Typically we hear about books being turned into movies. Occasionally, it happens the other way; a movie gets “novelized.” My friend Denene Millner  recently turned the screenplay for the movie “Sparkle” into a book , and I asked her to share with Writer Unboxed what that experience was like. Following is our Q&A:
How did the project come to you?
My brilliant agent, Victoria Sanders , conjured it up after several conversations with me about my love for Whitney Houston and the impact she had on my development into a young woman, and a few talks with the brother of the original “Sparkle” producer, Howard Rosenman . I’d been considering doing a book of personal essays about Whitney, and Victoria and I were working on that piece when she had those initial talks. After a conversation or two with Howard, and my revelation that the original “Sparkle” was/is one of my all-time favorite movies and Whitney is one of my all-time favorite voices, it came to pass that Howard thought I would make a fine writer for the project of turning his story and Mara Brock Akil ’s screenplay into a novel. So it was a stroke of genius on Victoria’s part, a stroke of luck on my part. The stars definitely aligned on this one.
Had you ever done a project like this before?
I had the great fortune of doing the novelization of “Dreamgirls ,” the 2006 film starring Beyoncé, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson, whose performance won her an Academy Award. That, too, was serendipitous: the editor who wrangled the rights to the novelization was someone with whom I’d worked on a few other projects and when she was looking for a writer—someone who could turn out a solid, well-written story on a wicked two-week deadline—she turned to me. Like the “Sparkle” project, I was sent the screenplay, did research on the era, the original project and the characters, and then wrote the story. It really is an incredible process: I love taking stories and filling in the back-stories of the plots, the characters and those moments that you don’t necessarily see in the movie. It is an awesome collaborative process.
Is the book different from the movie in any way? What creative spin does the author bring to something like this?
The book is different from the movie in that it fills in the back-story that is only alluded to in the film. So, in the film, when you see Mama (Whitney Houston) referring to her career as a singer and her daughter, Sister (Carmen Ejogo), accusing her mother of being a drunk and being a terrible mother, you can go to the book to see what, exactly, the two of them are talking about—to see what, exactly, that storyline is. There is only so much of the story that can fit into a two-hour movie, and some parts of it ultimately end up on the cutting room floor or aren’t explored at all. The beauty of the novelization process is that I get to make all of that up. I’m not sure how other authors of novelizations work or what kinds of restraints they had on telling the novel version of films, but in both instances for me, I was allowed free reign to make up as much of the story as I wanted, so long as my story hit all of the plot points and conversation being had in the film. So as a creator, I did have to follow specific parameters of the story—to respect them. But once that skeleton was laid, I got to fill in the blood and the sinew and the organs and the skin of the story, which is just a whole lot of fun as a writer.
I read the screenplay, marked it up according to which scenes would make stand-alone chapters, and then assigned myself a chapter a day….–Denene Millner
HA! First, I need everyone to know that writing a book in two weeks is neither easy nor normal. I’m given these deadlines because editors know I can deliver. But the reason I can deliver is because of my background as a daily news journalist—I worked as a news, political and entertainment reporter for, first, the Associated Press and later the New York Daily News for well over a decade. I learned early in my career to focus on the task at hand and to get the story out on deadline. Speed and accuracy have long been key talents of mine. In the case of “Sparkle,” I read the screenplay, marked it up according to which scenes would make stand-alone chapters, and then assigned myself a chapter a day, with the chapters being anywhere from eight to 18 pages, depending on what needed to be explored and said in the chapter. Luckily, I have a husband who is a writer and understands deadlines and my needs in order to get that done—peace, quiet, help with the kids, take-out. My kids are 13 and 10 and have grown up in the home of writers, so they get it when I say, “Mommy is on deadline.” They give me the space to get my work done, knowing that when it’s all over, I’ll be back to being a loving, attentive, deeply involved mommy.
Did you learn anything about writing fiction from the process? Will it affect how you approach your next novel?
It’s extremely hard to learn from a process that requires you to tell a story in two weeks. Mostly, I’m writing like a lunatic, just trying to get my thoughts and ideas onto the computer while staying true to the message and plot laid out for me. I do know that while I think I did a good job of telling this particular story, I could never tell my own fiction story effectively in that allotted time. Taking my time and really digging deeply into the work is a must for my own process—and sanity.
What are you working on now?
Right now, I’m working on a memoir with the world-renowned opera singer, Jessye Norman. She is absolutely delicious—elegant, worldly, historic, smart. She has an amazing story, and I’m so very proud to be a part of the telling. When I’m not researching, interviewing and writing her book, I’m working on www.MyBrownBaby.com , a parenting blog I founded in 2008. It’s here where I write about my other passion, raising beautiful brown babies. I am the mother of three—two daughters and a stepson—and I love examining the intersection of parenting and race, particularly as it relates to being an African American mom in the U.S. It’s a conversation that rarely is had in the national debate on motherhood, so it is on MyBrownBaby that I raise my voice and give space for moms like me to raise theirs. I write there every weekday and have a decent following that appreciates the discourse. Selfishly, the daily writing there also keeps me limber—keeps my mind moving, keeps me involved in debates on politics, race and childrearing, and keeps me connected with like-minded moms who are great resources for tips on how to raise beautiful, thoughtful, smart, well-rounded human beings.
WU folks, what do you think about novelizations? Got an example of a movie that has been successfully turned into a book?