Directors, writers, and Icarus

Things came to a head this week with a director who’s optioned a novel.  Why is this so often a fraught relationship?

As a newbie agent, I thought that directors – being visual – would be keen readers.  Actually, not all of them pay close attention to all the words in a novel or screenplay.  Nowadays, I imagine the inside of a director’s head being a kinetic version of da Vinci workshop, with inventions whirring through the air and amazing images on the walls.

So bridging the director’s and writer’s vision of the same story sometimes feels like spanning a volatile ocean.  You can spot people disappearing into the briny like Breugel’s painting of Icarus.  Those of us still on the road try not to notice, or feel it might happen to us.

Books are a much more forgiving medium than films.  You can get away with less structure, or events mostly happening in the interior of the character, or wonderful descriptions that only work in words – as long as the brain candy is good enough.  The excellent Joyce Holms description of a bride with a cleavage like a builder’s bum, or the revelation that a Muriel Spark character is so thick she thinks Latin and short-hand are the same thing, are good examples of what’s impossible to place on screen.

Sometimes dramatizing a book brings a better rigour to it, through losing flab and imposing more structure.  A writer whose book I sold the TV rights in admitted that she’d learned a lot about storytelling from the adaptation.

And then sometimes a book gets horribly mangled.  The author had already gone down those creative blind alleys, but the director has to blunder down them himself – sometimes trapping the film there too.  Or characters are cast badly, either because the director sees a different sort of person as the protagonists, or because funding and scheduling accidents throw in an actor that was no-one’s first (or even tenth) choice.

And then there are accidents, in the alchemy that is production.  Who could have guessed that a certain female director had a thing for men with hairy backs and shoulders, rendering a sexy piece repulsive to more than a few?  Who could have predicted that the young man whose talent was incandescent on the stage would turn into a block of wood when a camera was pointed at him?

Wise writers say you just count your money (if you get much) and regard the dramatized version as nothing to do with you.

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