The dwindling market for original screenplays in Hollywood has left aspiring screenwriters looking to the literary market to find an audience for their stories. But the process of adapting from a screenplay into a novel presents unique storytelling issues that have yet to be formally addressed.

This blog is the product of a year-long partnership between Jon James Miller, an award-winning screenwriter, and Charlotte Cook, publisher at KOMENAR Publishing, to develop one of Jon's award-winning scripts into a publishable novel.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Subtext: A Rose by Any Other Name...or Picture

Talking to Charlotte recently, a screenplay term came up that had a different meaning for novels. This is happening more and more in our discussions involving terminology of the two art forms. I had to confess that what I thought it meant all these years for scripts actually is what the term applies to in novels. For years I had been toiling away using subtext in the wrong context. Or, was I?

Subtext in screenplays, according to refers to “messages that get across without ever being spoken.” The same website defines subtext in novels as something that “…creates depth in writing. It allows the writer to address and unify the themes in her novel.” The definition includes the following example: “For instance, if your novel is about a grandmother who feels abandoned by her family after she is placed in a nursing home, then the subtext of your novel is about how our society treats the elderly. Subtext can be addressed through your novel’s plot, characters, scenes, dialogue, literary tropes (metaphors, similes, etc.) and other literary elements. For instance, using one of the examples above, the elderly woman in the nursing home discovers that her roommate is being treated awfully by one of the hospital attendants. She reports the attendant to the hospital director, but her complaints are condescendingly ignored. This plot highlights the story’s subtext: that the elderly are often neglected and their needs ignored in society.”

On the surface, screenplay subtext and novel subtext would appear to be different. The definition for screenplays goes on to say that subtext is backstory to the characters relationship to one another and should only be hinted at in “vague” dialogue. The writer, Eric J. Seidman, advises, “Figure out the tone and be sure to note that as an action line before a conversation, or directly underneath the character slug.” I confess, I’ve been writing screenplays a long time and I have absolutely no idea what the hell Mr. Seidman is talking about. So, I naturally turned to my DVD player for help.

I popped in “Let The Right One In,” one of my favorite movies and I had just finished reading the novel from which it was adapted. I’d seen the movie many times before. A vampire story set in Sweden during the early 1980’s when that country was still half behind the iron curtain. But only after I read the novel, then re-watched the movie adaptation did I detect a recurring subtext.

Adults are present throughout the movie along with the children that are the main focus of the film. In almost every scene where they appear, the adults are literally looking the other way. The only thing that grabs their attention is when something terrible happens. The subtext in the movie is that adults are oppressed, desensitized and therefore oblivious to their surroundings. Only when the children reach out for them, or an event occurs that they can’t ignore do the adults act. This subtext is reinforced in one scene by a snippet of dialogue in which an adult says, “Yeah, life stinks.”

I went back and read passages of the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist. I thought I’d find a similar subtext in the book, considering that Lindqvist adapted his own novel into the screenplay for the finished film. Even though all the adults in the novel are extremely fucked up and unhappy, the more prevalent subtext was found among the children: Oscar loves Eli even though she isn’t what she appears to be (a twelve year old girl) and suspects is an experienced killer. Even more amazingly, Eli loves Oscar. The subtext or theme of the novel is unconditional love.

Then I looked at the film again. Sure enough the theme of unconditional love was present. But was it subtext? Did the imagery reflect Oscar and Eli’s affection for one another without them uttering “I love you” while their adult counterparts were looking the other way? Yes. So, is the subtext of the screenplay that all adults are oblivious, or the unconditional love that exists between an innocent and a not-so-innocent child? The answer only became obvious after I asked myself what the story of both the novel and the screenplay is.

The story of “Let The Right One In” is the unconditional love between two children who are both more alive in their own way than the adults and the society surrounding them. And the only way to avoid a similar fate is in the strength of their bond. In this context, the unifying theme or subtext of the novel is supported by the recurring imagery or subtext of the film. So, it turns out the different definitions of subtext for either medium are not mutually exclusive when they are both employed in service to the story.

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