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How was it for you
Irish Writers' Experience with their
work on film
Everybody in the film business knows the old joke
about the Polish actress in Hollywood who was so dumb
she slept with the writer as a means of furthering
her career. But has anything changed, and if so, how?
Is it just laziness these days for producers to option
a novel, and then try to ‘develop the product’
as they revealingly put it, in their own utilitarian
way? Or do they genuinely find it easier to get backing
for a film of a book, as opposed to an original screenplay?
Obviously, if you’re dealing with a popular
best-seller like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s
Ashes, Brendan O’Carroll’s The Mammy
or any of Roddy Doyle’s novels, the chances
are greater that you’re on to a sure-fire winner
with the film version.
But what about the writers of the
original texts? How much control do they retain over
the screen version, when it comes to selling an option
on their novel or short story? Does the amount of involvement
they have depend on whether or not they write the screenplay
themselves, or is their existing literary reputation
a more decisive factor? Do they feel they are treated
well or badly in the celluloid world? How was it for
The following collection of snippets and soundbytes
from a trawl through the filmic experiences of various
writers is necessarily random and incomplete. Many more
writers were contacted, but were either reluctant to
talk or unavailable or couldn’t be traced. Judging
from those who did contribute, there are almost as many
different stories as there are people willing to tell
Colin Bateman, author of Cycle of Violence and Divorcing
Jack, both of which have been filmed, thinks it’s
actually unusual for novelists to be asked to do the
screenplay of their own work.
“Film-making is a team game, novel-writing is
a single game. You do sell your soul when you agree
to write a screenplay. A book will always be there,
but a film is not always what you want. You do give
up control and do have to change things, but you have
to accept this.”
But do you know beforehand how much control you’re
giving up, just how different a film will be?
“You know by watching other films based on books.”
Colin’s experiences with Cycle of Violence
and Divorcing Jack were vastly different, and
he is much happier with the screen version of the latter.
Cycle of Violence was changed to have a happy
ending tacked on, which did not please Colin. Also,
the title was changed to Crossmaheart, since
it was felt by the producers that this would chime better
with American sensibilities, or lack of them.
“If you object, you’re out, and they get
someone else in. You’ve no choice in the matter.”
But Divorcing Jack is, “basically the
book. In fact, in many ways it’s better than the
book, because the novel was published word for word
and needed some editing, so the film script was a second
chance to get things right.”
Colin is off to Cannes to raise money for Thanks
for the Memories and Empire State, which
have been commissioned by the BBC and Flashlight, respectively,
and The Baby Snatchers, which is being promoted
by his own company, Toddler Productions. He finds it
straight-forward to write both novels and screenplays,
but, “you can only do one novel per year. You
can do a screenplay in three weeks, although you’re
still editing it one year later.”
In general, he feels that if you grew up loving movies,
as he did, you’re going to want to see your stuff
on screen, in some shape or form.
Maeve Binchy didn’t write the screenplay for Circle
of Friends, but was very happy with Andrew Davis’
treatment of it, and Pat O’Connor’s direction.
Davis had already done the script of her short story
‘The Problem of Romance’ for TV.
“I write long sentences with lots of subordinate
clauses, which doesn’t make for good screenplays.
The novel of Circle of Friends was 600 pages,
the screenplay was 98.” She admires people like
Neil Jordan or Roddy Doyle, who can operate in both
fields. She feels O’Connor got the mood of her
book right, because he knows what the 1950s were like.
She was surprised to find Circle of Friends
labelled a costume drama, until she found it meant taking
the yellow lines off the road and the TV aerials off
“There’s no point in worrying about your
lack of control. I sit in a room full of lawyers and
try to adopt a casual attitude, and keep calm and distant,
because your nerves would go if you took it too seriously.”
She says her bargaining position is greatly strengthened
by the fact that she can live off her books, although
“most Hollywood people think you’re mad
if you say you don’t need the money.”
She does care that any films of her books are made in
Ireland, since it does her no good if they’re
done abroad. The film of Circle of Friends
brought her work to a much wider audience, particularly
a younger one. She recalls a conversation with William
Trevor in which he said that with a short story there
is more possibility that it will be enhanced in filming,
whereas with a novel it is more likely to be corrupted
in the process. Evening Class has been optioned
by Twentieth Century Fox for a year, but Maeve doesn’t
know who, if anyone, will write the screenplay.
Two of Bernard McLaverty’s novels, Lamb
and Cal, have been filmed, and he wrote the
screenplay for both ventures. He enjoyed the experience
and liked the end product of both.
“For any creative person, there’s a period
of adjustment when you’ve finished a piece of
work, whether it’s a novel or a film. With a screenplay,
you must begin to detach yourself from the novel. Comparing
a novel and a film is like comparing an apple and an
orange: you can have a very good apple, and a very good
orange, but there’s not much point in comparing
them because they’re completely different.”
With the screenplay for Lamb, he departed from
the novel, and director Colin Gregg took it back to
its original source. With Cal, conversely,
certain changes from the novel and screenplay were made
in conjunction with Pat O’Connor. Bernard does
feel that he missed out at the editing stage, since
everything in a screenplay is filmed, but then scenes
can be taken out. This was brought home to him when
BBC Scotland made Sometime in August, based
on his short story ‘More Than Just The Disease’,
and he was able to become involved in the editing.
He speaks of the disappointment when a commissioned
screenplay doesn’t get made, like The Man
Who Stole The Mona Lisa, based on his own ‘Perugia’,
or the 4 x 1 hour episodes he wrote for BBC Scotland
of Patrick McGill’s Children of the Dead End,
although he says that with writing screenplays, “...there’s
a wonderful sense of achievement, because you can do
15 pages a day.” Perhaps most importantly, when
he’s writing a novel he doesn’t think in
terms of whether or not it would make a good film.
“Do you think Grace Notes would make
a good film?” he asks, genuinely interested, when
the subject of his Booker nominated novel comes up.
If it ever does get to the screen, he’d like it
to be a textured, complex layering, reminiscent of Nic
Roeg’s Bad Timing.
Carl Lombard had his debut novel, The Disappearance
of Rory Brophy, filmed as The Disappearance
of Finbar, directed by Sue Clayton. Dermot Bolger
wrote the screenplay, since the idea of Carl doing it
himself was never a runner with Channel 4, given he
fact that he was a first-time novelist who had never
written a screenplay.
“It’s quite different to the book, but I
liked the results. It doesn’t worry me to give
up control, because it isn’t realistic to think
you can retain it when there’s so many other people
involved. When you think of the cost of making films,
most of which are co-productions, things are bound to
change along the way. Finbar had five or six
different sources of finance.”
He is currently working on an adaptation of his second
novel, Mortal Beings, with Tommy McArdle as
co-writer and Tommy McArdle as director, although they
have no finance in place as yet.
Colum McCann has written the screenplay for his novel
Songdogs, which is being produced by Peter
Newman, who made Smoke and Blue In The
Face, and is “a great producer to work for,
intelligent, daring, and looks after his writers.”
Colum also worked on the short film Fishing The
Sloe-Black River, based on his own short story
and directed by Brendan Bourke.
“That was also a great experience, since we were
both new to the game and had a lot of fun shooting it
down in Kerry.”
He has just sold the film rights to his new novel This
Side of Brightness, “basically sold my soul
or at least a portion of it, as I will have no involvement
except a vague consultancy role. You have to make a
very simple choice: you either shit or get off the pot.
There’s no in between. You either hang in and
give your all to a screenplay, hoping that it will work,
or you give the control to others and hope that it works
out all right.”
What are the chief differences between writing a novel
and a screenplay?
“The most obvious difference is that as a fiction
writer you create the whole world, it’s one on
one, but with a screenplay you know that it’s
going to be filtered through dozens of other eyes -
the producer, the director, the DoP, the costume designer
and so on. If you make a mistake in your novel, it’s
your mistake. With a film you can blame it on others.
It’s the difference between creation and re-creation.
A novel weighs so much more heavily on your shoulders.
This is the beauty and difficulty of fiction.”
Is it easier to do a screenplay?
“For me, yes. In a screenplay ‘the sun rises’
and it only rises. It doesn’t rise in any particular
colour or manner. That’s the director’s
job - to give it the colour, the texture. In a novel
the sun also rises, but with a different language. It’s
your own language, it belongs to you.”
He would like to direct films eventually, but for now
it’s the novels and short stories that drive him.
“Writing screenplays pays for the writing of novels.
I write screenplays so I can write novels. In general,
I’ve had a very good experience with film, although
I’d never hold my breath while waiting for a phone
call from the industry. Fiction is much more important
Eoin McNamee is very pleased with the way the film of
his novel Resurrection Man worked out, if not
with the resulting controversy.
“It was very much a collaboration over three years
with Marc Evans (Director), and I was more than satisfied
with it, especially when you’ve got someone of
the level of talent of Pierre Aim (DoP) working with
He too uses the ‘apples and oranges’ analogy
when talking of novels vis-à-vis screenplays.
From the novel he took eight visual set pieces, and
then wrote dialogue around them. “With a novel
there’s the temptation to wonder all around the
place. There is an ‘end game’ with a script,
if you knock one brick out the rest can come tumbling
down. At the same time, if you’re writing a screenplay
of a novel, there’s always a template there to
His original screenplay I Want You has been
filmed by Michael Winterbottom, and is due for September
release. Another screenplay, The Lion Alone,
based on a four page short story of his, is currently
seeking finance, and Marc Evans, with whom he is again
collaborating, is off to Cannes with it. Eoin finds
that his next novel has had to go on to the back-burner
because of the financial inducements offered by all
these screenplays, but he hopes to get back to it soon.
Emma Donaghue is working on the second draft of the
screenplay of her novel Stirfry, to be directed
by Derbhala Walsh, and is enjoying it thoroughly.
“Novelists must have distance when writing a screenplay
from their work. Stirfry was my first novel,
and I’d got tired of it and disliked it, so doing
the screenplay meant I could slash and burn, until I’d
got something quite new. I wrote whole new scenes. The
novel was set in 1989, but the film is contemporary,
so it’s ten years latter. Even in that time, I
thought the heroine would not be as naive now as she
was then. We’ve got an up to date soundtrack too.”
She says that film is a new form for her, with different
conventions and considerations than novel writing. She
stresses how commercial considerations are so important
in the film world, and how there is more emphasis on
plot in film. She has written two plays, and says that
theatre was a good preparation for the group process
of film, which she enjoys.
“Plays and films are acted, a novel depends more
on interior psychology.”
She is currently writing an original screenplay, titled
Ex’s, which has not been commissioned but is for
herself, and finds it liberating.
Deirdre Purcell thinks she has been very lucky, in that
Richard Standeven, director of the TV version of Falling
For A Dancer, put the script in the centre of the
process, and she was around a lot during its making.
She enjoys the collaborative process of film, although
it is completely different to writing a novel, which
is “clean, solitary, with more control. With film,
the project is the thing, and everything is for the
good of the project as a whole. The spine of the story
may be the same, but there is a re-balancing of characters,
for example. The two compliment each other.”
Is writing a screenplay easier?
“It’s not that one is ‘easier’
than the other. Nothing is ‘easier’. It
may be easier to write dialogue, but dialogue is only
a small part of a film.”
The BBC have commissioned a sequel to Falling For
A Dancer for television, and the screenplay of
Love Like Hate Adore is in development with
RTE, Parallel Films and the Film Board.
Finally, the case of Jim Lusby, who wrote the detective
novel on which the RTE series Making The Cut
was based, should provide a salutary lesson for any
novelists who are first-time screen-writers. RTE bought
the rights, and the contract gave them full control,
with Jim engaged as ‘script consultant’,
which in his innocence he thought meant more than simply
staying by the phone. The irony is that Jim’s
agent advised him to sell to an independent British
company, but he figured that since the book is set in
Waterford, RTE would make a better job of it.
His complaints are that the national broadcaster employed
British writer John Brown (who did Prime Suspect)
and English director Martin Freynds (who did Rumpole),
“men of undoubted talent and ability”, but
who hadn’t enough experience of Irish society.
Jim thought there was sufficient talent around in Ireland
to do the series, but RTE disagreed. He cites the success
of I Went Down, in a similar genre, to disprove
their low opinion of Irish writers and directors.
Jim disliked that Making The Cut was moved
out of Waterford into an anonymous ‘any port’,
since locale is important in detective stories (think
of Morse and Oxford), as is the idea of McAden, the
hero, as ‘outsider’. Also, the series was
pitched at high action, like a thriller, rather than
the slower-paced detective yarn it is. Jim protested,
but nothing was done. He realised that producer Paul
Cusack didn’t have ultimate control, and he doesn’t
who did, if anyone. The excuse given for the change
of location was that the people of Waterford would be
offended at having their town portrayed as a major site
for the importation of drugs, an explanation which gives
further evidence as to why the phrases ‘RTE’
and ‘corporate timidity’ have become synonymous.
In future, Jim would look at the contract first, and
he would like to adapt the work himself. He makes the
point that if novelists are making a living from their
books, they have greater clout when it comes to dealing
with TV and film, since there is always a tension between
holding out for as much as once can get versus the possibility
of them not buying it at all. RTE have bought an option
on Flashback, the second McAden novel, but
if Jim had to do it again, he would go with the English
company, because he feels they probably would have done
a better job, not being as hung up about local sensibilities.
So there you have it. Given the variety of experiences
recounted, Raymond Chandler’s assertion that,
‘The making of a motion picture is an endless
contention of tawdry egos, almost none of them capable
of anything more creative than credit stealing and self
promotion’ may seem unnecessarily harsh, but at
the same time it is as well to be armed with these well-chosen
admonitions and ammunitions, if one is going swimming
First published in Film Ireland