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BSS 2012: the ups and downs of adaptations

Adaptation can be a minefield – one only has to think of Elizabeth Knox’s reaction to Niki Caro’s version of The Vintner’s Luck.

Producer Philippa Campbell moderated a discussion between NZ’s Robert Sarkies, Brit-turned-Aussie Keith Thompson and the Mexican film-maker now resident in Auckland, Dana Rotberg. Rotberg is in the final post-production stages of White Lies (fka Medicine Woman), an adaptation of a novella by Witi Ihimaera. Sarkies’ soon to be released film Two Little Boys is an adaptation of his brother Duncan’s novel (itself an adaptation from a film idea!), while Thompson’s The Sapphires, a hit at both the Cannes and Auckland festivals this year, is an adaptation from his co-writer’s stage play.

The first point canvassed was the very different expectations that audiences have of a film compared with a novel. Duncan Sarkies was very committed to a very black ending which was delicious in the novel but which Robert knew would not be so in a film. Later he described his essential starting point as a strong feeling for the original work, or for what it could be – what he called his “Anchoring Vision”.

When a writer gets lost, this sense of the essence is his focus, his point of rescue. Describing film as “so dense”, he referred to the problem of how to pare down the original in a way that preserves and retains the essence of it all. Perhaps it’s better, he suggested, to adapt a novella, a short story, even an article, rather than a novel.

How close should one get to the writer of the original work? Experiences varied from one extreme to the other – in Thompson’s case, never meeting one novelist, and working intimately with others. The same could be said to apply to the reverse situation – while Knox’s reaction to Caro’s film is well-known, Kirsty Gunn has never seen the screen version of Rain.

Thompson also described adaptation as being less about one’s own creativity, and more about finding the essence of the original source. It’s especially important when a book already has a huge readership (eg The Lord of the Rings) that one does not mess with it! The first step in his methodology of adaptation is to go through and précis every chapter of the book, becoming familiar with the book and its author’s choices, even though those choices might be different from one’s own.

Rotberg, on the other hand, evinced a different approach. For her, there are “No rules – except to try, with permission, to make the story mine.” First of all she must “find the seeds to ignite my own passion”, then to connect that with the audience. Equally important to her is to “sort out early the boundaries”.

In describing her experience as a (Jewish) Mexican in New Zealand, Rotberg referred to her personality as “very intense, swinging from disaster to euphoria in one moment”, something which Kiwis generally found hard to deal with – she felt an “imposed evenness” here. However, she found a similar intensity in Maori.

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