Last year, over the Hallowe’en weekend, I went to CanCon, a local literary science fiction and fantasy convention. Among the guests was Robert J. Sawyer, who, among other achievements, has had the most serialized stories in Analog. During his panel on serial writing, he mentioned that the act of serialization led to adaptations, thanks to how he sets up the chapters. This week, instead of reviewing an adaptation, Lost in Translation looks at how to be adapted.
While not every creator wants to see his or her work adapted into a new form, others see it as a new source of income for little additional effort. The easiest way to get adapted is to be popular. Hollywood, in particular, wants as close to an instant hit as possible and adapting something already popular should bring in an audience. Warner Bros. would not have paid JK Rowling anything if Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone hadn’t been a juggernaut in the publishing world. The phenomenal sales of each book in the Harry Potter series was something that no studio could ignore. Harry Potter wasn’t the first written work to be adapted so soon after publication. All Quiet on the Western Front, published via serials before released as a novel in 1929 was turned into an Oscar-winning movie in 1930.
The catch here, though, is that popularity is hard to predict. Audiences are fickle, demanding originality but going out in droves for by-a-Save the Cat-numbers film. Publishers and studios alike can release works that are similar to what has been popular before, but the new offering could very well languish. What works in one medium might fizzle in another. Also possible, a work that is all but ignored can become a smash hit as an adaptation. Popularity of the original isn’t a guarantee that an adaptation will also succeed.
The next best thing to being popular is to catch the eye of a potential adapter. Scott Pilgrim vs the World is a good example. The graphic novels were known but not a household name, but Edgar Wright had read them. The result, a movie that used the graphic novels as a storyboard, using the actual locations portrayed in the books. The benefit of catching the attention in this manner is that there will be a greater effort to be as accurate as possible to the original work. The adaptor is making his or her version because of what was seen in the original and will try to bring it out in the new work. The drawback is that audiences may not have an idea of what to expect. Worse, marketing departments may have no idea, as happened with Scott Pilgrim.
The third way to get adapted is to be adaptation-ready. Sawyer’s approach to serialization helped him here. He has had nineteen novels adapted or optioned for adaptation. When he serializes his stories for /Analog/, he includes a short summary of what happened in the previous chapter, to remind readers what has happened already. He continues with the summary for the last chapter, leaving him with a proposal that hits the major plot points in a one-to-two page summary, ideal to pass along to studios looking for a new series or movie. When the person making the decision on what to accept has limited time, a summary that explains the premise and shows each beat has an advantage. This method also means removing the uncertainty of getting Harry Potter levels of popularity or being read by the right person at the right time; in this case, rejection by one studio still allows the property to be shopped around. This doesn’t mean that a story should be serialized; Sawyer uses serialization as part of his business plan to get readers, but not all stories are easily turned into a serial. The summaries, though, are the key part, at least for getting a work ready for adaptation.
None of the above is any guarantee that a work will be adapted. There are other considerations, including the ease of adapting. However, the effort taken to be adaptation-friendly can remove barriers.