To Adapt or Not to Adapt
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.
New Year, New Updates!
My winter writing season is half over already. Let’s be honest, I used some of that time to catch up on rest and getting organized, only to realize—I’m still far from being as organized as I’d like.
The updates are as so:
The Pillars of Dawn streaming adaptation comes to life more each day! The hardest part of the adaptation process so far is not being able to share the bigger breakthroughs. I am allowed to say, and I’m proud to do so, that all but two reader/fan requests were heard and answered with regard to casting suggestions and desires for the series. That is not to say that most of those performers and writers were interested in attachment, no. BUT I can say with pleasure they/agents were all contacted with the exception of two as they had no agent or manager to reach. What a privilege to be able to live in a time as an author wherein the ability to reach out and invite collaborators from the very hearts and minds of readers who enjoyed the books and envisioned certain performers in the parts. I can’t even express how grateful I am that we got to do that. It never hurts to ask, and it was such an honor to do so. Any unfilled attachments will likely be studio or producer picks. Although, I reserve the right to send a few more out as inspiration strikes.
I have dearly enjoyed this part of the process. Meeting new people, speaking with performers and creatives from all over the world has been such a wonderful surprise. So deeply fulfilling. I’ve learned so much from agents, managers, and executives at all levels. The next stage is a total mystery. I have no frame of reference for what happens next in adaptation, but I hope you’ll stay tuned to discover it with me. The wild ride continues!
Welcome to The Pillars of Dawn adaptation chronicles. I’ll be updating and documenting the adaptation process in this category over the coming months.
Secondly: BOOKS! BOOKS! BOOKS!
I’m in the process of finalizing The Pillars of Dawn refurbishment and relaunch for Sinnet of Dragons, Murder of Crows, and Scold of Jays. The editing and proofing team is coming together, and the story development group who will take over the wiki development is poised to receive all the Rubber Maid tubs and external hard drives from my worldbuilding stock as soon as we have a formal team decision.
Some big decisions still need to be made in the refurb process to align certain areas of the arcs and timeline to match slightly better with the streaming adaptation. This is only possible because I haven’t mass distributed before and the books are still being cleaned and repackaged for relaunch.
The most notable of these changes is pulling the first five chapters off Plague of Gargoyles and adding it to the end of the Scold of Jays relaunch, so the series will have matching season and book endings.
I’m still sitting on the fence about it—as it would require readers to repurchase Scold of Jays and that doesn’t sit well with me. So, meetings on the issue will continue.
This transition phase is messy. Most of the details and world building are currently in my brain- getting everyone on the same page, same timeline, same agenda/budget schedule/expectation is almost entirely dependent on extracting canon and pushing content out of my head onto a shared network which is also dependent on funding and an agile project management workflow.
From the wiki world build we will be able to hand off to producers and studios the full Muse-verse. All of it. It’s been in my head for so long, I didn’t realize how massive the world had gotten until I had to start teasing out the threads, sub-threads, and spinoff channels. Also, the game developers and other transmedia developed content will stem from that formal knowledge database.
Some days I sit in front of the screen to transcribe old notes from the tubs for the drobox and I’m instantly exhausted. Twenty years of notes… where do I even start? Yet, it needs to be done, so, coffee. Which brings me to worldbuilding.
This is one of my favorite parts of IP development. The adaptation has been an interesting challenge in that, there are few reliable IP adaptation sources for reference. At least not that I’ve found or that I trust. There are dozens of great worldbuilding guides and tools, but few of those take and existing franchise and convert it to transmedia functionality with team developmental support.
So, after an exhaustive tool search and several meetings with providers—I settled on my choice of platform, which will be a hybrid and mostly developed by myself and my group as we go.
That said, I made the decision to release some of the forms and processes as we go for anyone else out there who is struggling with taking a cumbersomely large IP and extensive world build and streamlining/packaging it for transmedia development.
Maybe it will help someone else, because hell’s bells, I would have loved to have been walked through this earlier in my career or set up with growth tools a decade prior to this point.
The parts I’m most excited about are the world constructs AND the exportable character maps for performer packages.
World constructs are a given, and used in multiple adaption platforms. So, that’s not new.
But being able to build out a performer package for each character is huge. I’m so stoked about this. Giddy with new tools to support crews, designers, and performers!
During the attachment process, there wasn’t much I was really allowed to say to prospective performers about the arcs of their characters without giving away spoilers. A standard handoff to a performer might include a set of attributes or characteristics/movement/motivations yadda yadda. BUT a character map export handoff allows the stages of a character’s development to be arced, broken into relationship interactions and sectioned into development stages and parceled out to a performer based on stages of production and publication, etc. It is a meatier glimpse into their background with extra tools and goodies the public might not know—while still protecting their future development and allowing a production team to control reveals, mitigate leaks, as well as allow performers to live more in the moment of the scene rather than the ending they know is coming.
It's controversial. Some folks are fully against the tool while others think it’s amazing. The plan is to build it in—and let the production team decide how to use it. There if they want it, but they don’t have to use it.
In the end, I hope the adaptation process made a bit more public will help others with their projects too. If you’re in the midst of building out an IP adaptation, follow this space for news and tools.
Have a fantastic 2023! I hope this year sets you all up for grand new adventures and an embarrassment of rich blessings.
Athena lives and writes in the Siuslaw Forest, Oregon.