Page to Screen: Should Authors be kept away from their adaptations?

By Joe Strange

Oh boy, I’m so happy to be back underneath the Page to Screen title! Today’s article was tough to come by; I’ve been celebrating my sister’s wedding all weekend and in between that I’ve been focussing on my own writing, so coming back to Axby this week has been a bit rough, even after catching up on all the stuff I missed since Thursday. So, with personal stuff out the way, let’s get back to today.

While I was away a little film called Fifty Shades of Grey came outand despite a record breaking release not all is well in the land of E.L. James’ adaptation.

According to sources close to the project the filming was plagued by disagreements between writer E.L. James and director Sam Taylor-Johnson, so much so that Taylor-Johnson is looking for a way out of her three film contract.

Apparently the disagreements centred around the level of involvement of the original author, how she would persistently veto the crew’s creative decisions, from the costume department to the director’s chair. James’ ability to do so was given in the deal to adapt the book. Universal gave the author an incredible amount of control over the adaptation, so much so that she could attempt to overrule a lot of decisions. This is obviously going to cause friction with the director, who’s been hired to bring her work to life.

So this is obviously going to bring up the question as to whether or not creators of the adapted medium (be it book, game, or anything else) should have that much control over the film that’s to be made from their work, if any at all, and thus another Page to Screen is born.

Film adaptations of books are anything but a new concept, and Fifty Shades is far from the first instance of creative differences in the production of them. The most notorious example is Stephen King’s disdain for the Stanley Kubrick adaptation of The Shining. King has stated that the film is not a good adaptation, and that it’s the only adaptation of one of his books that he ‘remembers hating’. So dissatisfied with the film, King went on to work on a television adaptation of his book.

Now, the differences between these two projects, Fifty Shades and The Shining are plentiful, the former had plenty of involvement from the writer, whilst the other did not, one of them is critically acclaimed and enjoyed by film critics and casual viewers alike while the other took £13 million on the opening weekend but has been almost universally panned by critics and the layperson alike.

It’d be easy to look at those two comparisons and say ‘well, let’s keep authors out of the film industry’, but I can’t quite say that. Now, first of all, as a budding author I’d love to see my work on the big screen one day, and I’d like some say in what goes so I might be a little bias towards one side, but on the other hand I also like to think I know when someone who has trained for years to do a job, they know the matter a little better than me.

It’s also not quite that simple, (is it ever?) for every adaptation that keeps away from the author and does well, there’s one that consults the author and does just as well. Likewise there are those projects that fall flat either way (Eragon had little to do with author Christopher Paolini and it kind of sucked.)

The Harry Potter series is one that I’ve talked about a lot in this series of articles, and for good reason. The series is a great example of both how to do adaptations really well and capture the ahem, magic, of the originals as well as how not to approach the process of adapting a beloved series.

To maintain the over arching plot lines of the series, J.K. Rowling assisted in the script writing of the film versions of her series, her hand went as far as to tell certain actors big reveals for their characters to keep them consistent with actions in the later books, and therefore the later movies.

While there are some people out their who despise the movies but love the books, I don’t think it’s too hard to admit that amidst all of the directorial changes and the huge timespan of the series, the Harry Potter films are exceedingly good adaptations of the original books, and that has to be, in large part, to the involvement of Rowling.

A more recent example of an author’s involvement in a well received project is that of George R.R. Martin and his work in the television adaptation of his Song of Ice and Fire series. He’s been heavily involved in the production of the show, even writing episodes of the show.

And honestly, Game of Thrones is incredible, even when it deters from the source material it does so in such a good way that (as a book reader) you don’t mind.

So at the end of the day, there’s no clear cut answer to whether or not authors should be involved in the adaptations of their work. If we insisted on it, we’d not have films like The Shining, but when the involvement is too intense we end up with directors questioning whether or not they’ll make another film at all.

Really it comes down to respecting that the other party has the ability to craft a good piece of art, and knowing when your decision might not be the best one. After all, directors direct, writers write. You wouldn’t hire a plumber to give you a liver transplant.

Like most of my articles, it comes down to moderation, but the thing I’m worried about is, despite the financial success (which had a lot to do with the film catering to an otherwise untapped demographic), the critical reception may lead studios to think that writers shouldn’t have a say in the process, which would be a horrible shame and disservice to both the industry and fans.


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