Writings about films, filmmaking and other obsessions by Mark Achtenberg
Well, usually it’s the novel that’s adapted. The novel, unfortunately, is not a good form to adapt to film because the question of the novel is it’s usually much, much, much too long with too many characters, too many parts. The short story is the natural narrative, linear narrative to become a film. Many, many short stories have become films.With a novel, what I can recommend is when you first read the novel, put good notes in it the first time, right on the book, write down everything you feel, underline every sensation that you felt was strong. Those first notes are very valuable. Then, when you finish the book, you will see that some pages are filled with underlined notes and some are blank.
In theatre, there’s something called a prompt book. The prompt book is what the stage manager has, usually a loose-leaf book with all the lighting cues. I make a prompt book out of the novel. In other words, I break the novel, and I glue the pages in a loose-leaf, usually with the square cutout so I can see both sides.
I have that big book with the notes I took, and then I go and I put lots more observations and notes. Then I begin to go through that and summarize the part that I thought was useful. And quite naturally you’ll see that the parts fall away, or that you have too many characters, so you know that you have to eliminate some or combine some. Working on it this way, from the outside in, being more specific as to what you think… then when you finish that, you are qualified perhaps to try to write a draft based on that notebook.
In the case of “The Godfather” I did that, and although I had a screenplay, I never used it. I always used to take that big notebook around with me, and I made the movie from that notebook. In the case of “Apocalypse,” there was a script written by the great John Milius, but, I must say, what I really made the film from was the little green copy of Heart of Darkness that I had done all those lines in. Whenever I would do a scene, I would check that and see what can I give the movie from Conrad.