Wednesday, November 04, 2020


The trailer for THE WATCH, the much anticipated BBC America adaptation of Sir Terry Pratchett's novel GUARDS GUARDS, landed three weeks ago to heavy criticism from fans. With the likes of sci-fi and fantasy author Aliette de Bodard stating it made her feel like, "someone took my teenage years and just repeatedly trampled them while setting them on fire," and Sir Terry's daughter Rhianna Pratchett Tweeting that the show shared no DNA with her father's Watch, the criticism highlights just how difficult it is to adapt a much-loved piece of work.

GUARDS GUARDS is my second favourite book of all time and I have to be honest I was dreading any adaptation as the last adaptation of books I loved from my teens, THE SHANNARA CHRONICLES based on the SHANNARA series by Terry Brooks, sucked massive bum chunks. I hated it, mainly for the writing but also for the poor casting and the dicking around with the lore of the books, so I can empathise with the Sir Terry fans who dread the launch of THE WATCH. However, I have to say I do like the look of the trailer and I'm intrigued to see what they've done with the series. I'll decide whether it sucks massive bum chunks or not when the series launches, but for now I'm happy to keep an open mind.

The reason I'm happy to keep an open mind is that I've written three feature novel adaptations in the past and know how difficult it is to write one to please the author, the fans and the producer. I accept that an adaptation can't be exactly the same as the source novel because they are two very different mediums, one formed of words and the other pictures. It's easy to get into a character's head when you're writing a novel, exploring their thoughts, fears and working through their thought process but it's almost impossible to translate that to the screen.

Who remembers the original BLADE RUNNER with it's clunky, distracting and often intrusive voiceover? That there is the problem summed up in one film. If you use voiceover to portray a character's thoughts on screen it seems artificial, often patronising to an audience and don't get me started on characters breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the camera. Both options rarely work with adaptations or add anything to the finished product. They are just a cheat, a simple way to get around the problem of adaptation without actually solving it.

When adapting a novel you need to come at it from a fresh perspective, from an angle that will keep the essence of the original story but give the audience something new. If you give them exactly what they're expecting the audience will be satisfied but the bigger impact will come from giving them something new, something more evolved and unexpected. The way I approach writing an adaptation is to look for the core of the story, the heart of the tale being told and start from there. 

Let's examine THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE by Audrey Niffenegger, adapted into the 2009 film of the same name. It is probably the best adaptation of a novel I have ever seen, focussing on the core love story between the protagonist and his wife, which is complicated by his unpredictable time travelling. Yet, the author, Audrey Niffenegger, hated the adaptation and swore that none of her future novels would ever be adapted. Without knowing what she was expecting from the film, I can't really comment on why she was so disappointed with the result, although an unhappy author is a problem I too have faced.

When I was called upon to adapt Ken Smith's coming-of-age novel COWBOYS CAN FLY I decided to focus on the friendship of the two boys and the companionship they found in each other's company. When I passed on the first draft to Ken he wasn't entirely happy and complained I had taken a lot of the humour out of the story. We sat down (via the internet) and talked it over. I discover that by 'humour' he meant the rude bits and I explained why the protagonist couldn't be seen to have erections or disappear behind a bush for a quick wank if we wanted to keep the story PG, making it accessible to a wider audience. Ken eventually understood this and I then went back and layered some of Ken's less blue humour back into the screenplay making it a more fun and appealing read.

Some scenes from the book made it into the screenplay and some did not. I also added scenes I thought would work well with the story and characters and when Ken read the second draft he was happy with it. However, I don't think as an author you can ever be entirely happy with an adaptation of your novel unless you write the screenplay yourself, simply because so much of it does get lost in the translation to a visual medium.

I remember a similar cry last year over Sarah Phelp's adaptation of the Poirot tale THE ABC MURDERS. Fans were horrified that Sarah had dared to change the lore of Poirot, making him an older now forgotten detective past his prime and revealing in flashback that he was once a priest. What did the audience expect? Another carbon copy of all the other versions of this story? It really would have been very boring and pointless to copy what has come before and more interesting and entertaining to reinvent Poirot, adding new layers and depth to a character who has now become so familiar it's very difficult to make a version of the novels without the audience knowing what's coming. If Sarah had not refreshed an old, familiar character and added more flesh to his bones, the adaptation would have largely passed unnoticed. As it was, it was a brilliant piece of TV drama and I for one can't wait until her next.

Last month I finished my third adaptation, a feature version of Douglas Hill's 80s sci-fi novel YOUNG LEGIONARY for Plenitude Productions. I was a little nervous taking this adaptation on as, like fantasy fans, sci-fi lovers can be very protective of their favourite works.

The problem with adapting YOUNG LEGIONARY was that the original source novel was a collection of four short stories which didn't work as one feature, and choosing what to include and what to leave out proved a big headache. In the end, the producers asked me to concentrate on the first two stories with the greatest part of the screenplay focussing on the struggles and teen angst of the second tale. As the second story was quite short I've had to expand the plot while keeping the essence of the original story and characters intact. Douglas Hill's core story is still there, it's just my interpretation, exploration and expansion of it that will make it to the big screen and when it does, I hope the fans of the original will love it.

What you the audience needs to bear in mind is that an adaptation is not a direct retelling of a familiar story, and because of the differences in the mediums as explained above, it can never be so. An adaptation is the producer, director and writer's vision of the original story, a retelling with new insights and twists that are true to the core plot and characters but which examine closely and expand on the source material. So if you're unsure or nervous about THE WATCH give it a chance, as will I, and make your mind up when you've seen the producer's full vision for Sir Terry's much-loved novel.

Happy writing!