Can anything be sadder than work left unfinished? Yes, work never begun.
– Christina Rossetti
I struggled with the final project of a book adaption until the very end of my semester in Lithuania: First, I had to find an appropriate book. Second, I needed the equipment, actors and time to shoot the movie. Third, I needed time, time, time. Thus, I merely wrote the screenplay of the final project and had to leave it (and the country) unfinished. Nevertheless, I want to share my thoughts about the process and the screenplay in case of interest. For the adaptation I chose the (in)famous drama “American Buffalo” by David Mamet.
1. Choose the right book
Finding an appropriate book to adapt was incredibly difficult for I believe an adaptation has to stay true to the feeling, atmosphere and message to the original. Thus, I did not want to take only a scene or chapter of an epic, but have a movie from the beginning to the end. Dramas are predestined to be adapted to movies since it is in their nature of being performed. However, finding a “proper” play in the context of limited resources, actors and time is rather difficult. Keep in mind that I was in Lithuania and complicated English such as Shakespeare was out of question – I taught the mastermind of English drama in the United States and Germany, it is always tough material. I reconsidered all the plays I have read mostly in my “Classic American Plays” class I took at the beginning of my studies. I rediscovered Mamet’s Buffalo Soldier.
Mamet’s style of writing is vulgar, filled with chit-chat and deeply psychological. It uses heavily slang terms and swear words to express meaning and emotions. You can compare it to Tarantino’s style of writing in his movies, but with an actual psychological framework. While the movie director writes dialogue for the sake of dialogue, Mamet establishes relationships, the soul landscape of the characters and bursts of emotions. Reading American Buffalo is an amazing journey into the social environment of small-time criminals and the power of social relationships in a male-dominated society – as most of Mamet’s plays.
The whole play happens in the resale shop of Don Dubrow and encompasses the total of three characters. Perfectly suited to be shot in a short time span with limited resources and actors. The only problem was the dialogue-heavy script and length (for a 10 minute movie). I had to cut out all characters (Fletcher, Ruthie and Grace) which are merely mentioned, but do not actually appear in the play. Therefore, I lost the theme of male/female relationships and some of the brilliance of the twist at the ending. Nevertheless, I could focus more on the relationship between the three characters, the power of manipulation and the importance of trust in friendship.
The process of rewriting and cutting the play into the limit and length of my presets was rather complicated. You have to keep the focus on your chosen characters and cannot just cut dialogue, which seems unrelated to the main plot. Mamet uses superficially unrelated dialogue to establish characters, settings and development. When Teach talks about business deals, its also manipulating Don into mistrusting his companion and mentee Bob, reveals Teach’s relentless greed and the social climate, in which the characters have to live. Shortening the play is complicated because Mamet’s style is already very dense. In general, you always have to leave out great scenes to keep the focus, but more important is to keep the air and flair of the play in order to deliver your message accordingly. Every editing, rewriting, cutting, shortening, elaborating or renaming on the original work is an interpretation of yours. Even if you try to be as faithful to the book as possible, the realization to the silver screen will contain your idea of the book. Be aware of this and decide whats the most important aspect of the book that you want to work on. I chose the issue of trust in relationships such as the title of my interpretation implies.
3. Shoot! (the film)
Unfortunately, I ran out of time at the end of the semester because I was applying for a job in Spain (which in the end I did not get). However, I encourage you to try this format in your classroom because your students have to work intensively with the reading. Especially, dramas are perfect for this shooting format. Keep in mind that such a project demands a lot of time and energy from you and your students. Refer to my post about “They can shoot pictures, can’t they?” for information how to implement such an endeavor in your class. I also suggest to give strict guidelines and limits for your students because it is easy to get lost in details, lose track of time or argue with your group mates. Dictate tight schedules for milestones in their projects. You will not only teach your pupils how to work under real-life conditions, but also eradicate the notion to have the perfect result. Ultimately, only work never begun is sadder than unfinished ones.
Here the link to my screenplay “Misplaced Trust“.
For the writing and formatting in proper “screenplay-format” I used Final Draft 9.