen?
Money is the simple answer, but there’s more than that, sure. Money makes a lot of decisions, from which audiences will return the dividend to how a production is funded and which collaborators, talents, and creators have a piece of the responsibility to “keep it within the spirit of the story”. Once you involve other voices and collaborators, you’re also engaging with the ego dance. Money and ego have been the two biggest breakdowns in the process from my experience so far.
Sometimes a good ego clash is healthy. It keeps things in perspective. Other times it’s energetically exhausting. Sometimes I’m the one who has to check my ego and keep it in place.
There’s no room for ego in story development. None.
I heard the phrase, “television is a team sport” from an executive interview on Film Courage, and I’ve tried to carry it with me through all the meetings, pitches, and conversations. I even repeat it to potential buyers when discussing changes—because I’m all for a collaborative process. I believe truly magical things can happen when you’re working with a talented team. I have a LONG VIEW and WIDE SCOPE of the work as it is built to be published—others in the industry have a MIDSCOPE and DETAIL view of the work as it will be presented on screen. So, between those two superpowers, really amazing stories can be formed.
I am confident that while my eyeballs are locked on a piece of connective story from episode one to eight—the producer will recognize a small detail right in front of me that I overlooked while scoping out the full horizon. It actually brings me more confidence to keep building, keep reaching, keep expanding when I KNOW he’s running parallel, tucking in those little threads that help stitch the full picture into place. He’s like a magic flying feather. I know I can build safely and to the scale I want to see—because he’s not going to let me miss anything or fall down a well.
Collaboration breaks down in executive meetings or pitches when suggestions/requests infringe on the spirit of the story, because decisions are being made regarding budget, talent or a person walking in to “lay claim” to the work by adding something they want to see or “it would be awesome if…”–insert random executive fantasy—and taking the work in a completely different direction. Unanchored requests/additions/corrections are the bane of the collaborative process. Ugh. Huge time and energy sink.
Does it SERVE the story, the character, the theme, or audience? Then let’s talk about it.
Because ultimately, the storytelling is a service industry. It’s hospitality. It’s the invitation to join an idea, world, concept, adventure or escape. The audience is your GUEST. As a storyteller, your only purpose is to welcome them in and make them FEEL something.
Story is never a demand, it’s an offering. I feel like as the creator, if I can hold my ground right there, we’ll have something new audiences will love, and my longtime readers will approve of.
Two years into the development process, we are shopping both IPs (intellectual properties) and I’m SO GRATEFUL he took the time to coax me out of the forest, dust me off, teach me some new skills and push me into a new medium. I’ve been having a great time! (don’t tell anyone, it will ruin my reputation for being a grumpy troll.)
Would I do it again? Absolutely. Will I do more? Already working on it. A whole publishing archive full of twenty years of other IPs is sitting in the closet ready to be mined.
To adapt or not to adapt. I’d say, investigate it. Make sure you’re working with someone who gets you and understands the work. They don’t have to love the work, but they need to understand why you’re making the choices you’re making as the creator. It really helps if you also find collaborators who understand the service aspect of story, development, and teamwork as well.
The beauty of my work with the producer is that we are polar opposite in many ways which challenges the story and pushes it forward. The ways in which we are similar just create the trust that holds the bridge securely in place when those challenges transform the process for both of us. In the end, those transformations have made me a much better writer, and an infinitely better storyteller. I can’t speak for him—hopefully I haven’t given him too much gray hair. Poor dude. He definitely deserves a fruit basket.
From scene work to table conversations, your best collaborators are always going to be service oriented, so look for those. People who know how to sit at a table and negotiate fairly, and with excellent listening skills, are a good start.
And finally, a word from the producer’s mouth (that I use against him regularly). “You’re the creator—don’t compromise anything you can’t live with on the story you built. Only agree to changes you’re happy to make.” His words, not mine. Excellent advice.
Good luck, my friends. May your adaptation journeys be adventurous, fruitful, and pleasantly enriching in all conceivable ways.
The Producer submitted some changes to one of my scenes that had left me in a bit of a head spin. Most were a matter of personal taste, communication and frame of reference/experience—which we worked out by asking questions of one another’s intentions. The conversation was smooth, and we both got what we wanted with just a little clarification as to our own points of view for the others’ comfort. Oh, how I wish all collaborations could work that way.
What I didn’t bring up, because it wasn’t an important bone to pick at the moment was this scene where two changes were made because he clearly had no idea what I was talking about.
The original scene wherein someone clucks my female character’s chin, not once but twice. The Producer thought I had typoed and changed both instances to “Plucks”—with a P. (he was probably like, wtf is this Athena?)
I laughed when I read it because WHO IN GOD’S NAME REACHES OVER AND PLUCKS A CHIN? Like, was it hairy? Was there a stray whisker to be plucked?
Then I realized, the Producer is a man. He’s tall and confident, and strong—he has likely never been in a situation where other men/people condescendingly or even affectionately reach over and cluck your chin. He has no frame of reference for what it is to be a forty-year-old woman and have strange men, and sometimes well-meaning dudes of familiarity just help themselves to your face because you are a woman and socially groomed to be touchable. (yes, this is changing)
I changed all the “p/clucks” to “lift” because it was more understandable for a male to read it, but then I sat for a long time staring at my screen. What would it be like to not know, not even have a frame of reference for that level of lost autonomy on a social/societal level?
My whole life I have only ever known that as a woman, men would randomly cluck my chin, touch my cheek, pat my shoulder, touch my lower back, attempt to guide me by my shoulder through a doorway, and groom me in a dozen different physical ways because it is a constant state of gender role placement. Subtle dominance affirmations by way of micro actions—not bold enough to cause alarm, but just enough to assert hierarchy. What would it even be like to not have had to spend a decade avoiding physical touch because that social pattern was never a thing?
Some of these behaviors mask themselves behind chivalry, or a physical touch love language, which is a whole other conversation, and why some people can’t tell the difference between chivalry and socially dominant grooming and react to both with the same level of venom. No need to comment, here, we’ll circle back at some point. Chivalry is awesome and totally has a place in the world—but not when hiding or supporting toxic dominant placements or grooming. It’s a murky area, and many people don’t know how to differentiate the intentions in the moment. This problem is further compounded by people with physical touch or deeds as a love language. So we can chat about the multiple variances, and gray areas of interpretation some other time.
A chin cluck can be endearing (which is how I wrote it in the scene) or condescending. It can be dominant or encapsulating. It can be so many things—but evidently, not something a tall, strong, dude such as the Producer would ever need to anticipate, quantify, or work around. No dude would ever reach out and cluck another man’s chin, unless it was his son or younger male subordinate. So, of course, the Producer would not even know what the hell I was talking about in that scene.
The equally beautiful thing was that the Producer didn’t recognize it as an actionable word because it clearly also would never occur to him to perform a chin cluck. So, pluck was the obvious choice? A stray whisker pluck, perhaps? I adore him for the fact that the random face cluck is not part of his experience either as a giver or a receiver. His neutrality on the topic, and his nearest association of the action gave me giant warm feels. Pluck away, my friend. Pluck away. (Seriously, if I have a fucking chin hair, GET IT.)
And because the rabbit hole beckoned, I had to close my laptop and step away from it for a minute, with a sick feeling of loss in the pit of my stomach for the forty years spent being tuned to the reality that my experience has been so opposite from his.
God, how I wish it had just been a typo. What a world that would be. Just one little letter separated my world experience from his.
THIS is why we have art. THIS is why we tell stories.
We will never know the other side of the experience if we don’t tell stories, and listen to others’ stories—especially when it’s unsettling. Our own frame of reference cannot and should not be the only forms of acceptable truth. It’s uncomfortable—but knowing the other sides, finding empathy for those perspectives, is exactly how we heal and move forward… together.