Palm Springs Film Fest Symposium Celebrates Written Word

The stories of Scarlett O’Hara, Forrest Gump, Patrick Bateman, Harry Potter, Christopher McCandless, James Bond and Jordan Belfort first captivated imaginations through the written word and later became successful screen adaptations.

Popular among audiences, plays, comic books, memoirs and novels have helped create a cult following of movie-goers who love seeing their favorite characters actualized. It’s a blended audience of readers and viewers all eagerly waiting to hear the same story.

“It’s hugely common that every single day, books, comics, plays and songs are optioned to become movies,” said Tod Goldberg, author and director of UC Riverside-Palm Desert’s low-residency MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. He sites the example of “The Gambler,” the 1980 television movie series based off Kenny Rogers’ hit song of the same name. Or how “Gone With the Wind” is on lists of most popular movie adaptations. “It’s been happening forever.”

To celebrate the intersection of the written word and silver screen, the Palm Springs International Film Festival is having its first symposium where book-to-movie adaptations will be screened and discussed. The two-day event, “The Power of Words: Book to Screen,” kicks off Wednesday with film screenings of “Life Itself,” “Low Down” and “Still Alice.”

Thursday’s events include a keynote address by Chaz Ebert, the wife of late film critic Roger Ebert, and discussions throughout the day with authors, producers and screenwriters of movies like “Black Hawk Down,” “The Hundred-Foot Journey” and “The Descendants.”

“It’s absolutely essential to begin to recognize where so many of these great films originate, which is in the mind of an author sitting in a room,” said Susan Rosser, co-curator of the event.

This past year alone, from “Gone Girl” to “The Imitation Game,” it seemed that the box office was crammed full of adaptations, and Bill Rabkin, professor of screenwriting at UCR’s Palm Desert campus, believes it’s a mixture of both commercial and creative reasons.

“It costs so much money to make and market a movie these days, that everybody is searching for the pre-sold title, a preexisting brand,” he said. “A lot of decisions about how any movie gets made has to do with whether or not the studio feels they’d be able to sell it.”

An incentive for movie companies is that many books — comic, novel or otherwise — have a following already.

From a business standpoint, a studio theoretically only needs to pay one writer for the script. If a studio wants to purchase a book, they need to pay the author and pay a screenwriter to do the adaptation.

“It’s a marketplace where an idea is good,” Goldberg said of book adaptations, “but someone still has to write a great script, someone has to get the financing, they need to find a great director, they need to find a great actor. It’s a needle in a haystack.”

Yearly, many books get bought by production companies with the possibility of later being turned into a movie, said Goldberg, who even sold a few books himself.

“Just in the sheer percentage basis, more original scripts are made every year than adaptations,” he added.

It takes a skillfully trained writer to create a screenplay that not only dictates clearly how a movie should look, but also how it should make an audience feel. Books are already written to create those feelings within a reader.

“If you read a book like “Wild” or Jane Hawking’s memoir, and you have this tremendous emotional reaction, you want to share that,” Rabkin said. “If you’re a reader, you run around with a copy of the book and thrust it to people telling them they have to read this, they have to feel this. If you’re a filmmaker, you want to share it, too.”

Movies can add another layer to the fans’ emotional connection to the book or play and allow them to see how others interpreted the same stories.

“There are things you can do with the camera that you just can’t do with scenery and lights,” said Gina Bikales, artistic director of Script2Stage2Screen, which produces fully-staged readings from screenwriters and playwrights, with hopes to try and mount a full-scale production. Recently, they completed their first full-length feature movie and will be showing at the Borrego Springs Film Festival this month.

However, many movie scripts have been tweaked from their original pages whether it be an additional chase, a new character or a slight twist in the series of events. Movie companies must work to not only invite the books’ fans but also introduce the film into a wider audience of movie lovers.

“If every single person who bought the book went to see the movie, the movie would generally be a terrible failure,” Goldberg said. “That’s the truth for all books to film. So, there has to be something that is more compelling than what was in the book itself.”

Changes, agreed Bikales, need to be made.

“People don’t sit through three-hour movies,” she said. “It’s hard to turn a 450-page book into a movie and keep all elements true to the book. There has to be some editing and judicious cutting.

“It’s easier to say ‘I like the book better,’ because the book was the complete work.”

If you go

What: “The Power of Words: Book to Screen”

When: Wednesday and Thursday

Where: Hilton Palm Springs, 400 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs

Tickets: All-day passes, $150

Information: (760) 318-8371 or www.psfilmfest.org/booktoscreen

Source: The Dessert Sun