Friday, November 6, 2015

When is an Historical Novel Like a Movie Adaptation?

Writing an historical novel is much like making a book into a movie. There are three ways to make a book-length piece of fiction into a film.

First way, you can replicate the book as closely as possible, sometimes scene for scene. The Harry Potter films come to mind. Gone With the Wind. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, although even those movies left out large chunks of narrative. The books these movies were made from had a huge and demanding fan base. Watching the movie had better be pretty much like reading the book, or else.

The most spectacular failure in an effort of this kind, to my eye, was Erich von Stroheim's 1924 silent film, Greed. Von Stroheim followed the book it was made from, Frank Norris's McTeague, not only scene for scene but line for line, often putting a paragraph of Norris's text up on the screen to accompany his visual expression of it. No wonder the studio bosses took it away from him and chopped it to pieces. Setting aside the cost overruns, it was just too long for anyone to sit and watch. It's true that there are respected critics out there who believe Greed to be the greatest movie ever made. I don't think it's even a movie.

A book-length work of fiction is a different art form from a movie. The second way to approach making a book into a movie is to be respectful of that difference and also be respectful of the book, of the spirit of the book, that is, not the words, and to express that spirit cinematically. A good short story, like Brokeback Mountain, makes a better movie than a whole book, because there's less stuff in it. Kenneth Roberts' Northwest Passage was a huge book. The Hollywood movie that was made from it took just a segment of it and made a thumping good movie. Same with East of Eden.

The third approach is to take the book title and write whatever you feel like. You hardly even have to read the book to do this. Just make stuff up. Sometimes it's fine. Depends on what you're working with. Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex is a good example.

The problems of writing a historical novel are similar. The material you're working with may be bigger than what you're trying to do.

The first way to approach your historical novel is to put in everything you can find out about the place and time you're working with. All the famous characters, all the historical events, hardly anything truly fictional, like those terrific books from the English writers about the Tudors and the Elizabethans. Or you can write about a big handful of fictional characters experiencing different aspects of the reality of your historical period, like John Dos Passos in USA. You can get lost in this sort of thing, like von Stroheim in Frank Norris's work, and find yourself tracking down the buttons on the underwear your people would have worn when you should be blocking out swaths of dramatic action. But maybe that's okay, if you have what it takes to pull off a huge saga. (Like a loyal fan base, a supportive publisher, and thirty more years of productive life.)

The second way to do it is to respect the period, express the spirit of the period as you understand it, but put your own characters in your book, with their own drama. Get the details right, but find a segment of the universe that you can work with. Then go ahead and shamelessly write fiction.

Or you might use the third approach, which is not respectable but might be fun. Pick a period, pick a historical figure, put her in all the wrong clothes and tell bald-faced lies about her. Only make sure her heirs aren't going to sue you.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

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