Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Tom Perrotta And Fiction For Film

I just read Tom Perrotta’s Little Children, a suburban satire about a neighbourhood of unfulfilled soccer moms and their reaction when a convicted sex offender comes out of jail and moves in close by with his mother. It was a good, quick read, if not a memorable one, mainly due to the lack of particularly interesting characters, reflecting as they did the predictable archetypes of the Book Club Belt. Also, I resent it when you’re reading a book and it’s obviously been tailored to be flogged for its film rights. The soap opera plot culminates in the overtly contrived tying up of all loose ends, and you’re left feeling less like a reader and more like a sucker.

Little Children has already been released as a film, as was one of Perrotta’s earlier novels. That’s grand for the author, who has to make a living like the rest of us. I just wonder why he didn’t quit the pretence and type it up as a film script to start with.

The two occasions I’ve managed to sign up with literary agents were because of novels that apparently had film potential. Again, it’s a business like any other, and literary agents who have to pay the mortgage know that selling a novel on its fine literary merits alone will maybe pay for a new hat. And more likely a baseball cap than a handmade Tyrolean with a feather in its band. But rather than share the bubbling enthusiasm of the London agent who once said, “Ian, this has got film rights written all over it!” I was more disconcerted that this was seen as the book’s main selling point. Although, as neither book of the two ‘film potential’ novels was sold, that was maybe not the case after all (leaving them with a total of zero selling points).

Not that I’d have been turning my nose up at a fat check from a studio eager to secure the future production of a book about a…ha ha, I’m not going to tell you what it was about in one line. When I attended a script-writing class, that was the first lesson. Learn to sum up what your film is about in a single, two-clause sentence. “It’s about a [main character], who [has a goal].” Hollywood moguls are busy people, and they get distracted if your idea takes more than three seconds to explain, supposing you (or your agent) can actually get to talk to one in the first place.

You have a little more leeway when writing a novel and presenting it to a literary agent (also very busy people). Maybe as long as it takes to describe a book on the back of its jacket. Typically, that will be a three to four sentence paragraph, and each sentence will include a teaser, with references to at least one of the following: an unhappy marriage, a stunted career, a sexual deviant, an unfulfilled parent, a character with a seemingly terminal illness, an addict of some sort, and a group of people who are members of a book club.

The agent will then judge if your novel has the potential to sell as a film, and may agree to read the first three chapters. Depth, length and too much ambiguity are unwelcome, while vague membership in a discernible current publishing trend or category such as Lad Lit, Sad Lit, Bad Lit, Buddy Lit, Lamp Lit (just invent one and say you saw it mentioned in the New York Times Book Review) is an absolute imperative. If necessary, spell it out and put the words into their mouth: “I really feel this book has film rights written all over it.”

There are three sorts of novelist. 1.Unpublished – that would be most of us. 2. Acclaimed – that is, published and admired by family, friends and a handful of discerning readers and critics. And 3. Successful – that would be your Tom Perrottas. Readable, forgettable, but very sellable. Writing to a formula that succeeds. Mrs. Pop believes it’s the key to her early retirement. I’m still waiting for the Big Bad Idea to encapsulate in a single, two-clause sentence.


Dave Lifton said...

I've read all of Perrotta's novels, except Election, because I've seen the movie a million times. I like that his characters aren't overly exciting and don't have incredibly interesting lives, because I can relate to them. They're normal people. That's a tough trick to pull off and retain an audience.

Now, if only someone would buy the film rights to Joe College...

Gadjo Dilo said...

Ah, this is painful to hear. I was writing a novel but never got as far as literary agents as - thankfully, perhaps - I knew it was crap. I wish you the best of luck.

Poetry's less soul-destroying: nobody pretends it'll earn you money, all published books of verse have a tiny circulation so there's no disappointment there, and as it's "high art" it's pretty much an end in itself.

nathan3e said...

The plight of the novelist eloquently described here reminded me of my abject years in an indie-rock band. Ferocious manager from New York, working in the city of Husker Du, Prince, and The Replacements, what could go wrong? The demo lands on the influential desk of the co-owner of a Very Important Independent Label. He loved it! He says we are “dark popsters”. We are baffled but willing to pretend we know what he means. Until the other co-owner decides he hates the demo. We apparently sound like Rush. No one before or after told us we sounded like Rush. We are passed along to a crap major where an A&R gentleman takes an interest and is promptly fired. And so on. By the time I gave up on the industry I could barely listen to music. Your ability to keep at it is admirable Ian.

Anonymous said...

Who is going to win the game tomorrow???

Stay-At-Home Indie-Pop said...

Fair point, dave, and I think he does a good job of making his characters well-rounded humans, albeit in the same writing-by- numbers way that he sets out his plots. But I mostly prefer fictional characters to be a bit sub-normal, or meta-normal, or something outstanding. Like I said, I don't think he's a bad writer by any means, just a formulaic one.

Gadjo, maybe one day the film rights to a slim volume of poems will be snapped up in a vicious bidding war, lending a whole new meaning to the concept of 'poetry slam.'

Nathan, I read somewhere recently that when someone in Hollywood says they "loved" your film script, it's the kiss of death. Presumably the only language you can trust is in the form of a large concrete figure, written on a cheque, and preceded by a dollar sign.

There was a great sketch on the Mitchell and Webb Show where a baffled author is bombarded with ideas for changing his book by a clueless agent: [I'm paraphrasing here from memory] "Maybe 50 pages in the main character needs to eat a live shark. Obviously not that, but something like that, do you get me?"

No Good Boyo said...

Mitchell & Webb, mighty fine. Their Doenitz sketch has true pathos.

In my own fictions I seek to avoid well-rounded humans. Hasn't got me published either.