January 25, 2012 § 6 Comments

By Jacqueline Austin

A Japanese Black Pine (Pinus thunbergii) bonsai on display at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum at the United States National Arboretum. According to the tree's display placard, it has been in training since 1936. It was donated by Yee-sun Wu. Via Wikimedia Commons (Ragesoss).

Today I’m working on a screenplay–an adaptation from a classic novel, set in the distant past.  Once I get over the initial jitters, I always feel great when I’m rewriting someone else’s brilliant work.  Though the creative problems are exactly the same as in rewriting my own words–to create, in John Gardner’s words, a vivid and continuous dream–when we’re adapting, we’re in a conversation.  This takes away some of the dreadful solipsism of being a writer.  It feels like a vacation from the self.

But there’s the love of whatever novel.  That can be a terrible barrier to creation–love, respect, honor, cherish, all the qualities which make a good marriage, they can kill the work with a pitiable softness.  One’s tenderness must be in the spirit.  One’s touch must be strong.

So when I’m working from a book I love, I sculpt the work as though from a living tree.  I’m making a bonsai, a condensation and evocative presentation of spirit, for an audience.  The primary truth is that the tree must stay alive.  The trunk must be nurtured, strengthened, and quietly put on display, in such a way as to, well, not kill it.

This will sound crazy, but I start by typing the novel.  There is no better way to bring oneself into the spirit of the work.  When the fingers are moving and the brain is slowed to the speed of the words on the page, the original truth in the work, comes forward, rhythmically presenting itself, beat by beat, to be re-activated by the author you admire.  This author is a platonic ideal, a being comprised of commonality.  It’s a being in which the two times, those of the original creation and of your creation, are one.

You feel the original author spring to life, as he or she has been crying to do since the moment of death.  But as much as you love this person, you don’t let him (today it’s a him) take charge.  To do so would be to kill your own lips, which you need so you can speak to your own and future times.  You are not just a channel; you’re an active creator, held to the demands of original creation.

As I type the novel, I get “under” the work.  The shifting layers pull back to reveal not only the original impulse, but also edits, additions, things put in to please, and active flaws.  Edits, additions and things put in to please must be considered bit by bit.  Different things might please today’s audience, than the particular crowd from the past.  Active flaws need not always be corrected.  Some are an integral part of the work, and if solved, would ruin the experience for anyone who knows and loves the original.

To get “under” the work, I go past the layers, down to the root.  Then I hold the layers carefully, and look up through them, through the umbrella of branches and leaves, up into the sun.

So that’s what I’m doing today.  Standing here, at the root, in a state of hope, with my toes buried in earth, looking at the sun through the canopy which protects me from blindness.  Cut too little, and the original author will clog the work.  Cut too much, and, blinded by light, you will have nothing left to articulate.  Cut just enough, and when the creator walks away, the conjoined spirit will stand tall, presenting both times to the audience, each clear, each beautiful, coexisting branch and root, each carrying living sap from the ground to the sky.

That’s what I love about adaptation.  Being in this timeless place–this place which is at once my time, and all time.

Copyright 2012 by Jacqueline Austin.  All rights reserved.


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§ 6 Responses to Adaptation

  • Chris says:

    Wow- hot off the presses- it pops up in my email as I watch! Love the bonsai- all the attraction of miniaturization, and intriguing to consider it in the context of adaptation… when looking at miniatures, there is the attraction of looking at essence, at looking at the extracted core. Model railroads have always fascinated me in this way. And they go round and round. It is a kind of living sketch. And I feel your toes wriggling, connecting you to the sun filtering down through the leaves. Full of quiet life. Now- I am off to do my day.. thanks for the push!

  • Thanks for sharing this. I have always wondered how adaptations were created. Like many avid readers I often suspect the screenwriter used a hatchet on the novel. I am sure that any author would be thrilled by your attentive approach, I hope you will let everyone know when your project comes to the screen.

  • jacajacjac says:

    Yeah, blame the poor screenwriter. How about the rest of the list?
    Market analysts, producers, company execs, actors, directors, and sometimes even censors?

    Fortunately, this project is being developed for someone who loves the book and has a brilliant sense of why it’s great. I hope I can finish it soon so that she can bring it to fruition. And I hope that I can write it so that it’s produceable without vast changes.

    Which adaptations have you liked?

  • Oh, I simply loved this post! Sounds like the result will be the perfect balance between the original and your own touch. You describe what it’s like to give work brand new life born from love and creativity. Do give us the updates!

  • jacajacjac says:

    Thanks, Maria! I can’t speak to the perfection of the results… but at least the process is fun this time!

  • […] about 30 pages into my latest screenplay, the adaptation I spoke about here.  Interesting technical questions have come […]

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