I’M AT A LAKE IN WEST VANCOUVER, British Columbia. At least I think it’s a lake. It could be a sound, or an inlet, or a bay. In any case, it’s a body of water, and with the evergreens and sizable rocks lining the shore and covering the smaller land masses across from us, against a sharp, blue sky, it’s a beautiful morning. I meet and hug a petite young woman with lightly freckled skin and expressive eyes, who is portraying a character that I created in the movie version of my book—now being filmed here in West Vancouver.
In the book, the story is set in a small town on the Pacific Ocean, near San Francisco. No one would mistake this coastline and its untouched beauty for that one. A couple of people from the production have come up to me already to ask, “Is it like you pictured it when you wrote the book?”
I laugh. “No.” How could it be?
I don’t mean it as a criticism or to imply that they’ve failed in some way. It’s just not possible for it to look the way I pictured it when I wrote the book. The book version doesn’t even look like I pictured it when I wrote the book. The story was a thing that lived inside my head, that sprang from some mysterious place, that I did my best to translate into the written word. The breakdown in communication started there. Then, when the reader receives the story she recreates it in her imagination, and even if they are working from the same set of words, a hundred readers can come up with a hundred variations on how exactly the story materializes in a person’s brain. When the written word then moves into the material world in a film, into bodies and places, into voices and gestures, into budgets and schedules and marketing departments, it changes yet again.
A book is an adaptation of a vision, a screenplay is an adaptation of the book’s version of the vision, and the movie is an adaptation of the screenplay.
In the movie of my book, the pizza place meant to be a run-down hole in a strip mall is now a freestanding restaurant with a deck and a view. Sixteen-year-olds are played by twenty-somethings. Where I pictured fog and muscle cars, there are sun and SUVs. Much of the dialogue comes straight from what I wrote, but not all. Many of the plot points are the same, others vary, and some are totally gone.
Still, as I watch a day of filming, sitting behind the director and wearing my own headset so I can hear the actors, there is the thrill of recognition. I wrote those words. I invented these characters. The spirit of my vision has made it through this ten-year journey from published book to film set basically intact. I’m happier than I’ve been about something related to my writing in a long time, and I believe I’d feel this way even if the movie wasn’t quite so recognizable as my story, because I love movies and I love this process and it almost seems like a kind of miracle that from these short scenes, these numerous takes and setups, this messy and repetitive operation, a completed visual story with a beginning, middle, and end, with emotion and humor and life, will emerge.
Three years earlier, on my forty-third birthday, I got a tattoo. My first. I thought for a long time about what it would be and finally settled on a victor’s cross, a Greek cross adorned with the symbols for Jesus Christ and victor, or conqueror. After a season of midlife and spiritual crises, I was looking for a way to externalize something I found otherwise difficult to articulate. I wanted to bring this experience and conviction out of my head and onto my body, and now I forever have my identification with Jesus inked onto my forearm. A part of me hoped this meant I would never again doubt who or what I claim to follow.
After the elation of finally doing it, the inclination to regret kicked in. Is it too big? Is it in the right place? Do I really believe what it symbolizes? What am I going to say when strangers ask what it means? I can never go back to having pure, uninked skin. Would it have been better, I wondered, to leave the abstract experiences and feelings alone to live in my head rather than trying to put them into something transmittable to myself and others, onto my very flesh?
There was a period when I would look at my tattoo and hate it for how it fell short, how it made me a liar and didn’t finally settle my faith questions and left me no escape from my declaration. Then I remembered that in the months before getting it, I would look at my unadorned forearm and feel deeply that something was missing.
I now think of my tattoo as a permanent, imperfect adaptation of my vision for how having one would make me feel, and how it would make meaning. It is a reminder of the many imperfect adaptations of lived faith that I’ve experienced and will again, and that without them, something is missing.
When the movie rights to my book were first optioned ten years ago, I had a chance to sit down with the producers in a Manhattan coffee shop and talk about how they saw the potential movie. I’d been so worried about being late that I had to kill half an hour lurking in a nearby Banana Republic to avoid seeming too early and eager. One of the women I was to meet is someone I’d watched on screens for years, and I went over and over in my mind how not to act like a weirdo. I’m not sure I wasn’t a weirdo at first, but we quickly got down to the business at hand.
Some writers are more than a little reluctant to trust filmmakers with their books, but I assured the producers that I was a fan of movies, a fan of that medium of storytelling, and that I thought the movie should be free to be whatever it needed to be. I wouldn’t be precious about the book, and I trusted them, and I’d be available if they wanted help or input, but I wouldn’t interfere.
Some who tend to favor books as a higher art form than movies see adaptation as a process of continual degradation. For them, the end result is like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy. It’s difficult to make out the original content. But I view a movie as a separate but equal art work—separate from the book and even separate from the screenplay that translates the story into the language of filmmaking. When I see a movie version of a book I love or like, I try to keep this in mind. Let the book be the book; let the movie be the movie. They aren’t and can’t be the same thing.
Complaints about adaptations usually fall into two categories: the casting is wrong, or “they” changed the ending/climax/major plot point. There can also be more nuanced issues with setting and tone and minor plot points, or an overall feeling of it just somehow being wrong. Everything about a story we first took in as a book is personal. Our individual experiences and contexts and imaginations make it what it is to us—particularly when we read as children, before we’ve imposed adult judgments and knowledge and limitations on our imagination.
Take C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. The books are thin volumes, written simply, for children. Much of the major battle that takes place in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe happens off the page and is only alluded to, other than in about two paragraphs of slightly more descriptive action toward the end. The next chapter begins, “The battle was all over a few minutes after their arrival.”
Yet what I remember experiencing as a young reader with that book and the others in the series was something epic, something rich with detail and emotion. The film adaptation attempts to show on screen what happens in a child’s imagination. It fills in details, creates an inarguably epic battle that takes up a good bit of screen time but somehow, to me, feels less than my memory of those two paragraphs in the book—which I probably read alone, in some quiet corner of our apartment, the book in one hand and a fistful of Wheat Thins in the other. Reading is an intimate transaction between a reader and a writer, a partnership in which the writer labors over the words but the reader shares in the storytelling.
The watching of movies may be intimate, too, and more so now than fifty years ago, with the advent of so many personal screens. But as the story is brought into the material world, all viewers are working with certain shared facts: that is Brad Pitt in a black hat in Andrew Dominik’s adaptation of Ron Hansen’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford; there’s Frances McDormand playing Sara in Curtis Hanson and Steve Kloves’s interpretation of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys; this is what Peter Jackson’s version of Tolkien’s Middle Earth looks like. Though we still bring our preferences and interpretations and histories to the experience, we are all looking at the same physical thing. When a screenwriter adapts a novel and then a director makes images from the script, part of what’s happening is a claim: “This is what this story looks like.”
Readers of the book, the writer of the book, may agree or disagree.
Writers, especially those of us who have taught writing, overuse and sometimes abuse the phrase “show don’t tell,” as if it solves all storytelling problems. It’s not a bad mantra, but anyone who has spent time in fiction workshops or book clubs can tell you that what a writer thinks she is showing with prose might not be what the reader actually sees. We try. We bring a story out of the heads of characters and into their dialogue and actions and choices, as well as into sensory details and figurative language. With practice, a prose writer can bring a reader very close to seeing what the writer sees, but that does not mean that either would necessarily be able to answer the question, “But what does it look like?” with any confidence or agreement.
When it comes to the Christian faith, denominations have been arguing over that question—“But what does it look like?”—for centuries.
Many come to the conclusion, “It looks like love.”
This apparently simple answer has its own complicated adaptations, because there is also not agreement on what love looks like. Does it look like acceptance? Like correction? Like protest? Like service? Like beauty? Does it look like a battle? Like justice? Like mercy? Each denomination, each church body within that denomination, perhaps even each individual within each church body, is living out slightly or vastly different adaptations of the words of the faith.
When I’m overwhelmed by all of the available adaptations, I turn to the Sermon on the Mount. When I read the words from Matthew 5, the vision for the kingdom of heaven feels close and the instructions seem clear, even possible. Until I leave my house. When I live in the world among actual people and try to do any of those things Jesus talks about, any single one of them, the kingdom seems to move farther away.
It’s a lot like when I sit down to write and am chasing a vision that I can’t catch, and I put down the inadequate words anyway and trust that later they will grow into something, because I don’t know how else to do it. The only other option is to leave the creative idea in my imagination where it will always be perfect but not real.
It’s a temptation. I could avoid a lot of pain by giving up on what can feel like an endeavor with too many frustrations, too many pitfalls, too many blows to the ego. Similarly, the fractured imperfection of the body of Christ as it attempts to adapt its beliefs to the medium of the real world can leave me tempted to withdraw my faith entirely into the realm of my head. There, it could exist abstract and unsullied, faith as a novel of ideas too pristine to adapt into the medium of faces, bodies, voices, gestures, and actions. Frictionless, unincarnate.
Except that the entire point of the faith is that what once seemed abstract was brought into a face and a body, a voice, gestures, actions.
Robert McKee—the notoriously surly screenwriting guru portrayed by Brian Cox in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, a Charlie Kaufman screenplay about adapting or failing to adapt Susan Orleans’s The Orchid Thief for film—writes in his tome Story that: “We must realize that a screenplay is not a novel. Novelists can directly invade the thoughts and feelings of characters. We cannot. Novelists, therefore, can indulge the luxury of free association. We cannot. The prose writer can, if he wishes, walk a character past a shop window, have him look inside and remember his entire childhood. Exposition in prose is relatively easy, but the camera is an X-ray machine for all things false. If we try to force exposition into a film through novel-like free associative editing or semi-subliminal flutter cuts that ‘glimpse’ a character’s thoughts, it strikes us as contrived.”
I’ve been working on my own adaptation of my third novel. I’m an intermediate beginner at this, and have been attempting to teach myself by reading lots of screenplays and practicing the form. That’s how I learned to write novels—by reading and doing and failing and doing some more. Though I’ve never gotten all the way through McKee’s book (nor did I complete the two-day seminar with him I signed up for years ago, for reasons well illustrated by Cox’s accurate performance in Adaptation) a lot of his observations, including the one above, turn out to be true. And it’s difficult for me, going on twenty years as a novelist, to stop thinking like one and start thinking like a screenwriter. My passages of description and direction are novelistic and tend to assume the viewer will have access to them, when in fact she’ll be going entirely on moving pictures and dialogue. I’ve lost track of what draft I’m on, but with each pass I work to get the story out of my head and into the characters’ bodies, environments, and words.
Some writers advise that you should never adapt your own novels. That you’re too attached and loyal to the story as you first imagined it to do the necessary re-imagining to make it a good film. Tackling the adaptation of a book you didn’t write is hard enough. Emma Thompson, speaking about her Oscar-winning adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, says that she began by rewriting every single scene in the book in script format, the result of which was a six-hundred-page screenplay. A mere seventeen drafts later, she had her 135-page masterpiece of a blueprint for director Ang Lee to put through yet more adaptation.
According to the diary Thompson kept during filming, she’d hoped the movie would begin with the camera on a fox being hunted—a grand metaphor and stunning image—as a posse of extras on horses rides all over the countryside in pursuit. Only, that would have involved training a fox from birth. So, no. Another scene she’d written would have required a trained trout. That, too, was nixed. She writes that pre-production is a process of “adding, subtracting, bargaining, negotiating, trying to save money wherever we can.” It also involved Thompson writing dialogue that the characters in the book never spoke. Putting an entire novel on screen usually means boldly inventing new scenes and lines that stand in for something too difficult or abstract to film. This displeases many readers and some authors, if they are alive.
The nice thing about adapting my own book is that I don’t have to worry over what the author will think. In fact, I’ve spent so much time on it that the screenplay has replaced the book in my consciousness. I’m free now to work more with the adults in the story, with adult themes and relationships, which I could not do in a novel for the young-adult market. It’s freeing to tell a familiar story in a new form. At the same time, it’s frustrating, as my skills are not yet up to my vision. Beautiful turns of phrases get lost. Perfect novel images suffer when reduced to stage direction. The emotional gut-punches I’ve gotten good at in my books are weak or clichéd when they move out of narration and into the mouths of characters.
I want to learn, though, so I keep working to make external and visual what in the book is internal and abstract. For example, in a scene near the beginning, the narrator, a fifteen-year-old pastor’s kid named Sam, is at her father’s church after a Sunday service. She’s helping to clean up, and as she does, she looks at the stained-glass windows that depict the life of Christ—turning water into wine at Cana, his baptism where the dove alights on his shoulder, and, as she describes it:
…Jesus in a white robe standing next to a squinty-eyed Lazarus, who’s fresh from the tomb after being dead for a few days. Dead dead. As a doornail. If you believe the story. Mary and Martha, his sisters, stand nearby, watching the whole thing, their arms held up in a kind of scared joy at the sign of their resurrected brother, like they’re not sure if they should hug him or run.
I used to be able to picture myself there. Not just there with Lazarus but there for all the miracles. There at the water/wine wedding. There at the baptism. On the hillside when he stretched a small lunch into a meal for five thousand. Growing up with those stories all around you all the time, you sort of buy in. You can’t help yourself.
Now I think miracles are things that happen in stained glass, and on dusty Jerusalem roads thousands of years ago. Not here, not to us. Not when we need them.
It’s one of those deeply internal moments that can work well in novels but usually has to undergo some reimagining for the screen, and not only for the reasons McKee outlines. There are also practical matters, such as Thompson experienced with her foxes and trout. If the thing actually gets shot, there is little chance the production will be able to find a church with the requisite stained glass near the other locations, or have the budget to build something that looks like that. I don’t necessarily have to consider this; I could just make it the director’s problem. At the same time, one task of a screenwriter is to write a filmable movie, which involves having a realistic understanding of where your movie fits in the market.
The novel I’m adapting is a small story, scaled to everyday life. It seems smart not to expect a production company to come up with twenty million dollars for a family drama. When I’m writing novels, I don’t think about these things. Though my books are set in the real world, I can still usually create what I need for the story by grabbing it out of thin air and manipulating it to fit into whatever version of the real world I like.
As I thought about the screenplay version of this moment, my first decision was to split it in two. I didn’t want to do away entirely with that quiet moment of Sam thinking; with a good actor, those can be powerful movie moments. I left the bit with Sam looking at the windows, but noted in the direction that they could also be paintings, in hopes of signaling how this could be filmable even in the face of practical limitations.
int. church sanctuary—morning
There are one or two clusters of people left in the sanctuary, talking. And Sam, picking up bulletins left in the pews and on the floor.
She walks slowly down the side aisle, still collecting trash, while also looking at the church’s art.
on the sanctuary wall
Small stained-glass windows (or paintings), depicting the miracles of Christ:
—Jesus turning water into wine
—Jesus healing the lame man
—Jesus distributing the loaves and fishes
—And Jesus calling Lazarus out of the tomb
Sam pauses in front of the Lazarus scene. She studies the grave clothes, the outstretched hands.
I wanted to bring another character, another body, into the scene. It made sense that it would be her father, someone she hopes can answer with some authority her questions about miracles. But should it be here? Exactly as she’s looking at the depictions of miracles? I could have her father walk in while she’s looking at the stained glass and force a meaningful conversation, but that’s an amateur move, a contrivance. Anyway, the central plot point—the kidnapping of another girl in the congregation—hasn’t happened yet. I wanted Sam’s question about miracles to come when it would do the most work, and meanwhile to let the image of Lazarus sit gently in the viewer’s memory.
I moved the conversation with her father to a later point, after Jody has gone missing, presumed by many to be dead. Sam’s dad has been failing as a father and husband, and the outlook for their family seems as bleak as the possibility of Jody’s recovery. A prayer vigil has been planned at the church; Sam wants some hope. She and her dad ride home together after he has appeared on the local news to speak on behalf of Jody’s family about a reward being offered:
int. charlie’s car—night
car radio (v.o.)
The Shaw family hopes the reward will—
Charlie turns the radio off.
Sam turns it back on.
—leads so far. Again, the prayer vigil is tomorrow night, at Pineview Community Church. You can—
Charlie turns it off.
Sam reaches for the radio again; Charlie blocks it.
I need a break, okay? Sammy, I’m buried in this. Let’s just go home and…
Go home and what?
Do you think she’s dead?
No. I don’t think she’s dead.
Are you just saying that?
But if she is, like if she’s dead right now, and we have the prayer vigil…
Do you think, I mean, that she could come back to life?
Charlie steals a glance at her to check if she’s serious.
Like a miracle?
How he answers might win Sam back, or lose her more profoundly.
I think that it’s…it’s something I want to believe. I think it’s…
Sam is intense in her listening.
Charlie loses nerve, morphs from dad to theologian.
Well, as far as miracles, the Catholics call it “God’s direct intervention in the world,” and they believe—
What do we believe?
His phone, resting in the cup holder, rings.
Relieved, Charlie grabs for the phone, but Sam gets it before he can.
We have learned by this point, though Sam hasn’t, that Erin is Charlie’s lover. Sam’s questions about and longing for miracles remain unanswered and unfulfilled, and in fact things in their family are worse than she knows.
A very skilled screenwriter would be able to do even more with that scene, imbue it with something deeper, more nuanced, but it’s a start. That is yet another limitation: my own abilities. I fail and fail and fail, hoping to fail a little better each time. Given how few screenplays make it to the screen, it might feel hardly worth it, except that I reckoned with writing as an act of continual failure long ago. There is always a gap between what the artist wishes to accomplish and the end result. My choices are to accept this and keep writing, or reject it and thus reject the vocation.
This choice to accept or reject the failures of adaptation is also one I’m making every day with my faith. The perfect vision of following Christ gets battered in the adaptation to lived life, by being acted out by unskilled players. When I add my own failures to the failures of the church at large I can sometimes be left feeling trapped in a bad movie version of a story I once loved.
Given the potential of the creative work of faith, it’s disappointing at the least, and often painful, to see some of the adaptations we tolerate in the face of our many limitations, our attempts to be “doers of the word and not just hearers” ever falling short, ever the gap between what could be and what is. And not just in faith, but in every corner of lived life: marriage, friendship, work, our bodies. We’re all dreamy would-be novelists, creating stories in our heads about what it should all look like, and it rarely does.
Yet without messy, imperfect adaptations of these stories and visions, there would be no novels. There would be no screenplays. There would be no movies. No marriage, no friendship. No reality. Only dreams.
On the set, I watch the filming of a climactic scene from my book. There is take after take after take. Actors try the lines and moments in different ways, at different volumes, with different gestures and pacing and emotional beats. At one point, an actor rolls his mop bucket over one of his lines, so it’s yet another a do-over. I marvel at how long the boom-mike operator can stand there without his arms falling off. It’s a messy process, and boring at times. But with a script I like and a director I trust, I feel nothing but happy, even in the awareness that the end result will inevitably fall short.
An actor I’ve been watching on screen since my early adolescence and have long admired plays one of the adult characters. I love to watch him in his scenes, as he brings nearly four decades of experience to his work. Where the younger actors make small adjustments to their timing and inflection and volume with various takes, he completely re-inhabits every moment. He changes how he holds his head, when his eyes shift, the movements of his fingers, the emotion beneath the voice, what’s in the pauses and what isn’t. He repeats what works but doesn’t cling to it as the only right interpretation. He takes risks and manages to keep the work fresh. Even as he says the lines over and over, he is still making them mean something interesting—not just to us watching, but, it seems, to himself.
During a break, I wander the rows of production trailers; I look out at the body of water that isn’t the Pacific Ocean; I stand on the deck of the pizza place that is too picturesque. A producer calls me into one of the trailers to watch some dailies from earlier in the week. It’s absolutely thrilling, seeing the actor who isn’t quite what I pictured in a bathroom that is too clean, saying the words, emoting the emotions, taking this work of adaptation into his body and voice.
I grin at the producer, giddy, and we head back to the set.
Toward the end of the day, someone asks me again, “Is it what you pictured?” and again I laugh and say no. It isn’t, and it probably isn’t what readers re-create in their imaginations when they read the book, and the book doesn’t look quite like what I meant it to when I first had the idea. Yet I’m standing there in the bracing early evening air, saying goodbye to a very nice young man playing a not-so-nice character. We hug. My arms around him, his arms around me, and we are warmth and breath and substance.
Pictures are taken with the actor I’ve been watching my whole life, with the director, with the young star. It’s all evidence of the story of my day on the set, which is evidence a movie will exist, which is evidence of my book, which is evidence of the vision I had in my head thirteen years ago. In my state of elation at being able to see, hear, and touch my story, this strikes me as life as it’s meant to be, as it ever was and is on this plane.
This is life and art as an embrace of reality—an imperfect, not-what-I-expected reality that is nonetheless present and enfleshed and somehow truer to the spirit of the ideal than whatever perfect but unwritten and unlived moments are held hostage in my imagination. This is adaptation—another word for which is conversion—to faith that the limitations of this reality are preferable to the abstractions of a faith, a story, that are never allowed to fail.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.