Friday, June 25, 2010

Adaptation Bootcamp

I am in the exciting position of having a talented screenwriter working to adapt The Kindness of Strangers. When I first posted this on Facebook, everyone was so supportive and psyched, but they immediately began asking questions like “Who are you casting?” “When is the release date?” and “Can I be in it?”

Deep breath...this is a tough business. It is very difficult to get a movie made. Step 1 of a long and complicated process is to write the screenplay. And that’s what’s happening right now.

I feel so lucky to have Brad Riddell, a friend and writer I admire, adapting my novel. I have such faith in him as the right person to do this! I recently went to L.A. for a week to participate in what he dubbed “Adaptation Bootcamp.”

Brad and his wonderful wife Tina welcomed me in their home and were incredible hosts. Each day, Brad would take out his digital recorder and we’d talk about the book whether we were drinking coffee at the house, driving, or visiting Venice Beach, Descanso Gardens, or eating cupcakes in Beverly Hills or Silverlake.

I’ve dreamed about a potential movie being made of one of my books for years. I always imagined, though, that I’d have very little input on the process, but when we began our initial conversations about this possibility, Brad said "I don't want to write a draft that breaks your heart.”

Brad’s questions were very educational for me. He asked me what I saw as the must-have scenes, questions about character motivations, questions about what Sarah wants vs. what she needs (but may not realize yet). We talked at length about the three act structure of a movie and the potential possible endings of Act One for Kindness and what each choice meant in terms of pros and cons.

I think all novelists should study screenwriting. There’s so much we can learn from this form of writing. In just a few days’ worth of questions, I came to think about plot and structure in very different, more specific ways for my own work-in-progress novel. In my own creative writing study, I feel the biggest gap has been in these areas. On Brad’s recommendation I’m reading Aristotles POETICS for Screenwriters by Michael Tierno—with The Writer’s Journey by Vogler (based on Joseph Campbell) and The Tools of Screenwriting by David Howard waiting in the wings.

The movie will be different from the novel. It has to be. Movies and novels are very different art forms, very different animals. Sometimes the very best thing about a novel simply cannot translate to film. Novels can do things movies can’t. Movies can do things novels can’t. As we drove along one day, Brad said, “The screenwriter has to make the internal external. He has to make what happens internally visual.”

Visual. There it is—the biggest difference, so obvious, but yet so complicated. Film is a visual art. A novel is not.

Brad sometimes focuses details on I considered “small” in the novel, but that for him were “great visuals” to latch on to—an example being the following passage from Chapter One of the novel:
“[Sarah] knew [Nate’d] skipped more than that, because she’d seen him in the middle of a school day. Once, visiting Roy’s grave at Temple Israel cemetery, she’d been outraged to see someone sitting on Roy’s stone, smoking, but when she’d recognized Nate, she’d slunk away before he saw her. She’s never told him she’d seen him there, never scolded him for cutting class. And from the cigarette butts that accumulated at the grave, she knew he went frequently.”
Just a tiny bit of exposition for me, but something richly visual to unfold for him.

We looked at various movies and how they handled similar tone and subject matter, for instance, discussing how a scene was written in the novel Push by Sapphire and how that same scene was handled in the film version Precious. We also looked at scenes from Little Children and The Lovely Bones. Like I said—very inspirational!

Things will change. We’ve already talked about characters who might be combined, lines taken from one character given to another, the wedding in the final scene belonging to a different character than in the novel…all of these choices for good reason. I’m jazzed to see what Brad does. I don’t envy him the task ahead, but I have all faith in him. I know he’ll write a beautiful screenplay that captures the essence of the novel.

My certainty of this is based on our first conversations about the novel ever—long before he talked about wanting to adapt it. From his first read, Brad “got” the book. He never saw it as a book “about abuse” but—as I did—a story of resilience and healing. He sees the main story belonging to the Laden family, and the way their own healing begins when they reach out to help someone more broken than they are themselves.

As we both reread the book in preparation for “Bootcamp,” Brad sent the following e-mail:
"Just finished. Thanks again for this wonderful story. The Kittle Krew [what he calls my Facebook Fan Page members*] will have my head if I screw it up!
There’s so much to work with, I’m sad already at what I know we’ll have to lose. The good thing is, and this is cart before the horse (but why not believe?), the book will deeply inform our actors, director, and crew as it has me already, and its truth, and all the cul-de-sacs of your story that can’t make the script, will still be felt, because they will be in the collective emotional memory of everyone involved in creating the film.
(Strangely, as I typed “director,” my heart tensed, as if — who on earth could I ever entrust this to?)"
As Brad wrote, why not believe? I want to be realistic, but of course I have high hopes. This whole journey began as we e-mailed each other during the 2010 Academy Awards and Brad sent an e-mail with the Subject: Golden Man. The message read: “I think it’s time we chase of our own with your amazing book!”

Okay, now that’s REALLY dreaming! But you all know how I feel about that (if you’ve forgotten, go back to my February post “Manifestation Has Major Mojo.”)

We plan to keep you posted and we invite you all to dream along with us!

*are YOU a member of the Kittle Krew? If you’re on FB, just follow this link and “like” it. Thanks!


  1. Great stuff, Katrina! I love the way he refers to parts of your story as "cul-de-sacs." It really captures how Jordan's story is the thorn in a town full of oblivious rose bushes. DREAM BIG OR GO HOME!! The Kittle Krew's got your back! :)

  2. Hee hee! Amen--Dream big. Thank you!

  3. Katrina, I just read your blog at Brad's urging on FB. Brad is my excellent and talented writer, and just a great guy all around, and his wonderful wife is just a very great friend of mine and has been since before their marriage. We in the family are so proud of him. I do have your book, and intended to begin my reading of it when I went to the beach, but due to the health of Brad's grandfather, I have cancelled that and will begin my reading of the "Kindness of Strangers" this weekend. I work at a Sheriff's office and have discussed this book with one of our detectives who specializes in child abuse, and drugs to a degree. She is anxious to read it as well.
    My best to you and Brad in this adventure together, hope it all comes to fruition and everyone comes off with great awards.
    Sherry Walters

  4. Thank you so, so much, Sherry. I'm a big fan of Brad, Tina, and Sophie's (and the soon-to-be-new-addition of the Riddell family)! Your kind words and hopes for us mean the world to me.

  5. Yet another wonderful post, Katrina! I'm excited for both you AND Brad (who has become a good friend in the past couple of years at Spalding.) He is the perfect screenwriter to adapt your book. Wishing you both all the best!

    Brian Russell