Next Saturday night, February 4, Lifetime Television will be premiering the movie version of my novel, “Secrets of Eden.” This is the third time that one of my books has become a made-for-TV movie, and people often ask me two things about my novels and Hollywood.
First, how do I feel about the adaptation? What do I think of the changes that have been made to transform a 100,000-word novel into two hours of TV?
Second, am I in it? In other words, was I a walk-on extra in the background somewhere?
That second question is easy. No. Never. Not because I’m not vain. Trust me, I’m plenty vain. Certainly I considered asking to sit on the jury that tried Sibyl Danforth – a.k.a., Sissy Spacek – in “Midwives.” I thought about volunteering to be among the parishioners in a Vermont church with a pastor named Stephen Drew – a.k.a., John Stamos – in “Secrets of Eden.” But that would demand more time on the set than I have ever allocated to a movie while it’s filming. The fact is, if you’re not a part of the cast or crew, a movie set is a bit like sitting in row 19 on a passenger jet: As the old joke goes, it’s hours of boredom interrupted by moments of terror.
In addition, I can’t act. Not even a little bit. I make Pauly D. from the “Jersey Shore” look like Laurence Oliver.
Moreover, I will never forget the t-shirt that Glenn Jordan, the director of “Midwives,” was wearing while I was there. It said, “Nobody moves, nobody gets hurt.” He meant it and I was terrified. I did nothing but eat doughnuts and make sure my cell phone was off for 72 hours.
But that first question, how do I feel about seeing my stories changed – often dramatically – is more complicated. It’s also more important. I love movies. And I love film adaptations of novels. I’ve never been a purist who rails at how the movie is never as good as the novel. Exhibit A? “Sophie’s Choice.” Exhibit B? David Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Exhibit C? “Jaws.” I was dazzled by each of those novels. . .but I thought the films were superior.
And I appreciate the choices a screenwriter and a director have to make. It’s not merely about consolidation, although brevity often is key. A movie is told through visual images and dialogue and music. As a novelist, on the other hand, I can spend fifty words describing a sneeze – and fifty more having the character fret about the flu.
The truth is, I’ve never written a screenplay and have no plans to anytime soon. It has taken me decades to become an adequate novelist; I shudder to think how long it would take to become an adequate screenwriter. That’s not false modesty; it’s a reality. A screenplay is profoundly different from a novel, and for every novelist who figured out how to write a movie – Think Mario Puzo and “The Godfather” – there are many more who failed. Think Scott Fitzgerald.
Moreover, a movie is a reimagining of a novel. To a certain extent, it is a big, hulking collaboration involving hundreds of people. But it is most certainly not a camel – that proverbial horse designed by a committee. In the case of “Secrets of Eden,” there was the vision of the director, Tawnia McKiernan, and the screenwriter, Anne Meredith. John Stamos did not merely work from my novel when he was bringing Vermont pastor Stephen Drew to life; he had Meredith’s script. When I watched the finished cut for the first time, I was struck by how recognizable the minister was to me in some ways, but how different in others: He was gentler in some moments and angrier – more fierce – in others. But he always felt authentic to me and deeply rooted in the two texts – Meredith’s and mine.
Consequently, when one of my books is in the process of becoming a movie, I fully expect that it will change. It will grow in some ways and shrink in others. There will be some decisions that make all the sense in the world to me, and some choices that seem inexplicable. Always, however, the producers have respected the integrity of my work and remained fundamentally faithful to the novel that first inspired them. Happily, no one has ever added an asteroid to one of my books or thought it would make sense to put Adam Sandler in a dress in one. I don’t expect the people I work with ever will.
And so my short answer to that first question, how do I feel about the adaptations, is pretty simple. I love them. I feel great. And next Saturday night, even though I’ll be watching “Secrets of Eden” at home, I’ll be sure I have plenty of popcorn.
(This column originally ran in the Burlington Free Press on January 29, 2012.)