In Texas I taught film adaptation. We took a short story and adapted it for the screen and shot it. It was a great experience for most. Well you can’t please all the students and in the words of my old pal Wally Rovner: Writing is the only subject where the students think they know more than the professor. Oh well. I did end up adapting one of my short stories into a screenplay and have just started sending it out. The story, “Still Life,”
received some great feedback.
Wonderful. There are so many writers trying to sound like beautiful losers and Bukowski-esque badasses. This story is the solution to all of that, with an actual badass being a writer. Great imagery towards the end with the coke and blood.
It was a great process and I learned that I like writing screenplays, but also discovered if I write them in prose first, I have better handle on the story. Second I learned that lining or breaking down
a script for budgeting is a splendid way to revise. For those of you who don’t know what that means, click the link. I caught so many things in the details because it made me focus on each element and consider how it read from a different perspective. It disengaged me from the story and characters and kept me searching for how each element added up to a whole. Not to mention I got to play with colored pencils. How fun is that?
Here is a small excerpt from the screenplay that is a scene in the short story for comparison. I think any short story writer would benefit from adapting a story into a script and then break it down as it will open the story up in unexpected ways and help you catch all those minor errors that seem to slip through. Kind of a double whammy, global and local as they say.
INT. BMW – MORNING
Hess and Jen drive out of Vegas into the desert toward Los Angeles. Jazz plays on the car stereo. The early sun shines slanted rays through the rear window. Hess wears mirrored sunglasses and his black suit, black shirt, but no tie.
Jen wears a vivid blue, short dress, knee high black boots, and her swallow charm on the gold chain. She looks through her camera viewfinder at the passing landscape. Jazz plays the car stereo.
POV OF THE PASSING LANDSCAPE THE CAMERA STOPS AND FIXES ON A POINT AND REMAINS FIXED ON THAT POINT UNTIL THE HEAD CAN’T TURN ANYMORE. THE CAMERA FOCUSES ON AN OFF-RAMP SIGN THAT IS STILL LITTLE DISTANT, BUT CLEAR IN HER LENS AND READS, SLOAN 1 MILE. THE CAMERA SNAPS TAKING A PHOTO.
Pull off here.
We just got out of town.
There’s a shot I need for the show I’m thinking about for a gallery in Soho.
Soho, some ho.
(Rolls her eyes.)
Just pull over.
Hess pulls off.JEN SWALLOWS
Go left and take a right at the stop sign.
They merge onto the old highway, drive past a few older buildings that hadn’t caught up to the Vegas boom. Someone has zip-tied a sun-faded and wind-ragged teddy bear to a cross that had been pounded into the ground at the asphalt’s edge.
Is that a warning to all the other teddy bears?
He laughs. She does not.
A kid was killed here. A pickup lost control and flipped him out.
How in the hell do you know that?
She looks at him like a chimp had talked.
You don’t have to say it like that.
I’ve told you before about how I track things down.
I must’ve been high. You don’t need to act like I missed Christmas.
Seems like you don’t listen to me at all.
Hess stares out at the bear and the cross.
The parents should swap out that bear. You think maybe that particular bear belonged to the kid and no other bear would do?
She flips her hair back.
You are such a flippant moron.
Jen gets out and walks around and takes pictures, while Hess watches. She gets back in the car. Hess stares out the window.
Research. Did your research tell you what it’s like to watch one of these kids die? You ever even seen one of these accidents? I mean up close and not in some fucking picture.
Hess grips and un-grips the steering wheel. Jazz continues to play on the car stereo.
I was a paramedic. Once I watched a little girl die after her mom backed over her. When I pushed on the little girl’s abdomen she screamed, yelling about how much I hurt her. The mom freaked out, grabbed me. My partner wrestled with her. It took only a minute, maybe less. I can’t remember, but when, you know . . . when you get off track how you can’t remember exactly where you’re at. You get fixed on that one thing. You clear her airway, start mouth-to-mouth because that’s the obvious problem, but that’s no help because she’s bleeding into her guts. When you realize you just felt her last breath in your mouth, it kind of fucks with you. I’d seen adults die, but not a kid.
Jen reaches and touches his shoulder. Hess CLEARS his throat and wipes at the corner of his eye.
I’ll never forget how angry I was. That mom, she’s yelling and screaming, and I’m thinking she was yelling at me and there’s this crowd of fucking suburbanites standing around.
Hess POUNDS the steering wheel, causing Jen to flinch.
And I’m thinking this is just a spectacle for them, like this little girl is a beached whale.
All I could think was I had just sucked in her last breath.
Hess takes a cigarette from his case, lights it, hands it to her, then lights one for himself.
You know what I did then?
Hess waits, but Jen doesn’t answer.
I lost my temper, like it seems I do. I hit some dad wearing Dockers who was mouthing some crap. The cops arrested me. The ambulance company fired me. Good luck getting another job with that kind of recommendation, so I went to see an old high school pal in Vegas.
Hess put his hand on her leg.
Jen turns her head away, but Hess keeps looking ahead.
He removes his hand from Jen’s leg and shifts the Beemer into drive. Hess wheels the car around, heading for the on-ramp.
3 Replies to “Adapting to the Screen”
I remember reading this way back when and thinking it would make a great film.
This seems like a fantastic technique even if you aren’t thinking of adapting. Find holes that need filling and fat to trim.
I love the idea of writing a screenplay in prose first.