In the first entry of this series, I presented a literal translation as a waystation toward an artistic one, both for students seeking to learn the way of speaking from a foreign film — and screenwriters bent on translating a book into a film.
I first connected the two types of translation when a working screenwriter-director, on learning that I’d be undertaking an adaptation, suggested I begin by recording what happens in each chapter of the original book on index cards.
Not quite ready to work directly on the text of The Journeys of Socrates, I decided to turn the proposed technique into an exercise and assign each scene in the novel Ordinary People to one card. (Quick reminder: a new scene begins with change in either time or location.)
Another screenwriter had previously advised me to color code my cards, assigning each major character a different color.
Ordinary People has three major characters: Conrad, a teenager; his father, Cal; and his mother, Beth. It also has several important supporting characters: Dr. Berger, Conrad’s psychiatrist; Karen, Conrad’s friend from the hospital; and Jeanine, the new student he meets on returning to school.
I only had four different color cards, so I assigned blue, yellow, and green to Conrad, Cal, and Beth, respectively, and saved pink for the two love stories, one romantic with Jeanine and the other platonic with Dr. Berger.
I numbered them to reflect the order of scenes in the book. As you can see in the picture (below), the first card, or scene, belongs to Conrad; the second and third to Cal; the fourth and fifth to Conrad; and the sixth to the love story (Conrad and Jeanine). Beth doesn’t take significant independent action until the tenth scene.
In doing this exercise, I hoped to strip away description and dialogue and lay bare what my dad and I call the “golden thread” of the story — more on that in my next post. I also wanted to answer some key questions:
• Which character appeared in the most scenes, therefore identifying himself (or herself) as the natural protagonist of the story (as presented by the novel)?
• Which characters (if any) appeared in few scenes but still had a major impact on the plot (and vice versa)?
• Where did the inciting incident, the turning points, and the midpoint scenes fall in the cards and how would that correspond with the conventional wisdom on screenplay structure? In other words, to what extent does a good novel resemble a strong screenplay?
• How were scenes in the novel ordered so as to introduce characters and their relationships to one another?
• How did the novel arrange scenes into sequences, groups of related scenes, that might translate into film?
Let me say now that the exercise enabled me to answer these questions and illuminated some important challenges that the actual screenwriter Alvin Sargent had to overcome in order to succeed with his adaptation.
Perhaps you’ll want to try out this exercise yourself? Regardless, you can now read the next post in the series.