A few days ago I went through some of my old writing files on my computer seeing what jumps out at me and what inspires me today; and, for some unexplained reason, my mind began to think about film adaptations.
There is a great public misnomer about film adaptations. When you hear people talk about films adapted from books or plays, the audience seems to think that the screenplay writer had a choice in making changes for the big screen. “Why couldn’t he have just filmed the book?” You would hear that complaint a lot around the Harry Potter films in podcasts and forums, for example.
The fact is film is a different medium than books, and with it comes its own limitations and strengths. While the borders on a book are only limited by the imagination of the reader (and writer), a film has to be focused on one point at a time, understanding that there is only so much space on the screen at any given moment. Length, pacing, and audience need to be considered (You can’t have things happen “off screen” in a movie, for example; the audience will think it didn’t happen if they didn’t see it).
The greatest difference between film and books, is that a film has got to “earn” your attention for every minute. It is harder for a film to “suspend disbelief.” Which means a story, while in a book can be stretched out, in a film there has to be action. In other words, there must always be movement; it’s how they keep our eyes on the screen and our hands out of the popcorn bowl.
I studied film writing while at USC and I have written quite a few original screenplays that I would love to see made someday. However, there seems to be a growing collection in my imagination of things I would like to attempt in script form. Here are four written projects I would love to adapt for the big screen someday.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
For five years, one of my pet projects was around adapting Hamlet. I have my own unique vision of it (and new stagings around many of the famous scenes in it- my “to be or not to be” is crazy awesome, if I don’t say so myself), and it is a work I return to again and again. After I finished that script, I toyed around with As You Like It (setting it in New Orleans around the rise of jazz if you want to know), but stopped after Branagh’s great version came out.
Then my own idea hit for Midsummer.
I have always loved this play. One of my great experiences in a theater was seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 90’s. If I haven’t written about this show and its impact on me before I would be surprised. I saw it two nights in a row, I was so impressed. Yet, my vision for the film will be very different from that one.
My dream is to set Midsummer in Chicago during the Great Depression and I want to fill it with many of the theatrical visions of that period. It will take place in a rundown theater and audience members are the characters (Inspired by radio shows such as The Jack Benny Show) going up to the stage as it transforms the entire theater into the forest and then returns it. I even want to do something with Shakespeare songs and poems put to music as if they were being sung by Sinatra; interspersing the music throughout the show via radios.
I don’t see it being a very expensive production (Shakespeare films rarely can be), but there is a lot of potential in the idea of wonder and humor. I still have hope that I can work on this script someday. I would hate for it to simply join my other screenplays in the waiting folder on my desktop.
I’m late to the comic book game, but I know a lot of people brush off “The Big Red Cheese” as only a young boy’s fantasy; as compared to Batman, the Flash, etc. Yeah, I get that—what young boy doesn’t want to turn into an adult superhero?—but for me there is something around the mythology of this character and his universe of characters that I find really intriguing. And the more I explore superhero stories, the more my imagination keeps returning to this character. There is something there that really inspires me.
The simple fact is I want to write the screenplay for this movie. I want to write it really badly; and I am brimming with ideas of where to take the characters.
See, what first got me about Billy Batson, is the fact he decided to be good while he had so much going against him; he is alone, an orphan in the big city, he is bullied… and yet, he still is on the right path and there is something very heroic in that to me, even before he is given the powers by the Wizard Shazam.
I see the film beginning with the rise and fall of Black Adam in ancient times (We introduce him when he puts the finished head on the sphinx and it is his own likeness). This is all done before the opening credits and is narrated by the young voice of Billy. After Black Adam goes mad with the death of his family and begins to destroy cities and countries, the wizard Shazam will turn him into a statue. The camera would then pull back to see the statue is in a museum and Billy is explaining the statue to some strangers who don’t seem to care. There is a taste of the beginning, for ya.
I see the villains in the film being Black Adam and Doctor Sivana. Thematically they both represent temptations for young Billy- power and control (via science). I also see appearances of Mary and Freddie, but not as their Marvel family characters yet. For me this film is all about Billy undergoing the tests to be Captain Marvel and battling Black Adam, and later Doctor Sivana after he has stolen the powers of Black Adam. (Am I giving away too much to my synopsis?)
Now I’m sure this will be made someday by someone, and that writer will probably take an over-the-top comedy approach to it (I keep horrifically imagining Big with more fart jokes), totally destroying my own unique vision of where such a story can go (Talk to me about Scooby Doo and what a major misstep I thought those movies were); but for the time being, I see this as an epic spreading over thousands of years and covering most of the globe. Not to say I won’t include humor (I have an idea around the New York Yankees that would be great), but that to me is not what the story is about; it’s about inner strength, finding what you have inside to be a hero.
Suffice to say DC Comics should call me, the film could rock.
A Tale of Two Cities
Every time I’ve watched an adaptation of this classic novel by Charles Dickens, I always feel like something is missing and that is the horror and terror that comes with the fall of civility in a society.
Think about that book’s opening with Mr. Lorry recalling Dr. Manette back to “life.” What a great moment visually to introduce the audience to the themes and the plight of France at that time.
This is a tense film for me. It feels taught like a roped stretched too far with a weight on the other end. Everything (the court during Darnay’s case, the people on the street) and anything could break that rope in a second.
For me, though, what really inspires me to put this to pen is the return of Charles Darnay to France. There is a terror there, a suspense that is just waiting to be mined in the dark alleys and crowds that pass him on the street.
I also want to write the scene of Sydney Carton on the cart on the way to the guillotine. I want to give him a moment with his head down in grief and then something stirs in him… and he rises to his feet. Proud, and now strong, and then the camera pulls back and we see over the yelling and taunting crowds the guillotine waiting him in the distance. That is the ending image I want in my adaptation.
This book gives me chills, always has.
The Magician’s Nephew
While there are scenes I love in each of the Narnia books, I always return to this one as my favorite. There is a childlike wonder and tragedy in it that the other books want. These children aren’t just on an adventure (like Lucy in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe), they have a need. They are trying to find a way to save Digory’s dying mother.
When Digory begs for the life of his mother and is given the apple by Aslan, it sent shivers down my spine as a kid. The fact the apple only lasts for a little while, granting her only so much time more is an honesty about life that you rarely seem to have in Lewis’ vision of religion being the great savior of the masses.
I want to write about the emptiness of the world where they find the witch Jadis. I love, love, love the words on the bell that wakes the witch:
Make your choice, adventurous Stranger
Strike the bell and bide the danger
Or wonder, till it drives you mad
What would have followed if you had
Her character and her coming into England at the turn of the century… That could be a lot of fun.
But like with the other Narnia films, they will probably try to find more opportunities for action adventure, leaving the poetry of some of the visual of the story lost. Still, I would love to get my grubby little screenplay writing hands on this book.