The Butcher, the Baker, the Mad Screenplay Maker

Prof. Sassafrass Heartwrench begins class.
Prof. Sassafrass Heartwrench begins class.

The MFA program I’m applying for wants a screenplay. I’ve never written a screenplay, and so I thought that taking my novel and turning it into a screenplay would be the easiest thing to do.

More the fool me.

I’ve cut the first chapters. Three or five? I’ve lost count. Characters are deleted. Scenes relocated. And it makes me wonder if these scenes should’ve been cut from the novel in the first place.

If you have ever criticized a movie for butchering a novel, pick up your own cleaver and give this process a whirl. See how much blood you spill.

So, for those of you who have read my novel The Labyrinth House, here are the butchered bits. Instead of beginning in the house with Mercie and her housemate, we begin in front of the aunt’s house with the mom and dad. The horrible cousin is gone. The grandmother is no longer upstairs, but downstairs. And the mother’s promise is broken before Mercie goes into the woods instead of after.

But, you know, the spirit is the same. Right?

What movie do you think does justice to the book it is based on? And what movie was a travesty? Why do you think one adaptation works and another doesn’t? What book would you love to see turned into a film?

12 thoughts on “The Butcher, the Baker, the Mad Screenplay Maker

  1. One of the best screen adaptations I’ve ever seen is To Kill A Mockingbird. It was well-handled relative to the movie. I also thought Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot — both treatments, actually — turned out excellent, if not exact replicas of the book.

    Most other King books translated into movies over the last, say, 20 years or more? Not so much.

    The Bourne movies don’t follow each other well enough to be compared; they’re so different, it’s almost another character.

    Jaws was an excellent adaptation, if glorified a bit for the movie.

    I think one of the biggest travesties — and unnecessary as far as I can tell — was the original Little House on the Prairie series compared to the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. VERY different, and not for the better. I think the more recent movies show a much better translation of the books.

    One of the best screenplays-into-novels I’ve ever seen done was Alien. Brilliant.

    Honestly, I don’t know how many books I’ve read where there was a movie with it. More than I would’ve expected, but not much.

  2. Definitely, if you go into a movie theater expecting to see the book on the screen, you’re going to be disappointed. Watchmen was an attempt to be literally true to the book, and it ended up being way too packed with stuff to be a great movie. I think the cut you made is an acceptable one, but don’t worry about those scenes being unnecessary in the book as well, because a book is a different animal.

  3. Whatever happens with the MFA, what a great exercise it is for you to turn your novel into a screenplay. I’m not sure what you would learn, but I think you would learn a lot.

    One great adaptation that I’ve seen is Sense and Sensibility, I loved Emma Thompson adaptation. Movies and novels are completely different genres and need different attacks.

  4. Well, I agree with Darc on most of his movie picks, but I didn’t watch Salem’s Lot or Jaws. The Bourne series and the Little House series of shows/movies weren’t true to the books at all, other than character names.

    What would I love to see turned into a film? Anything by Brad Thor or Vince Flynn, and also Patrick Taylor. 🙂

    Screenplay writing seems like it would be a lot different than novel writing. Perhaps this is why I can find a lot of good stuff to read but not a lot to watch?

  5. Turning a novel into a screenplay is essentially reducing a novel to a short story. Bill Styron said he liked how his Sophie’s Choice was cut to fit a film format. I thought the Coen Bros did a good job with No Country for Old Men. A reasonably good translation from short story to film was Brokeback Mountain. Both film versions of The Postman Always Rings Twice were pretty good renditions, although I liked Garfield a tad better than Nicholson. Not to forget the rendition of Our Man in Havana from novel to film.

  6. Your novel-to-screenplay project scared the heck out of me. (Maybe precisely because it made so much sense, at least as an exercise.)

    Best movie adaptation of a book: The Wizard of Oz. Even allowing for that “I could be a dingle-derry” clanger of a line, and a couple of others. I’m sure people still go back to read the original; I wonder how many of them leave the experience scratching their heads and wondering what fire must have been lit in the filmmakers’ heads, to have forged THAT out of THIS.

    I also really liked the film of A Clockwork Orange, although Anthony Burgess did not. Since I’d already read the book, it was interesting to see the kinds of things Stanley Kubrick had (or chose) to ignore or exaggerate. A shame that he had to give up the rich, made-up language of the book, though.

    Sherri mentioned Watchmen, which I just saw. Some of the reviews derided the florid speech of the Rorschach character, but it tracked pretty darned well with what I remembered of the book and I didn’t mind it at all. I hate it when a movie changes the striking voice of characters in the literary source, and not for the better.

  7. Oh I LOVE The Wizard of Oz–which you may already know.

    Anyway, my main quibble was the ending–it was all a dream! Ugh. I really want movies to keep the voice if not the scenes.

    Last year I read Howl’s Moving Castle after seeing the movie. SO DIFFERENT. Both great.

    It is hard to tell why it works.

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