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“From Page to Screen” panel

When my favorite books get made into movies, I’m there. But I’m usually wearing a t-shirt with this logo (courtesy of Unshelved):

the book was better t-shirt

So when Children’s Books Boston announced its latest event, “From Page to Screen: An Inside Look at Children’s Book Adaptations,” I was intrigued. I was even more intrigued when I saw the range of perspectives represented. Moderator and panel participant Deborah Kovacs, senior vice president at Walden Media and publisher at Walden Pond Press, has been involved with many book-to-film collaborations, including The Giver (a feature film in 2014) and The Watsons Go to Birmingham (which aired on the Hallmark Channel in 2013). Panelist Ammi-Joan Paquette, senior agent with Erin Murphy Literary Agency and an author herself, has seen the work of several of her author clients begin the transition from book to film. Panelist Carol Greenwald, senior executive producer of children’s programs at WGBH Boston, helped create the television adaptations of Arthur, Curious George, and Martha Speaks. And Randy Testa, vice president of education and professional development at Walden Media, contributed to the discussion with in-depth reports of his involvement with The Watsons Go to Birmingham.

page to screen panel

L.-R.: Debbie Kovacs, Carol Greenwald, and Ammi-Joan Paquette

Almost immediately, Kovacs invoked The Giver author Lois Lowry, whose novel went through about two decades of attempts to bring it to the screen. According to Kovacs, Lowry has said that she considers a film faithful if it’s “true to the spirit of the book.” Lowry participated closely in the 2014 Giver film’s development, helping to write voiceover narration to clarify scenes that test audiences had trouble following. Kovacs and the other panelists agreed that adapters should consider the most important factors of a story’s appeal. She pointed out that when a movie has a long list of end credits, “about half of those people…have opinions” that can alter the way a film is adapted. “In their defense,” she added, “they’re putting up a whole lot of money.”

Paquette also emphasized the number of people and steps involved in the adaptation process; she warns authors not to expect that their books will be adapted for the screen. Even when books are optioned for adaptation, much in the adaptation process is beyond authors’ control. She did cite a success story, though: her client Jennifer A. Nielsen met with a scriptwriter working on the movie adaptation of her intermediate novel The False Prince. Nielsen had the opportunity to share what would happen later in the book series with the screenwriter so he could write with future events in mind.

For WGBH executive producer Greenwald, “the television series is not the book,” but part of the purpose of an educational book-to-television adaptation is to encourage kids’ continued reading about the characters. Converting brief picture books to long television series means fleshing out characters, giving them backstories, and specifying their parents’ jobs, for instance, but it’s important to preserve the spirit of the source material. The TV show’s Curious George might go on new adventures that aren’t in the book series, but (for example) the animals in his TV world can’t — and shouldn’t — talk, since they can’t in the books.

Testa spoke passionately about the Watsons film, which coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. Although the film kept many of the episodes from the book, the bombing and issues of segregation became a more continuous part of the movie’s narrative arc. Later Testa declared, “we have to, have to, have to” depict more people of color on screen, naming Esperanza Rising and Monster as books that are waiting to be made into movies.

As you can see, book-to-film adaptations aren’t as simple as my t-shirt might have you believe, and there was a lot to talk about. Luckily, the conversation doesn’t have to end! Visit Children’s Books Boston for information on future events. Next up: a trivia rematch (date TBA)!

Shoshana Flax About Shoshana Flax

Shoshana Flax, assistant editor for The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons College.

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Comments

  1. As a screenwriter who has adapted two novels, “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho, and “Montaro Caine” by Sidney Poitier, let me begin by saying that in order for a screenwriter to willingly enter into a prolonged journey into the depths of another writer’s mind, there has to precede this journey a profound feeling of artistic respect for the mind and the work of that writer, in most cases to the extent of reverence. Now having established that, the remainder of this comment will be in defense of the screenwriter who often has to contend with the words engraved in the logo above: the book was better.

    First of all, the screenwriter never sets out to compete with the author. As stated above, and certainly the case in both instances of my experience, it was my reverence and intrigue of the source material that compelled me to adapt them for the screen on my own volition, without the incentive of solicitation or pecuniary promises.

    I never intended to out due Mr. Coelho or Mr. Poitier.

    In the adaptation process, there is always a concerted effort to respect and stay true to the author’s original work. Often times the agreement to sell the movie rights is contingent on such a condition. The more clout the author has as reflected in his or her book sells and popularity, the more that maintaining integrity to the source material is demanded.

    But the issue with staying true to the book is a sticky smudge on a fine line. Where to draw the lines of demarcation can be the subject of hot developmental debate. How true must true be, and how far can it be stretched?

    The objective of adaptation is to adapt. The source material must be formatted to a cinematic experience, that is to say, a narrative that can be photographed and audibly recorded. To the screenwriter, this often feels like creative editing as opposed to creative writing. The author has the luxury of prose, and the reader’s infinite imagination that renders a tailored individualized creative interpretation of the written word. Cinema requires that these two be abbreviated to tight narration and photography, if not outright obliterated by a single shared moving image.

    So what happens when a beloved book adored by legions that is crying out for adaptation contains therein sections that do not translate to film? Here is where the lines of staying true to source start to really obscure, causing readers and viewers, authors and screenwriters, and opposing critics to take vehement sides.

    When this happens, which it often does, the screenwriter must be allowed artistic leeway, because failing to do so could negate the ultimate objective, which is to make a movie. The screenwriter must be allowed to create with the ultimate objective in mind, which may require a notable departure from the source material.

    I will sight my two adaptations of THE ALCHEMIST and MONTARO CAINE as examples.

    Mr. Coelho and Mr. Poitier are both extraordinary writers in their own right. As authors and humanitarians, they share a common goal: that is to raise us out of mediocrity and show us infinite possibilities. They show us the treasures that await us when we commit to a connection with higher consciousness which is greater than but simultaneously a part of ourselves.

    The ending-in both cases-was profound and transformative. Through a series of beautifully rendered conversations, some of them internal, I, the reader, was taken on a spiritual and metaphysical journey that was both transcendent and enlightening. I was inspired and transported. I became a better man by the end of the books because the messages, the ideas, and the philosophy propelled me, and demanded that I be so.

    I could put the book down and ponder, and reread passages for maximum impact. I could appreciate the extended elucidation of ideas and discussions covering contrasting sides of multiple arguments.

    But in the movies you get one shot at it, and they don’t have all day.

    The job of the adapter is to reach inside of a book, determine and grasp the very essence of it, and then confine that essence into a microcosmic cinematic entity that can be experienced in two and a half hours or less. In adapting the endings of THE ALCHEMIST and MONTARO CAINE, I was required to translate philosophical conversations into moving imagery with accelerating story momentum. I respected and maintained the authors’ messages and essence, but I conformed them to cinema.

    This idea that the screenwriter must wow the viewer in the same capacity that the author wowed the reader is a misguided pretext in which to enter the cinematic experience of an adaptation. They are two different mediums that serve two different purposes. Their fundamental underlying commonality, aside from originating from the mind of the author, is to entertain. If a screenplay adaptation does this within the confines of cinematic requirements, then it is a successful adaptation.

    If a page-to-screen movie is a box office smash hit, regardless of how far or near it stays to source, should we even be having a discussion? One invariably always feeds the other. Everybody wins!

    -Robb Edward Morris

    (I am currently awaiting word from Mr. Sidney Poitier to green light my project to adapt his Sci-fi mystery novel, MONTARO CAINE to a major motion picture. Mr. Poitier is presently accessing my screenplay adaptation. To read sample pages of my ending for THE ALCHEMIST, please request it here: http://www.networkisa.org/profile/1014883/RobbEdward-Morris, or contact me here: scriptsbyr.morris@gmail.com)

  2. Shoshana says:

    Robb, thank you for adding your insights into the book-to-film adaptation process! I think the discussion was worth having because it helped many of us who aren’t professionally involved in film understand exactly what you’re saying–that a book and its film adaptation are different entities with different tools at their disposal and different goals, and each can succeed without robbing the other. (And if one brings more readers/viewers to the other, so much the better!)

  3. Thank YOU, Shoshana for opening the discussion on this long debated topic. I was grateful for the opportunity, eventually, to clarify some of my own unexplored perspectives.

    I say eventually because I was all prepared for a leisurely read on a breezy Saturday day off, but by the time I reached the end of your article, I just couldn’t stay mute. So thank you, and your distinguished panel for seducing me onto a cleansing and clarifying rant.

    I am an avid reader and a cinematic fanatic. I enjoy both books and movies immensely! And I especially enjoy the challenge of merging the two into a viable popcorn and cola hybrid.

    With kind regards!

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