Caleb Lewis is the writer of Rust and Bone, which is the current show at Griffin produced by Griffin Independent and Stories Like These. Rust and Bone was originally a set of short stories by Canadian author Craig Davidson and in this essay Caleb discusses the art of adapting work for the stage. Caleb’s essay will be in 2 parts – first instalment today, followed by the second instalment next week.

I watched Brian de Palma’s brilliant Scarface a couple of nights back and realised I’d seen it before. The film, written by Oliver Stone, stars Al Pacino as a villainous footsoldier, who’ll do whatever it takes to rule Miami’s underworld. Interestingly Scarface is an adaption of an earlier 1932 film in which a villainous gangster does whatever it takes to rule Chicago. But that wasn’t what I’d recognised. Rather Scarface is yet another retelling of Macbeth. A story about a returning soldier who does whatever it takes to rule all of Scotland. Even Macbeth, it might be argued, is a retelling of a much older story. Macbeth’s fall mirrors the original Fall of Adam and Eve after Eve convinces Adam to seize and taste the forbidden fruit.

Shakespeare made a career out of adapting. Only two of his plays, Love’s Labours Lost and The Merry Wives of Windsor are not adaptations from another source. Shakespeare’s own works have in turn inspired musicians, painters, poets and even architects. His plays have been successfully translated into almost every form of entertainment and even the man himself now pops up in our plays, films and songs.

There is a great apocryphal story, too terrific to be possibly true, about the film director John Houston. The tale goes that he came across a book one day, a thin detective thriller. He asked his secretary to go through it, label each scene’s setting, summarise the action in BIG LETTERS and type out the dialogue word for word from the book – or in other words, turn it into a screenplay. The studio execs loved it and Houston used it as the shooting script. The name of the novel and film? The Maltese Falcon. As with most good stories this one’s probably not true – but hey if we’re still retelling Adam and Eve, veracity is hardly a prerequisite.

The truth is that a genuine adaption is the result of meticulous detailed work. Many, many long nights spent interrogating the original and questioning every choice. Every character, every scene, every word has to fight for its place. As Stephen Cleary puts it,

“The process of writing an adaptation is a journey away from the original towards a unique reinterpretation of it. The writer needs to make the story their own and that must and should involve movement away from many of the choices the original writer made.”

In other words, source material is the starting point. But the very point of adaptation is to end up someplace new. The job almost certainly involves more steps in the wrong direction than the right. It’s far easier to make lead out of gold than gold out of lead. In fact the adapting writer will find it hard enough to make gold out of gold. A brilliant book doesn’t guarantee a brilliant movie. I, Robot anyone? And with a masterwork like Catch 22, where do you even begin? Your job is to take something that already works, take it apart and make it something new. This takes time. There is no magic bullet. You can’t take two wheels off a car and call it a bicycle. Nor can you paint stripes on your cat and call it a zebra. These are superficial changes, not an honest reckoning between writer and the source. Innovation must be balanced with fidelity and above all respect.

So the task of adaption is not straightforward but rather to break something and start anew. You MUST have a vision of what this new creature might be. How will it look and sound and smell and taste and feel different to its original? This is a new beast. Otherwise what’s the point? Slavish devotion kills innovation. And Art is all about making the familiar new, the known unknown, the world as fresh and new-minted as Adam and Eve first saw it, freshly booted from the Garden.

Adapting a novel or an event from real-life usually involves condensing, compressing and amalgamating of events, characters and facts. Think Argo or the new movie, Hitchcock. In contrast adapting from a novella or short story often involves expanding and developing a world from a sketch to a fully realised painting.

As soon as I read Rust and Bone I knew I wanted to adapt it. The question was how and into what theatrical form? I have included two examples from my own process of adapting these stories from the book into the play, below. Thanks to Craig Davidson for permission to republish sections of his work. The first is an example of condensing to focus in on the action and momentum of the story. This is a continual process of cutting away everything not essential. See the source text and then what I’ve done with it below.

Example 1: Source Text
(written by Craig Davidson)

‘Twenty-seven bones make up the human hand. Lunate and capitate and navicular, scaphoid and triquetrum, the tiny horn-shaped pisiforms of the outer wrist. Though differing in shape and density each is smoothly aligned and flushfitted, lashed by a meshwork of ligatures running under the skin. All vertebrates share a similar set of bones, and all bones grow out of the same tissue: a bird’s wing, a whale’s dorsal fin, a gecko’s pad, your own hand. Some primates got more – gorilla’s got thirty-two, five in each thumb. Humans, twenty-seven.

Bust an arm or leg, and the knitting bone’s sealed in a wrap of calcium so it’s stronger than before. Bust a bone in your hand and it never heals right. Fracture a tarsus and the hairline’s there to stay – looks like a crack in granite under the x-ray. Crush a metacarpal and that’s that: bone splinters not driven into soft tissue are eaten by enzymes; powder sifts to the bloodstream. Look at a prizefighter’s hands: knucks busted flat against the heavy bag or some pug’s face and skin split on crossing diagonals, a ridge of scarred X’s.

You’ll see men cry breaking their hand in a fight, leatherassed Mexies and Steeltown bruisers slumped on a corner stool with tears squirting out their eyes. It’s not the pain, though the anticipation is there. It’s frustration. Fighting’s all about minimizing weakness. Shoddy endurance? Roadwork. Sloppy footwork? Skip rope. Weak gut? A thousand stomach crunches daily. But fighters with bad hands can’t do a thing. Same goes for fighters with sharp brows and weak skin who can’t help splitting wide at the slightest pawing. They’re crying because it’s a weakness there’s not a damn thing they can do for and it’ll commit them to the second tier, one step below the MGM Grand and Foxwoods, the showgirls and Bentleys.’

Now compare it with this leaner script for the stageplay. Unlike a book, which can be picked up and put down and in general read at leisure, a playwright is always fighting sore bums on seats. Plays need to be dynamic and always moving forward. Plus the Theatre is a simulation of real life and people in real life don’t talk the way they do in a lot of books. What works above as the character’s internal thoughts, when given voice, need to be wrangled into passable conversation.

Example 1: Play Text
(adapted by me)

‘Eddie sits, wrapping (bandaging?) his hands. Twenty-seven bones make up the human hand – each of them flush-fitted, bound together underneath the skin. Some animals got more – gorilla’s got thirty-two – but us? We only get twenty-seven.

Bust a bone in one of these and it never heals right. You’ll see men cry breaking their hand in a fight – slumped on a stool, tears squirting out their eyes. It ain’t the pain, they’re crying because it’s a weakness they can’t do nuthin about and it’ll lock ‘em on the second tier forever.’

Read part 2 here

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