Writing is one of the more difficult arts, requiring an understanding of grammar, word relations, and sentence structure to create anything half-worthy of publication. One needs to have a mastery of both their own ideas and the finer minutiae of the English language to properly transmit their ideas into the mind of another person. Stephen King put it well when he said that 'writing is telepathy'. King is a man who clearly understands and has nearly mastered the requirements of prose writing, after all he is one of the most prolific and successful authors in the world. However, where King succeeds in prose he has stumbled along in the realm of screenwriting. Despite the many adaptations of his movies that exist in the world today, very few are actually written by him, and those that are are not particularly memorable. Any fan of Stanley Kubrick is familiar with the drama which surrounded the filming of the Shining where Kubrick rejected a script written by King himself, instead choosing Diane Johnson's loose treatment of the novel. King went on to throw a small temper tantrum and created a much closer TV miniseries a few years later, an adaptation which ultimately fell flat compared to the Kubrick film. All of the great films created from his novels or short stories like the Shawshank Redemption and the Green Mile are not written by King. Movies where King actually wrote the screenplay include titles like Desperation and Cat's Eye. Ever hear of these movies? Me neither. So then how can an author, who clearly understands the pace and beats of storytelling, have such difficulty creating a movie? King is not alone in his struggles in the film world; F. Scott Fitzgerald, a master of modernism literature, experienced such difficulty in the film world that his latent low self esteem got the better of him causing him to spiral into depression and think of himself as a failure. Screenwriting is simply a different art form than prose, sometimes the transition is easy for authors, but other times it is a very bumpy ride indeed. Let's take a closer look at the differences between these art forms by looking at another Kubrick film: A Clockwork Orange. A Clockwork Orange is a movie that is very close to the source material and presents itself as great candidate for a side by side comparison of the two types of writing.
A Clockwork Orange was written by author Anthony Burgess in 1962 as a reaction to the assault of his wife by soldiers during his time in the British Armed Forces. It explores the nature of violence in society and presents important choices between violence and free choice. A Clockwork Orange is written in a first person past perspective and Burgess intelligently uses language and slang to present a time different than our own. The book is told using slang terms that the teenage main character and his 'droogies' use in their every day speech. Take note of the density of words on the page, a near wall of text filling up almost any white space available. Despite the appearance of density Burgess's prose is actually rather brisk and his words and descriptions flow through the page smoothly, once you get past the small language barrier of course. A Clockwork Orange owes at least part of its popularity to this brisk pace. It is a classic that one can read easily, not needing to go through the thick prose and symbolism present in the works of someone like James Joyce. One can read the book easily and bring it up at wine tastings to appear smart and/or cultured. Not to mention the poignant and compelling themes of the book which can be understood by anybody anywhere, especially these days where topics like 'desensitization' and the corruption of children by gratuitous violence are so common. Unfortunately the popularity of the book went on to cause considerable frustration for Burgess as he did not consider it his finest work but it went on to be almost the only thing associated with him in the public eye. I'm sure the release of the popular and controversial Kubrick movie in 1971 didn't help much.
Translating a book to film is always a difficult procedure, a topic I covered in an earlier blog post. However, some books are fairly easy to adapt to film, and luckily A Clockwork Orange is one of those rare cases where it works almost perfectly. A screenplay is written in a much more rigid structure than a novel, involving three acts and two plot points which act as catalysts between the acts. A Clockwork Orange was already in three acts in novel form, and as such was translated almost completely to film, except for the last chapter... an omission which changes the entire meaning of the work. This almost works better than if they kept the ending because it lets the movie stand on its own. Kubrick also keeps even the more obtuse aspects of the novel, such as the slang terms made up by Burgess and even the point of view the story was written in. Though as a movie A Clockwork Orange presented a visual style impossible to have in novel form with its unique and memorable 'aristo-punk' fashion scene which went on to inspire slutty Halloween costumes the world over. As a book, A Clockwork Orange utilizes the strengths of the novel form to create its popularity and acclaim while the movie uses the strengths of its own medium in different ways to keep in the public eye and win over critics. A Clockwork Orange presents itself as an almost perfect adaptation, both works are acclaimed and both stand on their own, but lets look at the two side by side to understand just why Burgess's own script got rejected by Kubrick.
Writing a novel and screenplay are two sides of the same coin, and when person is accustomed to one form it becomes difficult to work in the other. As a writer of prose one learns to use language to describe scenes, characters, noises, smells, etc. Like King said, 'writing is telepathy', a writer creates worlds in the mind of the reader through the mind of the reader, not through the eye. Burgess builds his world with slang and quick prose, but this does not translate to screenplay form. When writing a screenplay a writer is not concerned with prose or getting inside the mind of the reader. A screenwriter must write visually, not cerebrally. The scene descriptions must be concise, not wordy, and present a clear and simple visual image of the events taking place. Screenplays also fit a more rigid form than novels do, almost universally sticking to a three act two plot point structure, where novels can be more free form. As stated before A Clockwork Orange lends itself well to the rigid structure of film, but things still needed to be cut. In a 120 minute movie you cannot go into the minutiae of every character and event like you can in a novel, you need to pick your battles. Some authors of novels have an eye for telepathy, but not for presenting things visually. Many authors, whether it be King, Burgess, or even Fitzgerald couldn't separate themselves from the novel form, whether it be a difficulty conforming to the rigid structure of movies or having a misunderstanding of what works in novels but not in films. Many authors know books, but don't know film, thus they cannot be counted on to adapt their works well.
Authors the world over shake their fists in the air and curse the heavens in their attempts to translate their novels to screenplay form as they try to save their creation from the greasy hands of Hollywood. Just being a great writer one way doesn't mean you can write the other, a handicap which becomes more obvious the more you work in one form or the other. Sometimes they can't kill their darlings and sometimes they can't give up their flowing and lovely prose for the simplicity of the screenplay. Everyone out there hoping to have the Hollywood adaption of their favorite book not be ruined may yell in anger when they see some random screenwriter attached to it instead of the author, the person who penned the story themselves. But sometimes when it comes to the translation of book to film the Hollywood treatment of the script is just better than the alternative.