Monday, October 5, 2009

Let Us Now Praise Stephanie Harrison: Again!

On September 26th I posted an entry on Stephanie Harrison’s book
Adaptations: From Short Story to Big Screen and promised to try to track her down to do an interview about her book and her writing experience. Well, the writing gods have smiled and she found me. Below is my interview with her and it’s wonderful and insightful and too short. If you haven’t read the earlier post please do, and then come back to read this. BUY THIS BOOK! You won’t be sorry. Thanx again Stephanie! J.

1. Can you talk a bit about why your compiled this anthology?

I was trying to find an anthology like this to use in a fiction writing class—I was sure there would be one out there somewhere. But I discovered there wasn’t and thought I’d just compile one myself. (Now, having done it, I understand why it hadn’t been done. Anthologies are a lot of work, and this one in particular took a lot of tedious research.)

Anyway, I wanted an anthology like this because I was teaching creative writing and my students were turning in short stories that looked (to me) a lot like movie treatments. Understandable. We’ve all seen more movies than we’ve read short stories. So I thought it might be instructive to look at a few short stories alongside their movie adaptations and talk about the differences.

For example, it’s worth noting that content of the story “The Killers” is the first ten minutes or so of the feature-length film. There are exceptions, but the scope of a short story is generally much smaller than a film and certainly smaller than a novel. So in addition to all the obvious things you need to learn when you’re learning to write, you also need to figure out what the form you’re using can reasonably contain.

I’ve discovered that it’s useful to use movies in the undergraduate creative writing classroom, although it’s highly irregular. The fact is, our students are very savvy about almost every other media form except literature. As I point out to them, gently of course, their literary taste is equivalent to elevator music. They would be embarrassed to claim an orchestral version of “The Girl from Ipanima” as their music of choice, but they want that kind of smooth accessibility from literature. Or, put another way, they can handle a fractured narrative in films like Memento or Pulp Fiction, but in a story it’s too difficult. Why is that?

2. Do you think the trend to adapt comic books and graphic novels vs. prose fiction, as source adaptation material, is a bad thing?

I’ve liked, even loved, a lot of films made from graphic material. I think what you’re trying to get at here, though, is the fact that a graphic story might be easier to sell than prose fiction because people in film tend to be visually oriented.

I don’t think that means that adapting graphic material is easier. Once again, when you move from one form to another there are gains and losses. One of the strengths of prose fiction is the opportunity for the reader to experience a character’s thoughts. The rough equivalent in film is the voiceover, which can be annoying, self-conscious or pretentiously “meta” depending on how much or how well it’s used. So a book that’s heavy on interior monologue can be a real challenge to adapt.

Similarly, one of the strengths of graphic fiction is the symbolic/intuitive/shorthand level on which it works. Think, for example, of Charlie Brown and the simplicity of his face and expressions. To replace Charlie Brown with an actor—any actor—would make him too particular—too, well, real. Or think of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which works so brilliantly, and in a way that novels or stories about the holocaust can’t. The graphics allow the reader to experience the material at a remove, or at least on a different level. So I guess I’m arguing that there are inherent challenges in adapting graphic material that people may ignore because it seems easier.

3. What was your greatest challenge writing this book?

Compiling an anthology is a lot harder than you might think, particularly if you refuse to settle on an audience. From the very beginning we (my agent, editor and I) pondered whether this would appeal more to readers or movie buffs and we couldn’t figure it out. So in the end, they sent me off to write the book I’d like to read. And since I enjoy both I tried to balance the two. It would certainly have been a different and easier-to-compile anthology if I’d come at it from one side or the other.

4. How did you settle on the thirty-five stories that comprise the collection?

The nuts and bolts of it went something like this: I worked a long list of what I considered worthwhile movies, checking off one by one whether or not they had been adapted from a short story. (Not that easy, because, as you probably know “adapted from a story by” is not the same as “adapted from a short story by” but it can be. I chased down a lot of red herrings.) Then I worked the list of authors, looking for adaptations of work from writers I admired. It was all extremely tedious and locating some of the older stories was sometimes very difficult. I ended up with about 200 possibles. Then I read and read and read and watched and watched and watched.

I whittled 200 down to about 75 for the proposal -- and my editor decided that 35 was a good number to shoot for. Picking the final stories was like putting a puzzle together. The thing is, you don’t always get permission to reprint what you want. Or a story turns out to be too expensive to justify. And you can’t have too many long stories because you have to watch the page count. And all the time you have your eye on the quality of the story v. the quality of the movie and then that added serendipity, the backstory behind the adaptation. So you move things around. You look for patterns and examples and what has and has not been anthologized a lot. If it’s an easily found story is there justification for reprinting it yet again? And so forth.

5. What did you leave out that you’re sorry you couldn’t include?

I wanted James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” but it was too expensive. And “Sally Bowles” by Christopher Isherwood was too long. And Salinger doesn’t ever give reprint permission, but his story “Uncle Wriggely in Connecticut” was adapted into a sweet, little-known film called My Foolish Heart.

6. Do you have a favorite story that adapted well to the screen? A worst?

I have a lot of favorites, but one story I worked particularly hard to get was Budd Schulberg’s “Your Arkansas Traveler” which was adapted as A Face in the Crowd. It’s about a guy named Lonesome Rhodes who, through sheer folksiness, rockets out of nowhere to become a political/cultural phenom. A quote from the story:

… it takes a free (and free-wheeling) society for a success like his [Lonesome Rhode’s], and for another it takes a particular hopped-up kind of free society. Our kind, God bless it. This is a real screwball country, if you stop to think about it. Where else would the girls be tearing the clothes off skinny, pasty-faced boys with neurotic voices like Frank Sinatra … Or making Lonesome Rhodes, an obvious concoction if ever there was one, their favorite lover-boy and social philosopher? …

This country has a terrible hankering for its lost frontier, the way a mother forever mourns for a son run down by a truck when he was seven years old. The frontier song has ended, but oh how the melody lingers on. That’s why we don’t trust brain-trusters and professors. Lonesome said it perfectly on the air one day. “My Grandpaw Bascom never went to no school an’ he was the smartest fella in the county. Everything I know I owe t’ my Granddaddy Bascom who didn’ know nuthin’ either …

The story, written in the fifties, had been long out of print and I thought it and the film deserved some attention. The film wasn’t an overwhelming success when it came out, but it’s aged extremely well—and is, I think, more relevant than ever. I’d even go so far as to say that if the character of Lonesome Rhodes had been a woman, she would have been winkin’, doggoneit.

7. Do you think it is important that a director be a reader of fiction (like Hitchcock, Hawks, etc.). Many young directors aren’t passionate readers, these days.

That was one of the surprising things I learned while compiling this anthology. Being a reader really is an advantage for filmmakers. After all, the material has to come from somewhere. The cautionary tale is Carol Reed, who didn’t like to read and relied on his wife to do it for him. Once Reed’s successful, productive and profitable relationship with Graham Greene—a partnership responsible for The Third Man and The Fallen Idol among other fine films—had run its course, Reed’s career pretty much tanked. He was never again able to find material that suited his point of view.

8. You have a Hitchcock quote, “I do not let the writer go off on his own and just write a script that I will interpret. I stay involved with him and get him involved in the direction of the picture. So, he becomes more than a writer; he becomes part maker of the picture.” This is a notion that would give most movie studio creative executives a stroke. Do you think Hitch’s idea is relevant today, or at all to a good adaptation?

Well, I think Hitchcock was a bit disingenuous when he said this. The writers who worked with him would probably disagree. But I do think it’s a shame that writers aren’t given more respect, because when a writer/director relationship works and continues over several films, it’s a thing of beauty.

9. What are you working on now and when can we buy it?

In the summer of 2004 I read in the newspaper that the wife of Somalia’s former dictator had died in Columbus, Ohio at the age of 72. I had just returned to Columbus from Florida, where I had spent three years, and this news came as a bit of a surprise. I hadn’t been aware of the Somali community when I left, but when I returned it was becoming too large to miss. Today there are upwards of 50,000 Somalis in our heartland city, and I’m told that three Somali families move to Columbus every day. It’s the second largest Somali community in the country, behind Minneapolis.

Huh, I thought to myself, that’s interesting. Since I was looking for work, I talked my way into a job teaching English to adult Somali refugees. And somewhere along the line I decided theirs was a story that needed to be told.

So I’m writing about the strangers that came to my town. Poor. Black. Muslim. From the most failed of failed states—there hasn’t been a functioning government in Somalia since 1991, when the dictator fled. In fact, the U.N. has recently declared Somalia the worst humanitarian crisis in Africa, surpassing even Darfur. But unlike Darfur, Somalia is a no-go zone, too dangerous and intractable to help.

The working title is Sweet and Bitter Run and it’s a story about unlikely friendships and a mutual love of words. About grammar and poetry and politics. I don’t know when you’ll be able to buy it, but thanks for asking. I’ve been working like crazy and I should be able to pursue a book contract in the very near future. I’ll let you know. You and my mother. She keeps asking the same question.

10. Will you put out any new editions of Adaptations, with additional stories?

Maybe not additional stories, but I would love to do an update at some point and swap a few out to keep the collection up to date. I’m not sure if that will happen or not.

11. What question did I not ask that I should have?

I think I’ve rambled enough …


Barbara said...

What a good interview. Harrison's insights into how film and literature relate are spot on. Very useful for anyone writing in narrative forms.

I do think she should compile a volume 2. Maybe her editors should allot more money for licensing so she can go after some bigger ($$) fish?

Jeff Lyons said...


Thanx for commenting. I agree completely. I'd love to see a second volume.

J :)