December 20, 2008

I was reading today about adaptations.  Of course, I’m familiar with the notion of adapting works in the public domain, and I’ve thought about this in the past, but Mystery Man has a way of talking that makes you look at things in a slightly different light.

In the past, the I’ve had a problem of desire.  Everything that’s in the public domain is set sometime in the past.  (Duh!)  And I’m not all that fond of period pieces, and I’m starting to tire of “modernizations” of old works – Ten Things I Hate About You, O, She’s the Man, Cruel Intentions … they’re all kind of silly to me. I’m also starting to feel like the “story told from someone else’s perspective” technique is getting trite: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is, in my view, highly overrated, although perhaps I have a problem of seeing that one in its zeitgeist.

But I don’t have so much of a problem putting West Side Story in its zeitgeist, and although I don’t really like it, I do appreciate it for what it is.  As a writer I loved Adaptation, which is Charlie Kaufman’s wily adaptation of The Orchid Thief, told through the perspective of a screenwriter struggling to adapt that book.  And I loved Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet, as he did something that thousands of high schools around the world have been doing for decades, but doing it on film and with a tremendous cinematographer.

So what I realized in reading Mystery Man’s post is that there’s no reason I can’t find something, in the public domain, that I am interested in adapting.

Something that intrigues me is the idea of taking a short story or poem – something with only a few minutes of material – and making it my own.  Harrison Bergeron was a 10-page story by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., which was then turned into a feature-length film.

The first piece that came to mind was Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven.  This was my favorite poem as an adolescent – in 10th grade we had an assignment to memorize and recite 4 stanzas, and I recited the whole thing for extra credit, complete with desk-throwing and deep, intense, soul-searching self loathing – and I still find myself looking back at it from time to time.

From there, my thoughts turned to The Tell-tale Heart, Poe’s 4-page story about a man who kills his housemate and the guilt drives him insane.  I picture something like the expansion of Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade, the 25-minute short written by and starring Billy Bob Thornton, into the feature-length Oscar-winner, Sling Blade. I’ve always been interested in movies that successfully delve into people’s psyches and explore the slow descent into madness.

Here’s another one I’ve been thinking about that is surprisingly underrepresented in film history: The Canterbury Tales. Considering it’s one of the greatest works of literature of all time, it’s amazing how much it’s ignored compared to Shakespeare, I suppose because it’s read, not performed.  My favorite is “The Pardoner’s Tale”: three young men are drinking in a tavern, and angry at Death for taking so many people during the Black Plague, decide they’re going to go find him.  They meet an old man, and rough him up a little bit so that he’ll tell them where Death is.  He points to a tree, and says they’ll find death there, but when they go to that tree, what they discover is a massive treasure chest.  Two stay to look after the chest while the third goes into town to buy wine to celebrate – and while gone, the two decide to kill the third when he returns.  They do so, and then sit down to drink the wine, which he had poisoned.  All told, it’s a great premise for a 15- or 20-minute film, and I’d have no idea how to do the rest.  Perhaps it’s done in real time, and the second act is the slow, elaborate development of the decision to murder one’s friend.  Perhaps it’s a play, not a screenplay.  I don’t know.

Here’s another interesting idea: many of the works in Project Gutenberg are nonfiction.  I’d love to find a way to tell a story around “‘Manners, Customs, and Dress During the Middle Ages and During the Renaissance Period.”  Sounds like an interesting challenge.

Anyway, I’ll enjoy looking at that as the next place to go.


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