Category Archives: Screenplay

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – An Epic Failure of Adaptation

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a perfect storm of predictability.

Hobbit01If you decide to adapt a single novel into a movie trilogy, the middle story, the bridge, is the hardest one to pull off successfully.

Having the middle story as part of a prequel makes the project a recipe for failure with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug as the main course.

In the film, a group of dwarfs continue their quest, heading to an abandoned dwarf kingdom hidden under a mountain that contains a massive collection of gold and jewels.  The kingdom is now home to a huge, overly-chatty dragon.

On their quest, they cross paths with a bunch of big spiders, angry elfs, and a hunky seaman.

Their goal is to get a precious stone that the dwarf leader can use to bring the fractured dwarf tribes back together and they need the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, to retrieve it.

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There were so many problems with this film, its hard to believe it made it into production.  Lets go over a few:

1) It’s a prequel.  Most viewers will have read/watched the Lord of the Rings prior to watching this film, which means they know the following:

  • The tension between the elfs and the dwarfs gets resolved and end up working together.
  • Gandalf is never in danger, since he leads the efforts in Rings.
  • Bilbo is never in danger, since he’s in Rings too.

So, three major points of conflict or suspense are diffused.

2) It’s the middle film of a single quest.

  • Since the trilogy is really a single quest, you know they make it.  You never doubt they will survive the journey.

Which means another major point of suspense is lost.

And there are other problems.

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3) The bad guys are computer generated:

  • Our brains react differently when two people are involved in a stunt than when two computer characters are.  The reason?  Danger.  It’s why people love car races or watching football.  The risk is real.  This is the same reasons we love amazing stunts by real people in real places.  Your brain can’t imagine how they pulled it off.
  • When characters are fighting computer generated bad guys, your brain never worries about them, never tries to figure out how they survived.  Your brain becomes passive.  A passive audience is a films worst enemy.
  • In Rings, the hand-to-hand combat scenes were with real people in make-up (along with some computer generated augmentation for scope and effect).  In The Hobbit, the bad guys are 100% fake, which makes their interaction with real actors 100% ineffective.

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4) Dragon TMI:

  • In the story we learn this dragon can only be killed by a certain type of arrow, which can penetrate his skin.  Legend had it that the dragon was nicked by one of these arrows and it knocked off a couple of scales, making him vulnerable.
  • Near the end of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug they show two things they shouldn’t have.
    1) the dragon does, indeed, have a few scales missing.
    2) there is one super arrow left.
  • So, what does this tell me?  It tells me the dragon gets killed by that arrow.  And, as luck would have it, this dragon killing won’t happen in this movie, but in film #3.
  • Which means, The Hobbit not only destroyed suspenseful moments in this film, they’ve actually undermined suspenseful moments in the NEXT ONE!

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All that being said, you can save a middle film of a trilogy if you leave the audience satisfied by surprising them at the end.

  • Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back – “I am your father.”  Enough said.
  • Hunger Games: Catching Fire – The games were a ruse for a rebellion.

The Hobbit’s ending wasn’t surprising at all.  Dragon gets loose and heads to a nearby town, the one with the super arrow.  Gee, I’ll talk about for as long as it takes my theater seat to return to its upright position.

But, if you can’t surprise anyone with the ending, then maybe you could surprise the audience by killing off one of the heroes.  Someone important, preferably.  But, no, EVERYONE survives this movie.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a shining example of a series of bad decisions made by Hollywood just so they could make money.

1) make a prequel because the Rings made serious $.
2) turn the one Hobbit tale into a trilogy to make serious $.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Hollywood wants to use The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug to make more money.  Why should it?  After all, nothing else in the movie is surprising either.

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Hunger Games: Catching Fire – Adaptation Choices

“I have an image of Prim in a white room, strapped to a table, while masked, robed figures elicit those sounds from her.  Somewhere they are torturing her, or did torture her, to get those sounds.”

In my last podcast I talked about the process of adapting a screenplay to a novel.  The opposite path can be taken when adapting a novel into the screenplay, but instead of looking for ways to fill your story, you look for ways to streamline the novel into an effective screenplay.

catchingfire2A lot of tough choices have to be made during such a process.  Locations may be trimmed, characters combined into one, etc.  Then, that script, that blueprint, is given to a director to be turned into a series of visual images.

The first Hunger Games film, directed by Gary Ross, was one of the best film adaptations of a novel I had seen.  It captured the life and essence of the book perfectly and the additions and changes to the screenplay aligned to a T with the novels original feel and mood.

When I read the second Hunger Games book, Catching Fire, the story was more vast and the action, much bigger.  I was concerned if Ross, who nailed an intimate feel in the first film, with a lot of handheld camera work, would be able to pull off the larger action sequences in the second book.

Ross, not believing he had enough prep time to direct the second film, stepped down and Francis Lawrence was hired to direct both the second film, Catching Fire, and the third and fourth films based on the last novel, Mockingjay.

In Catching Fire, both in the book and the movie, during the games Katniss finds herself stuck listening to jabberjays scream in Prim’s voice.  It is a horrendous sound that wreaks havoc on Katniss’ fragile psyche.

The quote from the Catching Fire book that started this blog entry shows what Katniss is fearing, that in order for the jabberjays to mimic a tortured Prim, Prim, herself, would have had to be tortured.

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In the movie, Katniss is stuck in the jungle, forced to hear these screams for an hour.  The film director chooses to show Katniss covering her ears and screaming, trying to block out the sound.

This adaptation choice was an exceptionally weak one.

Author Suzanne Collins explained perfectly what Katniss was imaging had caused these horrendous sounds.  Lawrence, the film director, should have shown us that in the film as well.

Film is a visual medium.  If the director would have chosen to inject flashes of the images ricocheting through Katniss’ mind, we would have be thrust into her psychological shoes, and we would have become an active participant in a very disturbing moment, like we were in the book.

However, by the director only showing Katniss’ reaction to the sound, we are passive, like Peeta, sitting on the other side of the force field, watching her in agony.

A very, very poor choice.

Both novels and films have one primary goal, to emotionally engage the audience.  They do this by putting us in the protagonists point-of-view as much as possible.  In novels, you do this by hearing what they think, what they fear and what they dream.  In film, it has to be done visually, otherwise we’re a passive observer eating popcorn in an air conditioned theater instead of in the mind of the hero stuck in a jungle facing her greatest fear.

That adaptation choice, either by the screenwriters or the director, was the wrong one and wasted one of the most emotionally powerful moments in the story.  Instead of jarring us into Katniss’ world, it just became another hurdle the contestants had to overcome in a long series of challenges.

I hope in the next two films, when given the opportunity, they make more powerful and effective choices when adapting the novel into a film.

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Podcast 04 – Screenplay to Novel Adaptation

Today’s podcast discusses some tips on how to adapt a screenplay into a novel.


Running Time: 12:11

Here are a few steps to consider when adapting a screenplay to a novel.

Step 1) Overview.  Look at the story from a 30,000 foot level.  Sketch out the basics of the plot (beginning, middle and end).  Also, write down the main protagonist’s character arc to identify where the character starts and ends up.

Step 2) Characters.  Write down all of the characters in the story in order of importance and synopsize their purpose in the story and their growth arc.

Step 3) Story Detail.  Synopsize each scene into the following basic information:

– Where does it take place?
– Which character(s) is in the scene?
– What is the conflict?
– What information is relayed?

Step 4) Gap Opportunities.  Identify the areas in the story that could use elaboration or character relationships that need to be augmented and explored further.

Step 5) Outline.  Now that all of the prep-work is done, create an outline for your novel where you take all of the information and reorganize it to make the most effective novel possible.

Step 6) Get to  Work. Understanding the expectations of your audience, write, write and rewrite until you’ve written a novel with which you are happy.

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Residuals

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I was a screenwriter.

I wrote screenplays, won some awards, had some optioned and a few produced. One of those screenplays I wrote at the request of a friend of mine, Jenni Gold. I recently mentioned Jenni in a post about her work on the documentary Cinemability.

Back in the last 90’s, Jenni, ever the pragmatic filmmaker, had a great idea.  We were both living in Florida at the time and Hollywood was testing out to see if Orlando could be Hollywood-East.  The work in Florida was seasonal and, because of the heat, film making slowed down during the summer.

Jenni thought she could get the Hollywood level stunt talent in the area for cheap during the slow season.  And she was right.  So, she secured financing for an insanely low budget and came up with an idea about an action film about an injured CIA Agent who uncovers a nasty plot and uses other discarded government thugs to form a team and save the day.

rwaShe asked me if I would write the script, so I took her original idea and wrote the screenplay for Ready, Willing & Able.

The writing process was very interesting.  As Jenni gathered more resources, she would call and say:

  • “We have access to a small plane.  Can you add that in there?”
  • “I was able to get access to the Universal lot.  They have an exterior cafe set.  Can you write that in?”
  • “A guy offered to let us use his two wave runners.  Can you write in a chase sequence?”

It was kind of backwards to fit the changing resource availability into the script instead of writing the story and then finding the resources, but I loved the challenge.  I figured I had to dedicate 75% of the story to action, leaving 25% for character.  So, any character development I wanted to include in the story had to be quick and simple.

The film was shot in Orlando (I got to visit the set) and I got meet the actors.  (BTW – one of the actors, Isaac, went on to have a large supporting role as one of the ghost crew in Pirates of the Caribbean).  RWA won an award at the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival, but never got full domestic distribution.

It did, however, get distribution overseas.  Apparently, even today, it does very well in Russia and Italy.

The fun part about this process is, some 16 years later, I still receive a small residual check from the Writers Guild of America.  The last one I got was about five years ago.  Yesterday, in my mailbox, another one appeared.

wga-check

So, it looks like Ready, Willing & Able is not only still being shown overseas, but its still making enough money to throw me a small check every half decade.

Who would have thunk it.

I hope my future work is as generous as the small script I wrote over 16 years ago.

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Writing Space

Does where you write effect how you write?

When I was starting out writing screenplays, I read an interview with Patrick Sheane Duncan, screenwriter of the film Courage Under Fire, who said that he taught himself to write anywhere with a pad of paper and a pencil so that he could write whenever he was either inspired or required.

I’ve tried to follow that concept.  For me, moments of inspiration are a special thing and I want to be able to write as quickly as possible after a moment of creative clarity.  My past works are written on just about every type of paper/pencil/pen/computer screen/printer combination possible.

However, just because I can write anywhere, doesn’t mean I do my best writing anywhere.

writingspace

Ideally, I like to write in a quiet location using a laptop with a responsive keyboard with soundtrack music playing in the background that mirrors the type of scene I am trying to write.

That works whether I’m trying to write a screenplay or novel or blog entry or Typecasting Tuesday.

I’ve recently moved from one house to another and my writing space has changed dramatically.  In my old house I had constructed an office/movie room with a 100″ projection screen, rockers, surround sound, a small concession stand and a built in desk.

My new space is much smaller, which I like, and I am working to create a serene, productive writing locale.  As I get older, I find myself drawn to older technology and mid-century pieces (typewriter, rotary phone, 30s fan, 40s light, etc.) which, somehow, open up my mind to the task of writing.

I’ve also purchased a 1940s wooden desk which is wonderfully made gives me ample space, both in storage and on the top of the desk, to do the vast amount of work that lie ahead.

I’ve also diminished my computer acreage.  I used to have three monitors to manage all of my video editing and photo manipulation work, but I’ve shrunk that back down to a single monitor since the computer will be used for writing 90% of the time.  And my expanded desk top (the real one, not the digital one) allows me to use my laptop on it as well, when required.

I have space on one of my walls to whiteboard ideas and another section of wall to tape up my 3×5 cards that flesh out the upcoming chapters in my book.

Finally, I’ve dotted the walls with various small accomplishments and awards, but I’ve learned from past experience to keep my pride buried as deep as possible.

I’m hopeful, in this new writing space, I’ll be able to bang out a lot of pages of my upcoming novels.

I’d love to hear what spaces allow you to be at your creative best.

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It Only Took Sixty-Three Drafts to Learn How to Write

Writing can be a painful experience.

I spent the majority of my life around, involved in and pursuing a life in film.  I studied it, I performed in it, I wrote for it, I directed it and I loved it.  Some of my work made it to Hollywood, but most was of the independent nature.

The combination of my faith and my passion for film led to the creation of Sonlight Pictures, where the character of Gabby Wells first emerged.

When I decided to attempt to convert the first season of television scripts about Gabby Wells into the first novel in the series, I had virtually zero training in writing novels.  My experience over the last 20 years revolved solely and completely around screenplays.

But I like a challenge.  And, I figured, worst case scenario, my novel sucks but I’m a better writer for having tried.

rewrite-redpenThe first few drafts of the first Gabby Wells novel were simply conversion pieces, taking the scripts and morphing them into novel form, finding the many gaps that needed to be filled with character back story, internal drivers and emotional damage.

It wasn’t until about draft 50 that my daughter said “We actually have a novel now.”

Fifty drafts.  I didn’t expect the learning curve to be that steep.

Around draft 60 I had exhausted all I could muster in making this novel work.  It was as good as it was gonna get considering my skill level at the time.

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That is until my daughter suggested something rather drastic.

I was working on converting the second season of television scripts into the second novel and was not looking forward to repeating the daunting task of trying to master a new writing style while converting my material from my old writing style.  It’s just a tough haul.

So, after hearing me complain about the impending frustration, she suggested that I forgo everything I had done before and start writing the second novel from scratch.  I know the story, just tell it as the writer I am now, not the writer I was when I wrote the screenplay.

To my amazement, it worked.  The first chapter was smooth and interesting and funny and draws you in.  I must say, it’s pretty dang good.

It was so good, in fact, that it made me realize something horrible.

I had to do the same thing with the first novel.  After 63 drafts, I had to scrap it and write it all over again, from scratch.

Sure, I’ll be able to pilfer quite a bit of the more polished sections of the text from draft 63, but the feel, the mood, the style, the approach will be completely different.

I’m not happy about it.  From concept to screenplay to novel, I’ve been living/writing this story repeatedly for almost five years.  I want to be done in the worst way.

But, not until its as good as I can make it and, unfortunately, I can make it better.

At least one for one more draft.

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Cinemability

Some people will not be denied.

JenniI have known Jenni Gold for about 20 years now.  She and her husband Jeff Maynard have been fighting the good fight in Hollywood.  They’re good people trying to make good films in a tough and unforgiving environment.

Jenni was struck with Muscular Dystrophy as a child, but she has never let that get in the way of her goals.  She has continued to work harder and more passionately than most others that cross her path.  Her love for film making started at a young age and she has followed its path unabated since.

rwaShe asked me to pen a script for her fifteen or so years ago that was an action film with a heroine in a wheel chair…  you could think of it as an updated version of Ironside meets Bourne, except with a female protagonist and a hec of a lot more explosions.  She found funding and directed the film Ready, Willing & Able, which won awards and was distributed all over the world.

She and her husband moved to California right afterwards and set up shop on the Universal Studios lot for over a decade, meeting and having lunch with some of the top filmmakers in the industry.

This year, Jenni thought it would be interesting to look at the history of disabilities in film.  The result is a star-studded documentary called Cinemability.  They found a backer who wanted to promote the film and get it into the Oscar race.  They agreed.  Shortly thereafter, however, the financing backed out and they were left committed to the Oscar race, but with no money to get anyone to see it.

cinemability

Did Jenni give up?  Nope.  She decided to travel across the country and show the film one city at a time.  Tonight, she’ll be in the Tampa Bay area, where I live, and we’ll be seeing it at 7PM at:

Regal Park Place Stadium 16
7200 US Highway 19 N
Pinellas Park, FL 33781

Check out the trailer and more screening info at their website:  http://www.cinemability.com.

No matter how hard I work, people like Jenni and Jeff make me feel like I’m standing still.  Their continued focus, commitment and enthusiasm for film making is an inspiration to me.

I can’t wait to see them this evening, share a meal, catch up and then check out the screening of their film.  If you’re in the area, I hope you would do the same.

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Podcast 03 – Lynne Hansen

Lynne Hansen has participated in just about every facet of the publishing industry.  From writing to editing to marketing to book design, she has seen and done it all.  In this podcast we get insight into the many paths her career has taken and gain valuable insights on what makes a powerful and effective book cover design.

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Here is an example of Lynne’s great book cover design work:

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Take a listen and enjoy the show.

Links Mentioned in the Show:

Lynne Hansen Design

Jeff Strand

Tampa Theatre

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It Drives Me

I like to challenge myself.  And I like to learn new things.

These attributes have come in handy as I’ve focused on writing novels.

When I was a kid, I was enthralled by movies.  One summer in particular, the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark was playing at a local dollar theater.  Back before DVDs and online streaming, a dollar movie theater was a great place to see films once their initial run had ended.  For the theater, they didn’t make money off of the ticket price, but off of concessions.  So, if a film was popular, they would run it as long as people kept coming and buying popcorn.

Raiders was so popular that the film ran all summer long.  Rarely a week went buy where I wouldn’t scrounge together four quarters and sit in the air conditioned theater, escaping the blistering heat outside, and willfully enter the world of treasure seeker Indiana Jones.

Learn

When I saw an interview with director Steven Spielberg where he mentioned he had storyboarded all of his shots, I found a book that explained how to do it and started practicing on my own.  I wrote short films and storyboarded every shot.  My scribblings were no masterpiece, but it allowed me to learn how to tell a basic story, frame and edit scenes together, without a camera, actors or film.

Later, in college, I wanted to learn more about writing screenplays and there were some new books on how to do just that.  So, I bought them and taught myself the screenplay structure and studied films of all genres to find out they used the same template over and over again.  I started writing screenplays, learning how to tell a story with a strong beginning, middle and end.  I learned how to write dialogue and when to give the audience information and when to keep it from them.

I was also acting at the time, so I learned how to memorize scripts, get into a character’s head and change who I am to fit the role.  I read books on acting and watched theater and film as much as possible, studying everything I could, absorbing any bit of morsel that would give me an advantage over my competition.

My hard work was starting to pay off.  I won awards for acting.  I won awards for some of my screenplays.  A few of them were optioned by Hollywood production companies (never produced) and one I wrote for a friend (a low-budget action film) that was produced and distributed.

I just love learning new things.  And I don’t understand people who don’t want to excel in their craft.

When I felt called to rediscover my faith, I started reading everything I could, from the Bible to Saints to the Catechism, from authors like Scott Hahn and Bible Studies by Jeff Cavins.  The more I learn, the more I realize how much I have to learn.

SLP Website

When we were going to start Sonlight Pictures, a Christian film company, I watched every Christian film I could get my hands on.  I researched the distribution options for Christian films, which genres were most effective, which actors of note were willing to participate in Christian films, potential income from such films, etc.

I learned so much.

When I decided to turn some of our Sonlight Pictures properties into novels, starting with Gabby Wells, I knew there was a lot to learn and there was a lot I didn’t know.

What always scares me the most is not knowing what I don’t know.

So, I’ve researched young adult novels, book covers, potential market places for Gabby Wells novels, editors, publishers, agents, book printers, distributors, ebooks and royalty rates. I’ve tracked down editors and fellow authors, looked at what books are in stores like Family Christian Bookstores, and what are not.

I’m researching marketing approaches from blog tours to book signings to release parties to speaking engagements to conference attendance and workshop participation.

Learning something new excites me.  Taking on the challenge of entering an industry I’ve never been in inspires me.

I don’t know how this whole journey with the Gabby Wells book series will end.  Hec, I barely know when it will officially start (i.e., book release date).

But I love the process.  I love the impossible task of succeeding at this insurmountable goal.

It drives me.

And I know I’ll be the better person for having tried.

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A Theory

I have a theory.

This theory started when I was in college.  Back before DVDs and online streaming, it was nearly impossible to watch a movie that was no longer in the theaters and movie classics could rarely be seen outside of film festivals.  So, it was a special treat to see Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window in college as part of a film class I was taking .

rearwindow

They got the film from Universal Studios and showed it at the student union in the middle of campus.  The theater was packed with film class students and those who heard about the screening.  After the lights dimmed and Grace Kelly’s magical entrance onto the screen, the suspense started in earnest.  As the plot unfolded and the tension mounted, you could sense the crowd growing anxious.  When a major event occurred on screen it was the first time I heard an audience scream out loud in the theater.

It was awesome.

That film experience was so memorable and inspirational for me that I wanted to try and recreate that for others.  Even though I was drawn to film as a child, that showing of Rear Window changed my direction and my focus.

And that’s where my theory comes in.

I think that creative people have all had that one moment that redefined their path.  And they spend the rest of their lives trying to recreate that feeling for others.  For me that path has evolved from film to novels, but the goal is still the same.

I don’t know if my theory is true.  I haven’t collected enough stories as to what inspired stand-ups to stand-up, or Stephen King to scare the crap out of us, or why Scorcese creates films about the mob, but I figure there’s got to be something tangible, definitive and tied to the creative collective.

I could be wrong.  Maybe stand-ups stand-up because their childhoods were so miserable, or Stephen King writes scary stories because it helped him pick up chicks or Scorcese makes mob movies because he likes the way they dress.  I don’t know.

But I hope it’s more than that.  I hope it’s part of an on-going cycle of inspiration/reaction/recreation/inspiration.  That would be cool.

I may be proven otherwise, but, until then, that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.

If you’d care to share your moment of creative inspiration, I’d love to hear it.  Let us know in the comments section.

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