May Third Thursday: “Adaptation: Going from Book to Screen” Recap

Movie adaptations are, for some writers, everything we wish for. Seeing your work on the big screen, all the glitz and glam of Hollywood, and millions of people finding your story? It’s like a dream come true. However, every dream can turn into a nightmare. On the other side of that glitz and glamor is the disappointment of an optioned book falling through, or the lack of agency that writers have over adaptations

If you’re especially unlucky, you could end up with an adaptation that’s completely unfaithful to the original work, like how the Percy Jackson movies aged every character up by ten years, which completely ignores Riordan’s overarching plot and negates the series’ relatability to young readers—.

But of course, this is a recap of our May Third Thursday. Not a space for me to dump my movie takes.

So I won’t mention how the second film attempts to fit three books into one and instead creates a plot so convoluted it’s basically a new story.

(Sorry, sorry. Done now.)

Instead, I’ll talk about our amazing panelists: Louis Bayard, whose novel The Pale Blue Eye was adapted by Netflix in 2022, May Cobb, who is currently in production for The Hunting Wives, and Owen Egerton, who has invaluable experience as a novelist, short story writer, and a screenwriter.

The panel kicked off with the role of the author in the adaptation process. To nobody’s surprise, it’s rare that written works land movie adaptations. It’s a win even for work to be optioned (optioned, here, referring to how a work is sold to a film company in an attempt to make a screenplay). Bayard’s novel had been published for 15 years before it was picked up by Netflix. He says that he wishes every author success with “novels they have put behind them”, and that the adaptation has definitely led to an increase in readers. Bayard was not expecting to be involved in the production process at all, but received a pleasant surprise in the form of director Scott Cooper, who wanted as much author input as possible. Bayard even got to meet Christian Bale (!!!)

However, both Bayard and Cobb have said that they have gotten to be more involved in the production process than expected. Cobb even got to have a cameo in her series The Hunting Wives. For Cobb, faithfulness to the original source was important because her novel is set in her home of east Texas, and it was crucial to her that the adaptation do that culture justice. Luckily, she was able to take her executive producer out for a weekend of east Texas fun so the vision would be clear.

Egerton’s dual experience has given him a unique perspective on adaptations. The lessons he learns from writing novels affect how he writes his screenplays, and vice versa. Egerton also writes what’s called “treatments”: The story of a movie in prose form that can be used for a pitch. Being able to translate the visual thinking necessary for filmmaking to a well-written, structured prose piece is invaluable. He also spoke a bit about the actual process of writing a film, and how a writer’s room works. Turns out not just anybody can pitch ideas; he had to audition to write the screenplay for his first adaptation same as anybody else. Egerton said something about this which I found to be very inspiring: “You’ve created something of value that people want…you should hold yourself to that value.”

At the end of the day, despite all of the challenges that come with navigating Hollywood, adapting your work is still an incredible opportunity. It’s the chance to tell the story you love so much, just on a much larger stage. As Cobb put it: “[I like] just remembering that I like to wake up in the morning and write words.”

Be sure to catch our next Third Thursday on July 18!

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