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Articles and Reviews: FILM

How was it for you

Irish Writers' Experience with their work on film

Everybody in the film business knows the old joke about the Polish actress in Hollywood who was so dumb she slept with the writer as a means of furthering her career. But has anything changed, and if so, how? Is it just laziness these days for producers to option a novel, and then try to ‘develop the product’ as they revealingly put it, in their own utilitarian way? Or do they genuinely find it easier to get backing for a film of a book, as opposed to an original screenplay? Obviously, if you’re dealing with a popular best-seller like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Brendan O’Carroll’s The Mammy or any of Roddy Doyle’s novels, the chances are greater that you’re on to a sure-fire winner with the film version.




But what about the writers of the original texts? How much control do they retain over the screen version, when it comes to selling an option on their novel or short story? Does the amount of involvement they have depend on whether or not they write the screenplay themselves, or is their existing literary reputation a more decisive factor? Do they feel they are treated well or badly in the celluloid world? How was it for them?
The following collection of snippets and soundbytes from a trawl through the filmic experiences of various writers is necessarily random and incomplete. Many more writers were contacted, but were either reluctant to talk or unavailable or couldn’t be traced. Judging from those who did contribute, there are almost as many different stories as there are people willing to tell them.
Colin Bateman, author of Cycle of Violence and Divorcing Jack, both of which have been filmed, thinks it’s actually unusual for novelists to be asked to do the screenplay of their own work.
“Film-making is a team game, novel-writing is a single game. You do sell your soul when you agree to write a screenplay. A book will always be there, but a film is not always what you want. You do give up control and do have to change things, but you have to accept this.”
But do you know beforehand how much control you’re giving up, just how different a film will be?
“You know by watching other films based on books.”
Colin’s experiences with Cycle of Violence and Divorcing Jack were vastly different, and he is much happier with the screen version of the latter. Cycle of Violence was changed to have a happy ending tacked on, which did not please Colin. Also, the title was changed to Crossmaheart, since it was felt by the producers that this would chime better with American sensibilities, or lack of them.
“If you object, you’re out, and they get someone else in. You’ve no choice in the matter.”
But Divorcing Jack is, “basically the book. In fact, in many ways it’s better than the book, because the novel was published word for word and needed some editing, so the film script was a second chance to get things right.”
Colin is off to Cannes to raise money for Thanks for the Memories and Empire State, which have been commissioned by the BBC and Flashlight, respectively, and The Baby Snatchers, which is being promoted by his own company, Toddler Productions. He finds it straight-forward to write both novels and screenplays, but, “you can only do one novel per year. You can do a screenplay in three weeks, although you’re still editing it one year later.”
In general, he feels that if you grew up loving movies, as he did, you’re going to want to see your stuff on screen, in some shape or form.
Maeve Binchy didn’t write the screenplay for Circle of Friends, but was very happy with Andrew Davis’ treatment of it, and Pat O’Connor’s direction. Davis had already done the script of her short story ‘The Problem of Romance’ for TV.
“I write long sentences with lots of subordinate clauses, which doesn’t make for good screenplays. The novel of Circle of Friends was 600 pages, the screenplay was 98.” She admires people like Neil Jordan or Roddy Doyle, who can operate in both fields. She feels O’Connor got the mood of her book right, because he knows what the 1950s were like. She was surprised to find Circle of Friends labelled a costume drama, until she found it meant taking the yellow lines off the road and the TV aerials off the roofs.
“There’s no point in worrying about your lack of control. I sit in a room full of lawyers and try to adopt a casual attitude, and keep calm and distant, because your nerves would go if you took it too seriously.” She says her bargaining position is greatly strengthened by the fact that she can live off her books, although “most Hollywood people think you’re mad if you say you don’t need the money.”
She does care that any films of her books are made in Ireland, since it does her no good if they’re done abroad. The film of Circle of Friends brought her work to a much wider audience, particularly a younger one. She recalls a conversation with William Trevor in which he said that with a short story there is more possibility that it will be enhanced in filming, whereas with a novel it is more likely to be corrupted in the process. Evening Class has been optioned by Twentieth Century Fox for a year, but Maeve doesn’t know who, if anyone, will write the screenplay.
Two of Bernard McLaverty’s novels, Lamb and Cal, have been filmed, and he wrote the screenplay for both ventures. He enjoyed the experience and liked the end product of both.
“For any creative person, there’s a period of adjustment when you’ve finished a piece of work, whether it’s a novel or a film. With a screenplay, you must begin to detach yourself from the novel. Comparing a novel and a film is like comparing an apple and an orange: you can have a very good apple, and a very good orange, but there’s not much point in comparing them because they’re completely different.”
With the screenplay for Lamb, he departed from the novel, and director Colin Gregg took it back to its original source. With Cal, conversely, certain changes from the novel and screenplay were made in conjunction with Pat O’Connor. Bernard does feel that he missed out at the editing stage, since everything in a screenplay is filmed, but then scenes can be taken out. This was brought home to him when BBC Scotland made Sometime in August, based on his short story ‘More Than Just The Disease’, and he was able to become involved in the editing.
He speaks of the disappointment when a commissioned screenplay doesn’t get made, like The Man Who Stole The Mona Lisa, based on his own ‘Perugia’, or the 4 x 1 hour episodes he wrote for BBC Scotland of Patrick McGill’s Children of the Dead End, although he says that with writing screenplays, “...there’s a wonderful sense of achievement, because you can do 15 pages a day.” Perhaps most importantly, when he’s writing a novel he doesn’t think in terms of whether or not it would make a good film.
“Do you think Grace Notes would make a good film?” he asks, genuinely interested, when the subject of his Booker nominated novel comes up. If it ever does get to the screen, he’d like it to be a textured, complex layering, reminiscent of Nic Roeg’s Bad Timing.
Carl Lombard had his debut novel, The Disappearance of Rory Brophy, filmed as The Disappearance of Finbar, directed by Sue Clayton. Dermot Bolger wrote the screenplay, since the idea of Carl doing it himself was never a runner with Channel 4, given he fact that he was a first-time novelist who had never written a screenplay.
“It’s quite different to the book, but I liked the results. It doesn’t worry me to give up control, because it isn’t realistic to think you can retain it when there’s so many other people involved. When you think of the cost of making films, most of which are co-productions, things are bound to change along the way. Finbar had five or six different sources of finance.”
He is currently working on an adaptation of his second novel, Mortal Beings, with Tommy McArdle as co-writer and Tommy McArdle as director, although they have no finance in place as yet.
Colum McCann has written the screenplay for his novel Songdogs, which is being produced by Peter Newman, who made Smoke and Blue In The Face, and is “a great producer to work for, intelligent, daring, and looks after his writers.” Colum also worked on the short film Fishing The Sloe-Black River, based on his own short story and directed by Brendan Bourke.
“That was also a great experience, since we were both new to the game and had a lot of fun shooting it down in Kerry.”
He has just sold the film rights to his new novel This Side of Brightness, “basically sold my soul or at least a portion of it, as I will have no involvement except a vague consultancy role. You have to make a very simple choice: you either shit or get off the pot. There’s no in between. You either hang in and give your all to a screenplay, hoping that it will work, or you give the control to others and hope that it works out all right.”
What are the chief differences between writing a novel and a screenplay?
“The most obvious difference is that as a fiction writer you create the whole world, it’s one on one, but with a screenplay you know that it’s going to be filtered through dozens of other eyes - the producer, the director, the DoP, the costume designer and so on. If you make a mistake in your novel, it’s your mistake. With a film you can blame it on others. It’s the difference between creation and re-creation. A novel weighs so much more heavily on your shoulders. This is the beauty and difficulty of fiction.”
Is it easier to do a screenplay?
“For me, yes. In a screenplay ‘the sun rises’ and it only rises. It doesn’t rise in any particular colour or manner. That’s the director’s job - to give it the colour, the texture. In a novel the sun also rises, but with a different language. It’s your own language, it belongs to you.”
He would like to direct films eventually, but for now it’s the novels and short stories that drive him. “Writing screenplays pays for the writing of novels. I write screenplays so I can write novels. In general, I’ve had a very good experience with film, although I’d never hold my breath while waiting for a phone call from the industry. Fiction is much more important to me.”
Eoin McNamee is very pleased with the way the film of his novel Resurrection Man worked out, if not with the resulting controversy.
“It was very much a collaboration over three years with Marc Evans (Director), and I was more than satisfied with it, especially when you’ve got someone of the level of talent of Pierre Aim (DoP) working with you.”
He too uses the ‘apples and oranges’ analogy when talking of novels vis-à-vis screenplays. From the novel he took eight visual set pieces, and then wrote dialogue around them. “With a novel there’s the temptation to wonder all around the place. There is an ‘end game’ with a script, if you knock one brick out the rest can come tumbling down. At the same time, if you’re writing a screenplay of a novel, there’s always a template there to work from.”
His original screenplay I Want You has been filmed by Michael Winterbottom, and is due for September release. Another screenplay, The Lion Alone, based on a four page short story of his, is currently seeking finance, and Marc Evans, with whom he is again collaborating, is off to Cannes with it. Eoin finds that his next novel has had to go on to the back-burner because of the financial inducements offered by all these screenplays, but he hopes to get back to it soon.
Emma Donaghue is working on the second draft of the screenplay of her novel Stirfry, to be directed by Derbhala Walsh, and is enjoying it thoroughly.
“Novelists must have distance when writing a screenplay from their work. Stirfry was my first novel, and I’d got tired of it and disliked it, so doing the screenplay meant I could slash and burn, until I’d got something quite new. I wrote whole new scenes. The novel was set in 1989, but the film is contemporary, so it’s ten years latter. Even in that time, I thought the heroine would not be as naive now as she was then. We’ve got an up to date soundtrack too.”
She says that film is a new form for her, with different conventions and considerations than novel writing. She stresses how commercial considerations are so important in the film world, and how there is more emphasis on plot in film. She has written two plays, and says that theatre was a good preparation for the group process of film, which she enjoys.
“Plays and films are acted, a novel depends more on interior psychology.”
She is currently writing an original screenplay, titled Ex’s, which has not been commissioned but is for herself, and finds it liberating.
Deirdre Purcell thinks she has been very lucky, in that Richard Standeven, director of the TV version of Falling For A Dancer, put the script in the centre of the process, and she was around a lot during its making. She enjoys the collaborative process of film, although it is completely different to writing a novel, which is “clean, solitary, with more control. With film, the project is the thing, and everything is for the good of the project as a whole. The spine of the story may be the same, but there is a re-balancing of characters, for example. The two compliment each other.”
Is writing a screenplay easier?
“It’s not that one is ‘easier’ than the other. Nothing is ‘easier’. It may be easier to write dialogue, but dialogue is only a small part of a film.”
The BBC have commissioned a sequel to Falling For A Dancer for television, and the screenplay of Love Like Hate Adore is in development with RTE, Parallel Films and the Film Board.
Finally, the case of Jim Lusby, who wrote the detective novel on which the RTE series Making The Cut was based, should provide a salutary lesson for any novelists who are first-time screen-writers. RTE bought the rights, and the contract gave them full control, with Jim engaged as ‘script consultant’, which in his innocence he thought meant more than simply staying by the phone. The irony is that Jim’s agent advised him to sell to an independent British company, but he figured that since the book is set in Waterford, RTE would make a better job of it.
His complaints are that the national broadcaster employed British writer John Brown (who did Prime Suspect) and English director Martin Freynds (who did Rumpole), “men of undoubted talent and ability”, but who hadn’t enough experience of Irish society. Jim thought there was sufficient talent around in Ireland to do the series, but RTE disagreed. He cites the success of I Went Down, in a similar genre, to disprove their low opinion of Irish writers and directors.
Jim disliked that Making The Cut was moved out of Waterford into an anonymous ‘any port’, since locale is important in detective stories (think of Morse and Oxford), as is the idea of McAden, the hero, as ‘outsider’. Also, the series was pitched at high action, like a thriller, rather than the slower-paced detective yarn it is. Jim protested, but nothing was done. He realised that producer Paul Cusack didn’t have ultimate control, and he doesn’t who did, if anyone. The excuse given for the change of location was that the people of Waterford would be offended at having their town portrayed as a major site for the importation of drugs, an explanation which gives further evidence as to why the phrases ‘RTE’ and ‘corporate timidity’ have become synonymous.
In future, Jim would look at the contract first, and he would like to adapt the work himself. He makes the point that if novelists are making a living from their books, they have greater clout when it comes to dealing with TV and film, since there is always a tension between holding out for as much as once can get versus the possibility of them not buying it at all. RTE have bought an option on Flashback, the second McAden novel, but if Jim had to do it again, he would go with the English company, because he feels they probably would have done a better job, not being as hung up about local sensibilities.
So there you have it. Given the variety of experiences recounted, Raymond Chandler’s assertion that, ‘The making of a motion picture is an endless contention of tawdry egos, almost none of them capable of anything more creative than credit stealing and self promotion’ may seem unnecessarily harsh, but at the same time it is as well to be armed with these well-chosen admonitions and ammunitions, if one is going swimming with sharks.

First published in Film Ireland









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