American writer Paul Theroux once said that “scriptwriting is drudgery, a massive insult to the brain of a person who cares about the nuances of language; it is no more literary than elaborating a recipe for clam chowder.” Theroux has written nine screenplays and explained that the process was “a study in strict time limits and the attention span of the dimmest moviegoer.”
But what exactly is lost and gained when a book is adapted for stage or screen? At the Scandinavia House on Saturday, November 7, BBC journalist Michael Maher moderated the panel “From Page to Stage” at the New Literature from Europe Festival. Maher put the question of scriptwriting to Austrian novelist Bernhard Aichner, Hungarian playwright and novelist György Spiró, and Italian novelist Niccolò Ammaniti.
Aichner, whose bestselling novel Woman of the Dead (trans. by Anthea Bell) is currently in pre-production for a television series, described his own writing as “cinematic, like a series of pictures being adapted into my own literary language.” Later he added, “My book is a certain kind of movie.”
Spiró noted that a director is just another reader, so the director’s work is a representation of their reading of the text. Perhaps the cinematic adaptation can be read as a certain kind of book as well, a derivative work that functions as an ekphrastic experiment.
Ammaniti worked closely with film director Bernardo Bertolucci on the screenplay of his novel Me and You (trans. by Kylee Doust). The experience “was like writing another book, because the novel was already finished” when he returned to write more scenes inside those that had been published. For him, a cinematic adaptation is an opportunity to turn the characters and places of a novel into something new.
The best film adaptations are the ones that add to the reading of the text, instead of merely aiming for faithfulness to the original form. Think of Apocalypse Now, which captures the essence of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness by adapting the novella to the context of the Vietnam War. A cinematic adaptation might even be an opportunity to improve the original work. Ammaniti gave the example of Stanley Kubrick’s classic film The Shining, which is regarded as a masterpiece based on “a book that wasn’t very good.”
Aichner articulated that seeing his work on screen was not so different from seeing it translated into languages he could not read. In the end, this is about giving up control of one’s own stories and trusting the professionals behind the metamorphosis. The good news is that storytelling welcomes transformation. Literature and language do not have to stand still.