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Losing Control and Loving It

Added on by Gamal Hennessy.

By Gamal Hennessy

Reading isn’t the main media for storytelling in the 21st century. Film and TV have replaced the written word as the primary source of entertainment. This means if a writer wants to reach the widest audience possible, the best thing she can do is have her story optioned for adaptation into a movie or TV series. Stephen King, Frank Miller, J.K. Rowling and Joss Whedon are just a few authors who ascended to the next plateau of success by jumping from the page to the screen.

But there is often an inverse relationship between commercial success and creative control. While some creators have enough leverage in TV and film to have a major impact on the transformation of their stories, many don’t. Even the authors who do get to write the screenplay or act as producers give up much of the control over their story’s direction. This occurs for several reasons:

  • Collaboration: Writing is often a solitary art. TV and film almost always have various layers of artists, each with their own talents and vision for your story. When screenwriters, directors, actors, editors and dozens of other people put their stamp on your story, what comes out on the screen will be very different from the image you created sitting alone at your desk.
  • Transference: Different media lend themselves to different types of conflict in a story. (See What is the Best Media Outlet for Your Writing) Prose has a superior ability to explore internal conflict. Theater has a strong emphasis on interpersonal conflict and film has the ability to render extra-personal conflict to an amazing degree. When your book becomes a film, the story has to be adapted to fit the new medium.
  • Time: Your book might take a reader hours, days or weeks to finish. You could write one hundred or two hundred thousand words and fill your story with flashbacks, subplots and other tangential elements that work perfectly on the page. But even a long movie is less than three hours. A TV series might only be fifteen episodes. A lot of material from your book might have to be discarded to fit the time constraints of the screen. Your story might need to be altered yet again to create a logical connection between the remaining elements. Readers of the book will, and often should, see a different story on the screen than they did on the page.
  • Cost: Ideas are free. Words are almost free. You can imagine and write about any scenario, setting or creature you want without worrying about cost. But locations, special effects and actors are not free. The things you imagine might cost millions to translate onto the screen. Production budgets rise with each new summer movie season, but your story can and will change to fit the budget constraints of film production.

There are, of course, extremes on both sides of this experience. Frank Miller’s stories are known for their dogmatic adherence to the source material. Watching Sin City or 300 is really just watching the graphic novel in motion. But authors like Barry Eisler have a different experience. Although he’s been a best-selling author for more than a decade, he doesn’t expect to have much input on the adaptation of his John Rain series by Keanu Reeves. In his own words “If they think my involvement will be useful, I’m sure I’ll be involved. Otherwise, I’m looking forward to making popcorn and enjoying the show like everyone else. Either way, I’ll be happy.”   

Keep in mind, it is rare for an author to get their book optioned for a screenplay or TV series in the first place. There are thousands of screenwriters pitching work created specifically for the screen and they often take precedence over novels. Most books don’t translate well enough into the mainstream to justify the financial risk, so often only the runaway bestsellers (or books made in the same style) find their way to movies. For the thousands of authors who never find financial success in books, there are thousands of profitable book authors who never make it to the screen. And authors who navigate those hurdles will often lose much, if not all, of the creative control over their work. But in this scenario, popularity and revenue can replace creative control. Just be sure your contract gives you enough compensation for you to sit back and enjoy your work on screen with everyone else.

Have fun.