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.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

James: Character Evolution From Script to Novel (Jon)

During the next couple of blog entries, I’m going to explore how my characters fared in their jump from script to novel. I daresay some of them were surprised in how the transition from one art form to another altered their standing, even their relationships with one another. For example the main character in “Garbo’s Last Stand,” the screenplay, was always Seth, the ambitious, cynical young tabloid reporter ready to cash in on a captive Garbo aboard the Swedish Merchant Vessel The Kungsholm.

In the screenplay version, James Pressman is a late twenty-something nobody living in Los Angeles, trying to make his Hollywood dream a reality. He’s spent five years toiling away in indentured servitude to Martin, a scumbag producer of cable docs by day, soft-core internet porn by night. Desperate for a coveted co-producer credit, James convinces Martin to travel across the country on the promise of an exclusive story about movie goddess Greta Garbo. But Seth, an old and dying tabloid reporter with the greatest untold story of the twentieth century, has something else in store for him.

James was part of the wraparound, or B-story of “Garbo’s Last Stand,” the script. A present day character meant to be a counterpoint to Seth, the old man telling the 70-year old story of Greta Garbo’s finest off-screen moment. A device to lead contemporary audiences by the hand into a previous era, where World War II loomed and Garbo reigned in glorious black & white. James’s plight bookended the larger, grander story of Seth’s life, told from the old man’s deathbed.

James’s character arc in the script was in keeping with his “screen time.” By the end of the movie he’s grown, but only in as much as his interaction with Seth has set his life on a new course. His emotions were limited to wonder, excitement, anger and sadness. His backstory was vague at best. The audience discovers the truth with James. Seth’s story is true. Then James can finally realize his Hollywood dream on his own terms. This was James’s climax in the script. I would find out later, his epiphany in the novel went a lot deeper.

When I first considered adapting the screenplay into a novel, I thought I’d drop James. Novels, unlike screenplays, can be set in another era and readers don’t necessarily have to be reminded what relevance the story has to today’s movie audience. In a novel, Seth could tell his story directly to the reader. No need for a wraparound, or bookend, at all. Simple, right?

Then I realized James was in the script for a reason other than giving a contemporary audience a point of reference. He had more to offer than that. A lot more. So much more that he ended up being the Main Character. But for him to ascend to a main character, I’d have to explore James’s world more fully than I ever had for the screenplay. Who was James and why the hell should anyone care about him? Least of all a dying old reporter who he’d just upstaged by becoming the main character of the novel.

Charlotte thought James had potential as the main character of the novel. Me, I wasn’t so sure. I decided to give him equal billing, have the story be told in dual first-person narratives with Seth and James taking turns, checker-boarding chapters. What Charlotte saw in James was that his arc was larger and therefore the advantage over Seth to be the main character. I just thought he was a snotty young jerk-off with a nasty temper who lacked backbone.

But James did have a backstory. A very interesting one that made him the arrogant, overeager individual in the screenplay. Once I listened to him, I understood his fear of pretty women, wariness of Seth and his inability to leave Martin and take charge of his career. Now, instead of a contrivance, James became a lens or focal point to ground Seth’s Garbo story. James grew by leaps and bounds, responding not only to what was happening to him in the present but what had happened to the characters he cared about 70 years before. James began having mini-epiphanies about himself and the world around him in nearly every chapter. He could be the main character. And I’d nearly thrown him out.

The most interesting thing about writing James now is seeing how he is different from the other characters and from me. The way he shows he cares for Seth, never straightforward and nearly always with a stinging touch of sarcasm. The way he holds grudges for decades. His incapacitating obsession with how things should be and not how they are. He’s totally there. Transparent because he doesn’t have a filter and therefore holds nothing back. James is flawed in a way that makes people laugh.

But what makes James a Main Character in the novel is how everyone around him conspired to make him whole. By the end, he wants to be whole too. Don’t we all.

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