The novel-to-film adaptation can diminish a story

Adapting popular modern novels for television may be a daunting task, but many believe that the longform small-screen format allows literary properties to breathe more naturally and with less restrictions than most studio features.

“Books we adapt should be multigenerational, semihistorical, romantic, a family drama with a twist, written by a famous author as a series or a very thick novel,” says producer Mark Wolper, whose track record includes high-profile minis such as “The Thorn Birds,” “Alex Haley’s Queen,” and TNT’s recent “The Mists of Avalon.”

“Unfortunately, feature divisions in studios immediately gobble up books at extremely high prices because they’re bestsellers, or have a big title, assuming these works will make a good movie,” Wolper adds. “But nine times out of 10, after paying a fortune — after hiring multiple writers to do the script — they recognize that they can’t duplicate the book’s quality, so they abandon the project.”

Warming up to his subject, Wolper speaks intensely about the impracticality of taking an involved 600- to 1,000-page book and turning it into 120 pages.

“It’s too complicated,” he insists, “it’s not meant to be translated. A lot of wonderful books are stuck in the feature division because so much money is put out. Or the book gets cold and nobody wants to make it. Granted, some novels translate well to movies, but more often than not, my attitude is ‘Don’t sell your book to features!’ ”

National awareness of the material is also vital.

“What’s important is that the book have a profile beyond people who have read it. Whether you’ve read Stephen King or Dean Koontz, everyone knows their names.”

Lisa Alexander, producer of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “The Mists of Avalon,” also emphasizes the tremendous responsibility she feels to fans of the property.

“I was involved with this project for many years,” says Alexander. “I got lots of emails warning me, ‘Don’t screw this up!’ I didn’t want to let fans down. The point was not to fill out the book, but rather capture what was special, given that we had a different form and much less time.”

Alexander’s comments reflect a major challenge in adapting books to minis — paring them down while preserving their essence.

“I tried to do ‘Mists of Avalon’ as a feature originally,” she recalls. “Till I realized that took away the originality. The novel has a long, intricate rhythm. If you try to place it in traditional screenplay form, you remove the elements that made it unique.”

Above all, Alexander is convinced that books considered for miniseries treatment should contain an epic scope.

“A property that has the breadth of human emotion. All the big, classic feelings and struggles — mother against daughter, son against father, brother against brother. Epic, large emotions, a Greek sense of drama. Yet the story must be structured, cohesively told.”

She and Wolper agree that authors, in general, shouldn’t adapt their creations, although it’s not a hard, fast rule.

Peter Werner, director of Lifetime’s “We Were the Mulvaneys” (the second-highest-rated original cable movie of 2002) feels that a basic theme is needed from the beginning.

“I have to know, very simply, what it’s about. The problem with most book translations is they’re honoring or dishonoring the novel, but they don’t get what the book is about. In ‘Mulvaneys,’ we created very few scenes that weren’t in Joyce Carol Oates’ original, but we did do a couple, and one of them was the climax. It required that structure and climax, and we received a lovely letter from Joyce, complimenting our choices.”

In general, Werner says he is against altering the source material radically to impose his concept, and he was always open to Oates’ suggestions. “Joyce had a laser sense of each character, even though she’d written the book six years earlier. In the end, we were guided back to the source material time after time. Seventy-five percent of the dialogue was straight from the novel.”

In terms of miniseries, Werner cites “Prince of Tides” and “Hawaii” as two novels that could have benefited from longform treatment.

“With ‘Prince of Tides,’ they had to leave so much out,” he says, “and ‘Hawaii’ — such a fascinating book and such a dull movie. There’s all that marvelous material that could have been used. On the other hand, ‘Lonesome Dove’ was great. So was ‘Sybil.’ ”

Executive producer Stephanie Germain chose Anna Shreve’s “The Pilot’s Wife” as a telepic for a combination of aesthetic and realistic reasons.

“The premise of the novel is incredibly compelling,” says Germain. “Also, Oprah (Winfrey) had picked it as a book club selection, and that made the selling process easier. It was a gigantic bestseller. CBS was eager to do it. I don’t think there’s a rule of thumb about what gets sold in TV and features. It depends where I think I can sell it. ‘Pilot’s Wife’ could have been an independent feature.”

Echoing Mark Wolper, Germain feels the marketplace has changed significantly and her choices for filming need to be driven by an event.

“You must have a core audience,” says Germain. “Strong story, a wonderful star, as we had with Christine Lahti. A director, Robert Markowitz, with an incredible vision.”

Rebecca Eaton, exec producer of PBS’ 31-year-old drama showcase “Masterpiece Theater” also agrees that solid TV adaptations of acclaimed novels satisfy a niche often forgotten by other venues.

“What we do best is taking classics and putting a contemporary spin on them, just as we did this last season with Shakespeare’s ‘Othello.’ This modern version was one of the more unusual productions I’ve seen. We also aired a traditional costume drama adaptation of Trollope’s ‘The Way We Live Now,’ which was interesting, because many have pointed out that the novel’s themes of new money and greed really resonate today with the aftermath of the dot.com boom and the whole Enron story.”

What all these longform creatives firmly agree on is the need to capture what Wolper calls the soul of the book, and how effective TV continues to be in bringing that soul to the screen.

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