TOK Ottawa: Writing in the Age of Netflix

TOK Ottawa Symposium program (a paper booklet)

I had the pleasure of attending TOK Ottawa, a symposium about books and writing, this past weekend.

TOK is the digital magazine of Diaspora Dialogues (DD), an organization the supports diverse writers through mentorship, professional development, and publishing opportunities. I was delighted to find out about the TOK events because we’re often cut off from publishing talks up here in Ottawa, and I enjoy hearing authors talk about their business and craft.

Although I couldn’t make it to the Friday events, I consider myself quite lucky to have caught Saturday’s two discussions because both were wonderful, entertaining, and informative.

The two TOK Ottawa events held on Saturday were Writing in the Age of Netflix and Writing the Future: Kidlit & Young Adult. Though the audiences were relatively small, the discussions were great and yielded many insights.

So, I thought I’d share some of my notes for those who couldn’t attend.

Writing in the Age of Netflix

Moderator: Helen Walsh, founder and President of Diaspora Dialogues (and one of the TOK Ottawa organizers)

Writers: Iain Reid and Shyam Selvadurai

This event addressed the ever-growing market for film and television adaptations of books. Reid and Shyam have both written novels that are being adapted for the screen. This discussion allowed them to share their experiences with this process.

Reid’s novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things is being adapted by Charlie Kaufman for Netflix, while Selvadurai’s Funny Boy has been adapted for radio and is being adapted for film by director Deepa Mehta, though he worked on the screenplay himself.

Key Points

Books Aren’t Inherently Better Than Their Film Adaptations

Both authors argued against the idea that “the book is always better than the movie.”

They agreed that you have to view a book and its adaptation as separate things. Then you can allow yourself to enjoy the unique qualities of both versions.

Reid did make the caveat that a book allows a reader to imagine things themselves. A film, on the other hand, tends to “cement” things. This is the reason people are often disappointed in adaptations, and one of the reasons Reid says reading a book before seeing an adaptation may be best.

An Adaptation Should Be Faithful To The Spirit Of Its Source

Selvadurai worked on the screenplay of the current adaptation of Funny Boy, but others had tried to write the screenplay before. What he learned from seeing these different attempts is that faithful adaptations don’t follow the novel’s content and style completely.

In his words, “you can have a film that is faithful to the book that’s a bad film, or you can have a film that’s faithful to the spirit of the book that’s a good film.”

When he wrote the screenplay in a way that didn’t follow the novel too closely, Mehta got involved and gave him further notes about what should stay from the novel and what could go.

Adaptation Requires Breaking A Story Down To Its Fundamentals

In line with the idea of faithfulness to spirit, Walsh brought up the need to break a story down to its fundamentals in order to adapt it.

Selvadurai said this was a key part of transforming his novel into a screenplay. He read the older versions of a Funny Boy screenplay to see where they were failing. Then he broke his novel down to five key points. These guided him as he worked to create a new screenplay.

A Screenplay Requires Structure

One of the biggest differences between a script and a novel is structure. A screenplay follows certain rules and requires certain elements to keep people watching. (You have to write in rising tension, cliffhangers, etc.—especially when writing for television.) Selvadurai said writing screenplays can be brutal for this exact reason.

Meanwhile, a novel’s structure can be quite fluid. Selvadurai poked fun at the literary genre, saying that the worst part of it is “the anguish of finding structure.” He also said that one of the best ways to write an adaptation is to start by making sure it follows the rules of the medium.

Ownership Of the Story Goes To The Director

Reid and Selvadurai both acknowledged that having your book adapted usually means you give up any ownership of it. Even though both authors talked about how their works feel personal, neither seemed to begrudge giving up their rights over the adaptations. Instead, they talked about how an adaptation becomes the director’s vision and showed appreciation for their respective directors’ talents.

Language and Interiority Need To Be Replaced By Images

Reid’s and Selvadurai’s novels convey a love of language and much of their plots depend on the interiority of the characters. However, translating characters’ thoughts to film is a challenge.

Selvadurai said that capturing the same language and interiority of a novel in a film is impossible, so a writer just has to get over that. You have to work within the format of film. One example of this is using an image that conveys the same ideas instead of dialogue/thought.

I believe this discussion will be available as a podcast eventually, so follow TOK for updates on that. Next week I’ll share my notes from the TOK Ottawa panel on Writing the Future, so check back in then!

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