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Melva McLean

Film Adaptation Is Just Another Kind of Editing

Several years ago, I was a reader for a couple of book publishers, and I had the opportunity to read a collection of short stories by the late Emily Givner. Joan Givner, Emily’s mom and a writer of note on her own, wanted to publish Emily’s stories posthumously and shopped the collection around.

I was one of three editors who reviewed the collection for a small publisher. I loved the stories, unedited as they were, because they had a cinematic quality. Alas, the publishers I was reading for decided that the collection wasn’t something that fit their current mandate. The collection went on to find a home at Thistledown Press in Saskatoon, under the title A Heart in Port.

Skip ahead to the year I decided to submit to the National Screen Institute’s Drama Prize. I thought of Emily’s stories, read them all again and chose “In‑Sook,” the story of a young cellist who falls in love with her older, married professor. Purchasing the film rights for the story was the easy part. Next came the daunting task of adapting the short story into a 10-minute film.

I discovered that there were at least three different ways to “story edit” the piece to film. One focused more on the character, one on theme, and one on plot. But filmmaking forces collaboration among writers, directors, cinematographers and film editors.

Match the work of those forces with great acting, thoughtful directing and artful film editing, and the cultural capital of a text can double itself within just a few weeks.

Do you have a favourite book that was adapted into a good movie? Would you have adapted the text differently?

~~~

Melva McLean’s adaptation of “In‑Sook” by Emily Givner was an NSI Drama Prize winner. Filmed under a new title, Chopin’s Heart, the film has been selected as part of Not Short on Talent, Telefilm’s short-film showcase, at Cannes 2016.

Previous post from Melva McLean: The Invisible Vocation in Books.

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4 Comments on “Film Adaptation Is Just Another Kind of Editing”

  • Anita Jenkins

    says:

    «Like.»

  • Frances Peck

    says:

    I just saw The End of the Tour, a dramatized account of journalist David Lipsky’s multi-day interview with the late David Foster Wallace. The film is based on Lipsky’s book about the same interview.

    Now, there’s a filmmaking challenge: how to turn a conversation between two literary guys (interesting—no, fascinating—guys, but still) into a story that’s compelling on screen.

    All I can say is, it works. How it works or why it works, maybe you can say, Melva. Jason Segel, as DFW, is a big part of it. But his tour-de-force aside, there’s somehow enough dramatic tension to carry the film through. Must be that magical marriage of the right screenwriter and the right director.

    • I’ll have to see this one, Francis. I don’t know it.

      I have heard from other screenwriters that adapting from a non-fiction source is easier than a fiction one. Not sure whether that’s because the facts are the facts, to some extent–I mean, you can’t go making up shit that never happened. Well, some people can and do, but… with fiction, I think there is an unwritten rule among screen adapters of fiction (following from the 20th-century notion of fiction book editors) that says «the book/story belongs to the author,» which is different than saying the «book belongs to the truth» (or some semblance of it, anyway). I just finished writing a script «based on a true story,» and I realized early on that there was more to the story than the primary source I read.

      In the end, however, the screen adapter only goes just so far, and then it gets into the hands of directors and producers, who change what they want to get the best creative market product, and then film editors, who change what they want to get the best visual story and art. Someone said once that the «editing» of film never ends b/c somewhere along the way, someone is bound to remake the whole thing their way.

      Mel

      P.S. Apologies for the shameless promotion of my film’s web site above.

  • Anita I. Jenkins

    says:

    Yes, a good movie.

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