Comment: On Adaptations & Adaptability, by Joy Wilkinson
The screenwriter tells of the skills, insight and life experience that help her turn books into feature films.
I blame Clive Barker. I was mid-way through my beloved Film Studies A-level, desperate to write movies, but stranded in darkest Lancashire, without a clue how to make it happen. One lunch hour, browsing in an Accrington bookshop, I spied Clive Barker’s Books of Blood with Hellraiser’s Pinhead on the cover and I figured it out – I’d write a novel that would get optioned as a film and I’d get to do the adaptation. Sorted!
So during a detour into journalism to pay the bills, I spent every spare hour working my way towards that goal, toiling on my novels and doing an MA in Prose Fiction to master the craft. I did okay, but never really felt at home in the literary world and my tutor bemoaned the breathless attack of my short stories. “A short story is just a glimpse, Joy. Just a glimpse!” she’d sigh, but I was no Katherine Mansfield. What I was, it turned out, was a scriptwriter. And those short stories were film treatments in disguise.
They weren’t a glimpse. They were the whole shebang, usually in first person, present tense, cutting to the action, twisting relentlessly to the unexpected yet inevitable ending. I could do description, but it didn’t interest me. I loved my characters, but I wanted to bring them to pulsing life beyond the page. Essentially, I realised: I like shit to happen!
And as soon as I switched to scripts, shit began to happen. I got plays produced, worked my way up in TV and radio drama, began to crack film and now, aeons after that A-level, I finally have a cool slate of features in funded development. Damn that Clive Barker, wasting a decade of my career heading in the wrong direction.
But was it a waste? In a good story, the hero never simply gets to their goal, and the obstacles they encounter along way are the very things that equip them to achieve it. Likewise, everything I learned from my forays into fiction has made me a better scriptwriter, especially when it comes to adaptations. Having built novels from the inside, I know how to take them apart, stripping away the literary elements, zoning in on dramatic potential, finding the heart of a character and sparking new life into it.
I’ve adapted everything from Dickens to Agatha Christie, Fay Weldon to Falmouth’s own Rupert Wallis. Sometimes the script steers very closely to the novel, other times things change a lot. The demands of the page (a glimpse) can be very different to the demands of drama (shit to happen), especially in the genres I love. And the key to the process is love. If I can find something in the book to love as if it were my own, then I know I can do something with it, understanding the work the novelist has done to create that world, but also understanding what needs to be kept, cut and added to recreate it anew.
So ultimately I have to thank Clive Barker, who, it transpires, went the other route, starting out in plays before finding his form in prose, and film, and art, and comic books. The lesson I guess is to write everything you can. Master the forms, so that when an idea emerges, you will have a better feeling for what it wants to be. Then if you’re adapting, those senses will be doubly attuned. Maybe like Clive, the key to mastering adaptations, is to be adaptable.
Joy Wilkinson is an award-winning writer working across film, TV, theatre and radio drama. Among other projects, she is currently adapting Rupert Wallis's novel The Dark Inside. Find out more at www.joywilkinson.net