June 9th, 2013 by Mike Fulton
Posted in Authors

Movies based on popular books are always kind of a gamble in more ways than one. One of the first questions that usually come up is, how will the story translate to the screen? There are a variety of technical and artistic considerations that can affect the answer.

From a technical view, the story may have elaborate imagery that will require a lot of special effects work. These days, they can do just about anything with special effects, given a big enough budget, but what if the movie has a smaller budget? And what about the artistic side of special effects creation? The book’s elaborate imagery will probably depend greatly on the reader’s imagination, so what if the movie maker’s imagination doesn’t line up with that of those people who read the book?

There are a lot of things that are both technical and artistic that can play a big role in the success or failure of a book to movie translation. Things like set design, costume design, or make-up can either enhance the feel of the original story and make it a richer experience, or they can contradict the original story and create a dissonance in people who read the book before seeing the movie.

The second part of the answer to how the story will translate to the screen is wrapped around the screenwriter, the director, and anybody else in the creative process who has input into deciding what gets filmed and what makes it into the final cut of the movie. This is where failure usually occurs.

The Screenwriter

The screenwriter is usually one of the first people involved in the creative process. You can’t do too much to make a movie until you have a script in hand. Translating a book into a screenplay is a unique blend of artistry and craftsmanship that few people can really master. The screenwriter must take the original story and filter it through a long list of considerations, such as:

  • Length and pacing.  An action sequence in a book might be 30 pages and only translate into 15 seconds of screen time.  But 30 pages consisting mostly of dialogue could easily translate into an hour of screen time, or more.
  • Details.  An elaborate description of a location in a book will usually translate into directions for set designers, prop masters, and other craftsmen who will be responsible for turning them into some sort of virtual movie reality.  However, as a general rule that says nothing about how much screen time results from the description in the story.  Maybe two characters walk through a room which is described in great detail in the book, but in the movie, the camera simply pans or zooms back to show the room while tracking the characters as they walk through.
  • Internal dialogue is always one of the biggest question marks.  The original book may have a lot of places which describe a character’s thoughts, but there’s no vocalization.  Sometimes these thoughts can be translated visually but not always.  Suppose a character walks into an ice cream store and has to decide which flavor to have?  The book may have a paragraph or two about the decision making process, but the movie is likely to have nothing more than the character looking back and forth between the different flavors for a moment before selecting one.Many of these moments are every bit as trivial to figure out as the example of the ice cream.  But many other times, such internal dialogue is critical to the story. It might reveal the reason why the story’s psycho serial killer likes only brown-haired girls between 5′ 4″ and 5’6″ who wear red shoes and eat Rocky Road ice cream on Tuesday evenings.  It might reveal how the grizzled veteran cop who is on the killer’s trail is driven by the loss of a partner years earlier.  The story may require these details to make sense, so the screenwriter has to figure out a way to take that internal dialogue and externalize it.  Sometimes we get a flashback. Sometimes we get a new scene with expositional dialogue.
  • Important detail versus non-important detail.  Books are often packed with lots of extra detail that help to draw the user into the story and the world the author is creating, but which do not ultimately affect the basic storyline.  Sometimes these extra details can be included in the movie with little effort, but sometimes they would require sets, props, actors, and other things that cost time and money.

Making Your Mark

Unfortunately, the creation of the screenplay is one of the main places where the translation fails.  Sometimes it’s because the screenwriter simply did not manage to succeed at the various tasks mentioned earlier, but at least as often as not, it’s because the screenwriter decided to put his own mark on the story.  This could be something like introducing new characters.

Sometimes, the process of simplifying a story for a screenplay involves the creation of composite characters that fulfill the role of multiple separate characters from the original book.  For example, you might have the same cops or CSI techs at different crime scenes in the screenplay while the book has a unique set of cops and techs each time.

Unfortunately, other times new characters are added because someone thought they could “improve” the original story. As in “the grizzled cop would seem more human and relatable if he had a love interest. Let’s add a couple of scenes where he flirts with the cute waitress at the diner where he and his partner have lunch.” or maybe “let’s add a plucky sidekick who can inject some humor”.

A Prime Example

The inspiration for this post was a movie I saw last night, Alex Cross, based on the book by James Patterson.  My first exposure to this author and this character was about 13-14 years ago when they made the movie Along Came A Spider based on Patterson’s first book with the Alex Cross character.  I enjoyed the movie a lot, and the follow-up Kiss The Girls as well.  Both were engaging and detailed, and when I later read the books I was pleased to discover that they had kept most of the original stories intact.  (Although there was a reasonable amount of needless “making your mark” as well.

I have not yet read the book this newest Alex Cross movie was based on, but when I rented the movie last night, I expected it to be in a similar vein to the previous Alex Cross movies.  Sure, having Tyler Perry in the lead role instead of Morgan Freeman would make a difference, but I was still expecting an interesting, detailed story with some depth.

No, not so much.

I can tell from reading the reviews of the book on Amazon that the movie took quite a few liberties with the original story.  I won’t list them here, but there are some major differences to both details and the overall plot. Ultimately, they turned a moderately cerebral crime story into a Bruce Willis-style yippee-ki-yay action movie.  The detailed psychological profiling that Alex Cross is known for gets reduced to his showing up at crime scenes, looking around, and then doing his own version of “here’s what I see” like the guy from TV’s Mentalist, except without the actual observation or interaction with witnesses or suspects you see on the TV show.

Taken just on its merits as an action movie, Alex Cross is so-so.  Matthew Fox was interesting as the bad guy, but his motivations were never made clear. I don’t really have any specific complaints about Tyler Perry, but I have to admit that it’s hard for me to separate his performance from my disappointment about how his character was changed around for the movie.  Bottom line is I liked Morgan Freeman’s version better. Ed Burns as Alex’s partner seemed kind of out of place here, but Rachel Nichols, from SyFi’s new TV show Continuum, was a pleasant surprise as another member of the team, if underused.

But while the movie was so-so taken stand-alone, anybody who reads James Patterson’s books wasn’t even given the chance of getting what they were expecting from this movie.  I know I didn’t.

Why Does Hollywood Keep Failing?

Sadly, the failure of Alex Cross to live up to the source material is more the rule than the exception.  Some movies turn out to be OK on their own, if you don’t compare them too closely to the original story but plenty aren’t especially good movies at all.

I blame ego. First, there are way too many people involved in the movie making process who confuse having money to bankroll things with being qualified to make creative decisions.  For every executive producer who is a Steven Spielberg, there’s another 10 who are just business guys without any real creative juices.  Second, even among those people who do have genuine talent and skill, they still sometimes suffer from the hubris of thinking they can improve on the original material when they should be concentrating foremost on translating it.

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May 5th, 2013 by Mike Fulton

As a general rule, it seems to be the case that publishers have done a relatively poor job of making older catalog titles available in eBook format. Go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble or your other favorite eBook seller and look up some book you remember from 20 years ago.  More likely than not, it’s not available as an eBook unless it’s from a fairly successful author.

Even books that spent time at the top of the bestseller’s lists are often not available.  One great example is the Belgariad/Mallorean fantasy series from David Eddings. A total of twelve books, most of which spent several weeks at or near the top of the bestseller’s lists when they were originally released.  And yet, none of them are available here in the USA as an eBook.  In fact, of Eddings’ twenty-five novels, only seven are available in eBook format here.

In the case of David Eddings, I suspect that there is some issue regarding royalty negotiations with the estate that is the main problem, because some of his books are available in other countries but not here.  However, aside from situations like that, I think the biggest factor is that mass-market eBooks are still a relatively new thing.  It’s still a young market. To whatever degree eBooks existed before Amazon released the first Kindle in late 2007, they were a niche product used mainly by hardcore computer users. For comparison, if you look at the situation with older music catalog releases on CompactDisc 5-6 years after that formats was first introduced, I suspect you would see a similar situation with the availability of older titles.

But “young market” is not a good excuse, for many reasons.  The first reason is that the publishers should know better.  If you look at the availability of older titles on DVD, you’d see that they were released earlier and more quickly than had happened with music on CD. In fact, this helped make DVD one the fastest growing media formats ever.

Why did they release older titles more quickly?  The DVD format was created and introduced in the mid-90’s, about the same time that significant numbers of people started buying music on the Internet.  Tracking sales statistics for online purchases was much easier and more accurate than for brick-and-mortor stores, and it soon became apparent that the sale of older catalog titles, overall, was a much bigger part of the market than had been previously realized. This fact did not escape the notice of the movie studios. While new releases still got the most attention, they also made an effort to make older titles available more quickly as well.

Another reason why the “young market” argument isn’t a good excuse is that, unlike the process of bringing older music titles to CD or older movies to DVD, there’s no potentially expensive restoration or remastering process required.  With music and DVD, the process of bringing out an older title can require a significant investment of time and money. With music, taking an older set of analog master tapes and making a decent digital master could take a serious amount of work. With movies, even more so.  It’s not unusual for it to cost a quarter million dollars to restore a movie for a DVD release.

With books, and we’re talking basic mass-market fiction with minimal illustrations, there’s no such expensive and/or arduous process involved. Even if the text isn’t already available in digital form, it takes no more than a few hours of work to scan and proofread.  Once the text is in digital form, it takes just a few hours of work, at most, to create an eBook.

How Much Should It Cost?

Above all else, any eBook edition should never be any more expensive than the cheapest paper-based edition.

If the book is available as a mass-market paperback, and is still “in-print” (an increasingly archaic concept) and reasonably easy to find on the shelves at bookstores, then I think the same price as the mass-market paperback is reasonable. Although I’m not complaining if it happens to be cheaper.

I am not at all a fan of the idea that an eBook should cost more because there’s a trade paperback or collector’s edition hardcover edition.  I’ve seen prices go up on books that have been available for years because of this sort of foolishness.  It’s especially stupid when there’s a new CE hardcover, because the markets don’t really overlap much. If I were to buy a new hardcover edition of Dune for myself or as a gift, it doesn’t really affect my decision to buy the eBook version, or vice versa.

If the book is no longer easy to find on the shelves, then my thought is that it should be somewhat cheaper than a current mass-market title.  I think pricing it the same as a current title is foolish because you’re just driving away a lot of people that would otherwise make a purchase.

Once upon a time, with paper-based books, it made sense that older titles which were no longer selling very well would be eventually taken down off the shelves at the bookstore. After all, shelf space is a limited commodity and you want it used for books that are going to sell, not just sit there. Anything on those store shelves has to generate a certain level of income or be replaced by something that will.

It’s a long-standing idea of retail that if you’ve got a warehouse full of stock that is no longer really moving at the original price, you knock the price down. And knock it down again, and again until it’s in the bargain bin. The money required to create the product has already been spent, and every day it sits on store shelves or in the warehouse is costing you more.  At some point, you stop worrying about how much it cost to manufacture and start worrying about being able to recover any money from it at all. If you end up selling it at at 10% of the original price, you’re probably still better off than just letting it sit.

With eBooks, “warehouse space” is virtually infinite and virtually free, so it’s probably easy to decide that if it doesn’t cost you anything to store the product, there’s no compelling reason to drop the price until sales pick up. Just leave the price where it is and sales will still trickle in. As long as the publisher isn’t losing any money, what’s the problem?

The problem with looking at it that way is that it means there’s not a lot of incentive to spend any time or effort on older titles that you’re not convinced will sell very well. Even if the break-even point is really, really low.

Lower prices on older catalog titles would provide incentive to buyers to try out authors and genres they’ve never read before. Why wouldn’t you want a fantasy reader to decide it’s time to check out James Patterson’s Alex Cross mystery series because they can get some of the older books for $3.99 instead of $7.99?  I guarantee you will sell a lot more copies of Along Came A Spider at the lower price, and maybe you also create a new James Patterson fan in the process.

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December 25th, 2012 by Mike Fulton
Posted in eReaders & Reader Apps

It’s been about 3 years now since I started using Kindle and in that time I’ve all but abandoned paper books.  I’ve got a good-sized stack of unread paperbacks that are always calling out for attention, but in vain.

I originally had one of the first-generation Kindle devices, with the non-backlit LCD screen, but it was only a few months old when the Apple iPad was introduced and I subsequently started using the Kindle app instead.  The iPad’s screen was a tad harder on the eyes, back in the days before the Retina display, but not having to carry around two devices made up the difference.

Many of the current generation of Kindle devices are actually using a specialized version of the Android operating system, which is good news for those of us who are using the app on other devices, because it means that there is less reason for Amazon to introduce new features that don’t make it to the Kindle apps running on other hardware.

While there have been some decent improvements in the Kindle app over the years, there are still some missing features which seem, to me anyway, to be pretty obvious improvements.

Continuous Scrolling

The basic metaphor of the Kindle app,  like many other eReader apps, is that of turning pages like in a physical books.  When you finish a page, you swipe your finger from the right side of the screen towards the left side.  The screen shows an animation of the page being turned over.

Pretty, but I’m wondering if the concept of “pages” isn’t one we’re ready to leave behind.  Why not just let us slide our thumb up or down along the edge of the screen to move up and down in the text?  It seems to me like it would provide a smoother reading experience, although I’d suggest leaving the page-flip style around as a user-selectable option.

Organization

The iBooks application has a feature that I’ve wanted in the Kindle app almost since day one.  You can create categories and assign documents to them.  I can create a “Science Fiction” category and a “Mystery” category, for example, and assign books to each as desired.

I can see why someone whose Kindle only has a dozen or two documents might not think this sort of thing is really all that important, but I have HUNDREDS of documents and I am desparate for better organization features.

Aside from categories, I’d also like to see more sorting options besides “Recent” and “Author name”.  Why isn’t “Title” an option?

Font Sizes & Line Spacing

I would really like to see the font size selection become a bit more analog.  The minimum and maximum sizes are fine, as far as I’m concerned, but I’d like to see more intermediate steps.  Especially on smaller screens, it’s hard to get the font size dialed in the way I like, and more intermediate steps would help. I’d also like to see options for controlling linespacing and extra space between paragraphs.

More Sync Options

The sync feature is supposed to be one of the Kindle’s big features, but really it’s kind of broken.  All it really does is take you to the furthest point you’ve gone on any device.  It doesn’t take you to your current location, which is what you really want.  If you’ve skipped ahead for any reason, on any device, you’ve essentially broken the sync feature.  And if you have more than one person reading the same book at the same time, it doesn’t work for that either.

What we really need is the option to select between the current position on each device and the furthest read position for each device.  Let us choose a default setting so that we can easily go back and forth between reading a book on our phone and our tablet, and not step all over the sync settings for someone using the Cloud Reader.

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