Respect for the underlying material is the key to film adaptation, agreed panelists tonight at the WGA Foundation’s Beyond Words panel discussion featuring this year’s WGA Awards nominees for adapted screenplay.
For Guillermo del Toro, film adaptation is “almost like you’re marrying the widow of one of your best friends. You can respect his memory, but at some point, you gotta go to the sock drawer and put your clothes in. You have to inhabit it. And you have to remember that the best incarnation of the book is the book. If you can incarnate it into a movie, those cues and those clues are going to be very different, and finding them is really getting lost and found by the love you have for the material.”
Del Toro said that adapting Nightmare Alley was “something I wanted and something I feared” and that it required creating a whole new “toolbox” to tell the story of the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, who died by suicide in the same hotel room where he wrote the book. Adapting the novel, del Toro said, was “incredibly rewarding and life-changing. It changed my life forever.”
Said Tony Kushner, who adapted West Side Story for Steven Spielberg, “A great work of art has this huge capacity inside it to expand and grow and reveal new sides of itself.”
“Adaptation is an act of violence,” said Denis Villeneuve, who co-wrote the script for Dune. “For me, the book has all the answers.”
Eric Roth, co-writer on Dune, said that he began work on the project by reading and underlining cinematic passages in Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel. “I underlined everything in the book, and that became useless,” he mused. “I’m not sure the book is the Bible, but it’s sacrosanct to me.”
Said Siân Heder, whose CODA explores the life of a hearing child of a deaf family, “I was writing a script in a language that can’t be written.”
Jon Spaihts (Dune) and Steven Levenson (tick…tick…BOOM!) also offered insights into bringing their adaptations to the screen. “This is the most interesting conversation I’ve had in several years,” said moderator Franklin Leonard, founder and CEO of The Black List.
The second panel, with this year’s WGA Awards nominees for best original screenplay, featured Oscar-nominated writers Zach Baylin (King Richard), Adam McKay (Don’t Look Up) and Aaron Sorkin (Being the Ricardos).
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