On Adapting THE BOOK OF BART For Film/TV / by Ryan Hill

 

Fun fact: I originally wanted to be a screenwriter. After I finished grad school in 2004, I even moved out to Los Angeles in the hopes of making that dream a reality. Long story short, I came back to North Carolina after six months. I missed my family, friends, clean(ish) air, and a zillion other things. But I never lost the writing bug (obviously).

Last year, I got the idea to write a pilot script for The Book of Bart. I've always felt it would make a good show, something that could be a book-end to, say, Supernatural, so while I was in the middle of edits on the upcoming The Conch Shell of Doom, I set to work turning Bart into a 50-odd page pilot script. I'd written feature-length screenplays before, but not an adaptation.

For anyone out there considering adapting their novel, know that writing a script is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING like writing a novel. They're different beasts with different rules. A novel can really dig into details and emotions, enveloping the reader in the soft, gentle sway of a tree branch in the wind. If that line were written in a script, the reader would toss it in the garbage and move on to the next script. With novels, that kind of writing is welcomed, and sometimes even praised. It can also mask potential deficiencies in plot or dialogue. 

Guess what?

SCRIPTS ARE ALL ABOUT PLOT AND DIALOGUE.

Scripts require the most sparse, bare-bones writing possible. Every single word matters. A script is meant to serve as a blueprint for a film or TV production. What's on the page is meant to be on the screen. If it can't be seen or heard, it shouldn't be in the script. Emotions, motive, all that stuff has to be left to the cast and crew for interpretation. Ever read a play, like Thornton Wilder's Our Town? There's the scene location, characters, and dialogue. That's it. Everything else is left to the director, actors, set designers, etc., to interpret as they see fit. A script is similar, though there's room for just enough description to paint a visual picture. 

The transition from book to screen is never seamless. Even films like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter have differences/departures from the books. The change in medium makes it impossible to stay 100 percent true to the source material because of length, a scene isn't visually compelling, or what works as a book doesn't necessarily work as a film. Some books just aren't meant to be adapted, while others are.

This one wasn't.

This one wasn't.

I knew going in that adapting Bart to a visual medium would be tricky. Much of the fun comes from Bart's narration, and only so much of that can survive before characters wind up standing in front of a camera, waiting for the voice over narration to finish so they can move on to the next thing. It became a balancing act of mixing the narration into a mix of voice over and dialogue. 

While I'm happy with the pilot for The Book of Bart, there's a lot of work left before it can even think about seeing the light of day. And that's fine. If nothing else, it was a learning experience, so onward and upward, and all that stuff. I'll share it one day, but today it's about the challenges of adapting one's work to a different medium.

John Irving won an Oscar for adapting his novel The Cider House Rules. Suzanne Collins wrote a draft of the first Hunger Games film. So adapting your work can be done, and done quite well. Just go into it knowing that by no means is it a cake walk, and good luck!