My Melbourne Writers Festival 2019 experience started early on Saturday morning with an email from US YA author Becky Albertalli, a panellist on the ‘Watching Them Grow: From Page to Screen’ session I was chairing that afternoon, to say she had completely lost her voice, and proposing to bring her laptop and quickly type her responses to questions on stage for others to read. Fellow panellists Christos Tsiolkas and Melina Marchetta were sympathetic and quickly volunteered to help. Becky and I figured we’d do a mix of prepared and real-time responses, so I emailed her a couple of questions in advance. I also got her to send me a video recording of her introducing herself so we could play that at the start of the session and encourage audience members to imagine the answers being delivered in Becky’s New York accent.
It all worked remarkably well on the day, thanks to Becky’s positivity and professionalism and Christos and Melina’s generosity and flexibility. Indeed, when we opened to questions from the audience, the first comment was how refreshing it was to come to a writers’ festival and see writing happening on the stage!
Becky, Christos and Melina are three talented and gracious writers, all of whom acknowledged their good fortune in having their debut novels (and then some) adapted for film. Becky was hands-off in terms of writing the screenplay for Love, Simon, the 2018 adaptation of her bestselling novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. Though not directly involved in the writing for Head On, the 1998 film of his 1995 novel Loaded, Christos was subsequently credited as a script consultant on the television adaptations of The Slap and Barracuda and enjoys spending time in the writers’ room. Meanwhile Melina wrote an award-winning screenplay for the 1999 adaptation of her bestselling 1992 novel Looking for Alabrandi. Despite their different levels of involvement, all three writers had similar experiences of learning to let go of aspects of their work, and entrusting their vision to other writers. And all had positive things to say about what was gained in the process of adapting their books to the screen, particularly in terms of the kind of spectacle that film makes possible.
The commonalities in their experiences serve as great advice for writers who might ever find themselves fortunate enough to have their work optioned. First, don’t get ahead of yourself — ‘take it with a grain of salt’, as Melina put it. Getting optioned and getting funded are two different processes, and it can take a long time — or not happen at all. Second, be polite, professional and cooperative. A screenwriter’s biggest nightmare is a novelist who is precious about their work. Don’t be that person. Third, while not sweating the small stuff, do figure out what is most important to you in the adaption of your work — the non-negotiable(s) — and hold fast to that. For Becky it was not allowing her characters of colour to be ‘whitewashed’. For Melina, it was avoiding stereotypes that exoticised or de-contextualised the cultural practices of Italian-Australians (she quashed attempts to open Alabrandi with a salami-making scene involving the slaughter of a pig, for example, in favour of ‘Tomato Day’, the sauce making scenes that bookend the film). Fourth, be realistic about wider constraints. Christos also spoke of respecting the realities of film budgets (viewers couldn’t follow Danny to Scotland in the TV version of Barracuda, for example, the way that readers could in the book). And because ratings affect earnings, they present important considerations, too.
It was particularly lovely to hear Becky ‘talk’ about what she thought was gained in the film Love, Simon that was absent in the book. While she mentioned the Ferris wheel scene and Halloween party among others, she reserved her highest praise for a scene between Simon (played by Nick Robinson) and his mother (played by Jennifer Gardner) that takes place after Simon has come out to his family. In the scene, Simon’s mother describes watching him as if he’s been holding his breath and finishes with ‘You get to be more you than you’ve been in a very long time.’ I also loved this scene, and had noted that it wasn’t in the book. It was so lovely to learn that, rather than feeling jealous or threatened, Becky both loved the scene in its own right, as well as the thought of having written something that inspired further, beautiful writing.
That empathy, and the capacity to take joy in the achievements of other artists, is what made interviewing Becky, Christos and Melina such a pleasure.
Oh, and I just finished reading Melina’s latest novel, The Place on Dalhousie, prior to our session, and it is wonderful. Made me cry twice! A script is currently in production.