Authors: Ron Elliott
INTRODUCTION â ADAPTING BACKWARDS
is a scriptwriter, director and academic, and author of the novel
His directorial credits include the feature film
and episodes of ABC programs such as
Dancing Daze, Relative Merits
Ron has written for
Home and Away, Minty, Wild Kat, Ship to Shore
and many more children's television series. In 2001 he wrote the AFI-nominated telemovie
Ron is currently a lecturer in Film and Television at Curtin University, Western Australia.
If you are reading this âintroduction' before the stories of
as you have every right to do, then you are not like me. Me, I usually skip the introduction. I want to enter the work fairly untainted and unprimed, as much as anyone can. I want to let the story speak for itself. And mostly it does. However, occasionally, I have gone back to the introduction searching for some kind of clarification, context or justification. That is what this introduction is. I'm going to try to tell you âhow to read these stories'. As I've just said, this is not something I usually tolerate as a reader. So, let me extenuate...
I believe these stories do not easily fit within the usual definition of the short story. While there are many forms to the short story and novella and they continue to be redefined, the pieces in this collection don't quite fit that mould. Something's not right. So, like a bite into that chicken and salad sandwich you bought from the Jiffy van, it might be timely to peel back the bread and sniff the meat. These stories don't taste entirely like short stories. They taste a little like films.
I have been writing original screenplays for the last twenty years, with the creative and financial support of producers, broadcasters and government screen agencies. These scripts have been rewritten, as markets and funding and ideas were sought in a process called âdevelopment' in which âdrafts' are commissioned or requested. Some came very close to being made into films.
By the Light
was a television concept pipped at the post in 1998 by another new series called
On the other hand
(adapted from the 1988 series
A Waltz through the Hills)
was made into a telemovie which was nominated for a Logie and an AFI award.
Some time after returning to Perth from the ABC in Sydney I began playing with an idea for a mini-series with the working title
about a young orphan who was taken by his dodgy uncle to play cricket for Australia in the late 1920s. The view at the time was that it was too expensive for television and the mini-series was in one of its declines, so I put the project aside. I was busy writing a lot of episodes of television, mostly dramas for kids and directing a variety of film and television including the feature film
Around 2000, I looked again at the
material and started to turn it into a story called
was never written as a script. It was written as a novel and was published in 2010 by Fremantle Press.
got me thinking about some of the scripts I had developed but which had not been made into films. I wondered if I might be able to turn some of my unproduced scripts into short stories or novellas. They were good stories with strong characters and I thought people might be interested in these short escapist dramas as read entertainments, especially given the suggested resurgent interest by readers in the short story form.
There are many elements of storytelling common to the short story, the novel and the film, which include notions of character, place and narrative. Even such seemingly film-specific notions as the close-up and editing rhythms can be created in prose.
The adaptation of prose fiction â both short stories and novels â into feature films has occurred since movies began. The baggage now associated with âadaptation' is fraught and complex within academe, but often fruitful for the reader and film-goer as interesting sparks for note and discussion. There have been occasions of adaptation in the other direction, from film to prose, but they are rare and not many spring to mind. Apparently Graham Greene simultaneously wrote the script and the novel of
The Third Man.
Arthur C. Clarke did the same with
2001: A Space Odyssey,
although the scripting process was with Stanley Kubrick, based on the Clarke short story âThe Sentinel'.
And so I embarked with a simple general question. Could I create a collection of short stories based on my film scripts that would be akin to other collections of short stories? The answer, at the conclusion of the writing, is no. Well, yes and no.
Here are some of the things I have found. (In order to be concise, I will generalise often. Film, like other storytelling, has many conventions which are used or subverted.)
While there are a variety of structures that have been used around the world in writing screenplays, the dominant storytelling structure in Hollywood and Australia is the restorative three-act structure. Script readers and the film-going audience are attuned to this structure, which provides drive, character goals and turning points and a foreseeable conclusion within a ninety-minute to two-hour time frame.
Most of the stories in this collection were conceived and written with this film structure as the template. In structural terms âSmall Claims' has been most transformed by becoming a two-act structure, while the structure of âDouble or Nothing' has been most relaxed. I found that the turning points â absolutely crucial in feature films â could be made more subtle in the stories, even done away with in some cases. However, I discovered that trying to remove the structure of the stories, created as they were in this other form, was akin to removing the skeleton of a creature and then attempting to reinsert a different skeleton. An interesting exercise, but the poor critter was far from comfortable.
Generally, film is constructed of many short scenes which accumulate. A good scene has a beginning, middle and end and propels the story into the next scene. While there are many prose works which use very short âscenes' to build meaning and effect, I found intercutting or crosscutting short scenes to be less effective in the prose story writing. Staying with a character for longer rather than cutting away to another story builds tension. This may be true of all storytelling of course, but I suspect film is more amenable to crosscutting.
Film occurs in time and space, and unfolds before our eyes. Reflecting this notion of immediacy, film scripts are written in the present tense. Even when films are framed as something that happened once, such as in
the ago becomes the present and we are caught up in the moment-to-moment action. Momentum and pace are important (even within quieter films). A convention of scriptwriting is that the reading of the film script should feel like watching the finished film. Film scripts attempt to achieve one minute per page and attempt to keep the story moving. There are fewer departures than in prose. The writing is intentionally sparse, evocative, but almost terse in the descriptions. Film telling has strict economy, but often evokes rather than explores. I have consciously tried to keep things moving in these stories.
Point of view.
The screenplay is a multipurpose document designed to be used by a variety of people to complete another, finished work. The script tells the story, but in a form that privileges who says what, much like a play. It is dramatic rather than reflective. It briefly notes where things occur and when, but also gives notes to various characters/actors and the director about what characters might be thinking. This is sometimes frowned upon, but a brief statement of intention or the pithy fragment of backstory can aid mood or motivation. The script thus flicks very naturally from a variety of points of view within the scene, sometimes line by line. It can address the art department, then cinematographer and always the actors, but obliquely. The diverse readership of the âblueprint' is of course made up of creative professionals who don't like being told how to do their jobs, so screenwriters must suggest, allude and inspire.
Enter the director. The screenwriter knows that the director and cast and the crew will interpret the script. There is significant leeway to do as they will beyond interpretation. However, the writer also knows that each actor will make judgements about their character based on details beyond the dialogue and that each and every character must be provided with enough inner world to fulfil their life within each scene. The screenwriter also knows that the director will choose the moment-to-moment point of view from which to âshow' the audience the action. This is done through our attachment to character (whose story is this?) but also by staging, and is defined by where the director sets the camera. This point of view is further manipulated and refined during the editing process.
And yet, while film often sees what a character sees, it rarely sees into a character's mind, which prose often does. We only know what a character is thinking if she tells another character or, less satisfactorily, her cat. (Voice-over is another very interesting can of worms, but for now can I say, when it is used in modern films it is as unreliable as any human speech.) Film tells us through action. We are shown more and told less. Thus most films appear to adopt a third person objective point of view, but usually focus on a couple of individuals. Yet films will also show first person moments through âthe point of view shot', seeing what a character sees. Film does this through editing and convention. Film shifts the point of view every time there is an edit and every time we cut to a new shot or camera position.
A clear example occurs within the railway sequence in
The Bourne Ultimatum.
We set up the railway station, a variety of specific rooms, an overpass, an operations room and thus the general geography of the station, many of these shots seeming to be âneutral' third person objective perspectives. Yet, in this sequence, we concentrate on three main characters, being Bourne, the journalist he's trying to contact, then save, and the chief official in charge of stopping the information transfer. There are various operatives whose point of view we momentarily share as they surveille and chase. Then we also follow an assassin as he enters the place and sets up a sniper vantage point. All within a crowded railway station full of, for the most part, oblivious commuters. Perhaps I'm merely pointing out the obvious. The audience need only see a wide shot of a place, then a close-up of a person before we can then slide within that point of view. We know who is seeing, but also seem to be able to juggle this variety of points of view most rapidly.
In the wonderful film adaption of
we spend some time moving from Briony's view of a wasp trapped at her window before she notices (and misinterprets) the actions down at the fountain. There is an earlier point of view transition that is less self-conscious. Briony and Cecilia are lying on the grass as Robbie pushes a wheelbarrow nearby. We simply cut to Robbie and he now takes our â the camera's â attention. Later Cecilia dives into the lake and we cut to Robbie in his bath. We switch to Robbie's point of view, but the water helps create the idea that they are thinking of each other.
of course, is about mistakes based on point of view. It needs to be quite strict, therefore, in showing who sees and when.
On the other hand, we might think about Martin Scorsese's visual creations in
In both films the point of view shifts, seeming to adopt a third person stance, but becoming subjective without clear signal. The edges of point of view are blurred and we become implicated within a character's emotional world. Jane Campion also plays with point of view and subjectivity in
In the Cut,
jumping in and out of Frannie's view and constantly blurring the audience perception. I think it is interesting that the novel on which
In the Cut
was based was written in the first person and we are given an unreliable witness.
Choosing and exploring narrower points of view within these stories as they became prose has been one of the most challenging adjustments. Issues such as
The specific choices concerning which scenes and moments should be seen by which character have led to significant changes in the writing of these stories. âSmall Claims' was not Zac's first person point of view in the screenplay. âDouble or Nothing' evolved into one thousand and one nights where
who is being told the story
is as important as the storytelling.
At the same time, I wanted to preserve the inscrutability of some of my characters, much like characters in film. I think Simon in âThe Ring-In' derives some of his power through the reader not knowing. âFor the Birds' is possibly the closest to a third person stance with multiple characters and intersecting stories that nonetheless retains the sense of a third entity, observing if not telling. âThe Ring-In' and âRandom Malice' are more traditional in their telling perhaps as a consequence of their stronger genre ties.
Ultimately, point of view in prose, just as in film, is a strategy of storytelling and not a rule. As a writer, judgements are made leading to consequent discoveries. Point of view can and does shift within a paragraph in prose. But we need to be clear. There is always a frame through which we perceive the story and the frame needn't be the actual frame of the film camera or cinema screen.
None of these stories would be described as realism, much less social realism. They do not seek to change the world, though perhaps capture some of its realities. An awareness of the noir genre should enhance the reading of âThe Ring-In'. âFor the Birds' is romantic farce with a mix of social satire. âRandom Malice' is a thriller. âDouble or Nothing' is comedy heist. Unlike the other stories, it was originally conceived as the pilot for a TV series, rather than a feature film. âSmall Claims' is a road movie, but a pretty typical Oz subgenre which includes a journey into the past. It's also a love story.
After adapting these stories â adapting backwards â my conclusion is that they do indeed feel like longish short stories, but strange ones because there are so many residues of the kind of stories they once were and the thing they sought to become.