Adapt or Die: Why screen adaptations work
While adaptations are popular in Hollywood – with franchises such as Harry Potter and The Twilight Saga constantly taking huge box office dollars – they aren’t so common in Australia.
According to Matthew Hancock’s Mitigating Risk research paper (published in 2010 through AFTRS' Centre for Screen Business), of the 200 Australian dramas released between 1999 and 2008, only 38 were adaptations. This marks only 19 per cent – whereas in the US about 70 per cent of Hollywood’s output were adaptations, while in the UK it was almost half.
Screenwriter Ross Grayson Bell, best known for producing the adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club, suggests this could be because of a financial barrier optioning books.
Producers can option a book over and over again, spending money in developing a film only for them to lose the option because of the author.
“You usually option it for 18 months, with the exclusive rights to option for another 18 months – so that gives you a minimum of three years and that’s the minimum you need to get a screenwriter, get it adapted, and to try and raise financing,” he says.
Prices can be substantial – a novel by Australian author Marele Day was optioned for more than $50,000 for 18 months after US actor Winona Ryder was attached.
“But in Australia, if the author believes that you’ve got the right team to make the film, then I think you can negotiate the price down.”
The purchase fee – which tends to be 2-3 per cent of the total production budget – is paid at the start of the production after it has been financed.
Publisher Jane Palfreyman, of Allen & Unwin – which published The Slap – says only 28 of the company’s titles have been optioned over the past decade. It publishes about 80 novels in Australia annually. Very rarely will any end up on the screen.
“It really is a long and exhausting process, so producers have to be absolutely sure that they can adapt it in the way they want to because I think in a lot of ways, it’s easier to go straight from a script,” she says.
As of late-October, only seven out of 23 local films that screened at cinemas in 2011 were adaptations. Three of the top five films were based on books, grossing almost $26 million at the local box office (out of $36 million in total).
Adaptations are seen as a positive on many fronts – studios are more confident supporting a project if it’s already been “tested”; authors of the original works receive another income while attracting new fans; and long-term fans are offered another experience via a different platform.
While long-term fans are often critical of the screen version they often still come out in droves to see it at their local multiplexes.
“If you’ve got a classic, it’s really hard to do because you’ve got all those expectations coming in,” Grayson Bell says.
But screenwriter Jan Sardi (Mao's Last Dancer, Shine) says filmmakers need to assume that about 90 per cent of audience-goers won’t have read the book before seeing the film.
“So the film has to have its own complete, unassailable logic to it.”
The biggest films of the past two years in Australia – Red Dog and Tomorrow, When the War Began – were both based on novels, by Louis de Bernières and John Marsden respectively.
Red Dog’s producer Nelson Woss says the team “captured the soul of the book” when bringing it to the big screen. The author embraced the screen version and even had a cameo as a miner.
“We had to change the structure because the book was episodic in nature whereas we created a three-act screenplay.”
Some industry pundits believe film adaptations work best when they are based on a short story – as there’s plenty of room to expand – whereas books are best adapted for TV.
“The best single thing for an adaptation is a short story because it gives you the flexibility to write outwards,” screenwriter Andrew Knight (Jack Irish) says. “There’s latitude in a short story – there’s the bones of the story, the essence of the story and then you can move outwards.”
However TV was certainly a better option for recent successes: cloudstreet and The Slap.
Palfreyman says the latter wouldn’t have worked as a film.
“The Slap is a perfect example of a screen adaptation that is just such a fantastic faithful representation of the book,” she says. “If it had been a film it would have been unbelievably shortened – I just don’t know how you could have done it really.”
Tim Winton’s novel cloudstreet was famously set for a feature film adaptation in the US however Foxtel snapped up the rights to it after long delays in development.
“There’s something to be said about the pace that TV works,” Grayson Bell says.
Grayson Bell, who is the head of screenwriting at AFTRS, says for the first time the school will bring adaptations into the teaching curriculum in 2012.
This itself is a positive direction – good for fans, authors, producers, the box office and the future of the Australian film industry.
Check out IF Magazine's December 2011-January 2012 (#144) edition for more information on screen adaptations.