Please join me in welcoming WU’s newest contributor, Julie Carrick Dalton! Julie holds a Master’s in Creative Writing and Literature from Harvard Extension School and has won several literary awards, including the 2017 William Faulkner Literary Competition. Her agent, Stacy Testa at Writers House, is currently seeking a home for her first novel. Learn more about Julie here at WU or on her website.
Do you ever get a feeling when you read a novel or memoir that this story is destined for the big screen? Maybe it’s a sweeping landscape like in Unforgiven, or an untold slice of history as in Unbroken. Or something…undefinable. You just feel it.
Like many novelists, I secretly dream about my words becoming a movie. (Don’t pretend you don’t do it too.) There’s no check list, no rule, for what kind of books successfully translate to film, but I’ve often wondered if there was some elusive quality that catapults a story from the page to the screen.
I set out on a quest to answer a single question: What makes a book a great candidate for film adaptation?
I started my search at the place where story meets its audience: The Sundance Film Festival. For ten days every January, storytellers swarm Park City, UT, with fresh movies, many of which started out as books. The film adaptations of The Virgin Suicides, last year’s acclaimed Mudbound, and 2018’s breakout The Miseducation of Cameron Post, all came out of Sundance, along with countless other book-to-film adaptations.
After a Sundance screening of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, I talked with producer Michael Clark about his movie, adapted from the novel by Emily Danforth about a teenage girl forced to go to Christian conversion therapy camp after being caught kissing another girl.
I needed to know. Why this book?
He didn’t answer right away. “I don’t know.” He paused again, then said he was moved by the characters. He appreciated the way the author treated even the antagonists with compassion and complexity. And he was drawn to the ambiguous, and somewhat unsettling, ending, which felt right for this cultural moment.
He didn’t mention anything about visuals or scenery. It was all character, story, and timing for him.
I needed more information.
I staked out a table in the Sundance Filmmakers Lodge and chatted with as many industry folks as I could. Someone must have the answer to my question, after all, this was Sundance, right?
That’s where I met Jacquill Moss, a young, up-and-coming filmmaker. When we started talking about movies, Jacquill’s eyes lit up. This is a guy who loves film. He will definitely have the answer, I thought.
When I asked him what makes a book a good candidate for adaptation, he said, “If I’m reading a good book and I can see it, if I can visualize it. But it’s about more than just visualization. You have to feel something.”
Jacquill pointed to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the novel that was adapted into Blade Runner, as his favorite book-to-film project because it delivered on the world created in the book.
“Writers should think cinematically if it helps them write, if it helps them find the ‘realness’ they are looking for,” Moss said. But, he added, it’s hard to describe what makes a novel cinematic. “You know it when you see it.”
These conversations with filmmakers fascinated me. But, I still didn’t have a clear answer to my question. I packed up, and left the Filmmakers Lodge to rethink my approach.
If anyone could help me, it was going to be Lane Shefter Bishop, CEO of Vast Entertainment. A producer and director, she has built her business on finding books and adapting them for film.
“I think, for me anyway, it’s more about a novel’s concept, idea, or story being really unique, than about whether or not it’s visually cinematic,” Lane said. “I think good candidates for adaptation deal with universal themes that a wide audience can relate to, but are very unique in some way.”
Regardless of the genre, Lane said she looks for books that can be described in succinct terms. She offered advice for novelists trying to attract the attention of producers. “Authors should remember to create a strong logline for their material, because folks in Hollywood have short attention spans,” she said. Lane is so passionate about that one-line pitch that she wrote an entire book on the subject. (Sell Your Story in a Single Sentence: Advice from the Front Lines of Hollywood.)
By this point in my investigation, I was quite confused. Michael Clark looked for characterization. Jacquill Moss wanted something he could visualize. Lane Shefter Bishop searched for succinct universal themes.
I made one more phone call. This time, I went straight to the source: a novelist whose book is currently being adapted. [Read more…]