These days, ultimate
creative success, at least in commercial and populist
terms, seems to depend on getting your story to the big
screen. Consider the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and
Sciencess recent opinions that 2001s best
film was made from 2001s best screenplay based on
previously published material. Which was based on someones
real (and imagined) life. Loosely.
Before A Beautiful Mind
mopped up its Oscars, the film took some real flak for
laundering the troubled life-story of its protagonist.
John Nash, the malcontents cried, isnt only a Nobel-winner
and a delusional schizophrenic, hes also anti-Semitic,
abusive, unfaithful and bi-sexual, you know. Were they
especially clever, or brave, Ron Howard and screenwriter
Akiva Goldsman could have deflected the criticism by coyly
suggesting that the relativity of reality is precisely
the theme they were after (lord knows its not really
about math), and whos to say that even Nash himself
is any more or less real than you or I or the figments
of someone elses imagination?
Thanks to the Academy,
of course, it no longer matters. But such themes remain
intrinsic to cinema, which, for better and worse, has
explored them for as long as it has explored previously
published materialthat is, for as long as movies
have been made. One of the more dynamic recent examples,
in 1999, was director David Finchers and screenwriter
Jim Uhls Fight Club, also, as it happens,
based on a book.
unsettling breakthrough novel, like his unsettling other
novels, was a work of fiction, even if some people still
believe otherwise. The story, of a dispirited corporate
drone who discovers himselfand a diabolically charismatic
alter egothrough an underground bloodsport, galvanized
readers and moviegoers alike. And still does.
Not surprisingly, Palahniuk
speaks lucidly on the subjects of truth, the beholders
eye, and screen adaptation. He chatted with me from somewhere
Gadfly: Do you
consider your work radical?
Palahniuk: No, my work
isn't radical, because it's based on what I hear the people
around me talk about, everyday.
Do you think language
barriers exist between prose and film storytelling, or
that failures result simply from poor translation?
The time constraint, I
think is the biggest barrier between books and films.
To boil a fat book down into two hours, at most a few
dozen scenes, that seems impossible to me. It makes
me think of those terrible, terrible Reader's Digest
Condensed Books that my grandparents used to have, where
they'd strip each book down to nothing but plot and publish
five novels combined in a single binding.
If a movie could be even
half as long as it takes someone to read the book, then
maybe movies could adapt books better. The trouble
now is: How much sitting-in-the-dark can the human butt
take? The answer: Bigger butts.
What are your
criteria for a successful screen adaptation? What do you
consider the worst thing a screenwriter and director (and
a herd of producers) could do to a book of yours?
A successful adaptation
should be able to carry the message and mood of the book
without cleaning it up for mass consumption. The
worst crime is something like Breakfast at Tiffanys,
where the hooker female lead and homo male lead, two very
marginal people, become fresh-faced Audrey Hepburn and
George Peppard. It's making love something that can
only happen between nice, white heteros who end up in
bed together. Capote's great love story about devoted
friends is gone.
Can you describe,
generally, the process of having your work adapted, just
sort of walk me through the timeline of events and recount
20th Century Fox optioned
the book as a manuscript in August 1995, only a couple
months after I wrote it. David Fincher and Edward
Norton expressed interest a couple months after that. Jim
Uhls wrote a screenplay, working with producer Ross Bell. Brad
Pitt signed on early in 1998, after Andrew Kevin Walker
(Seven and 8 mm) did a re-write of Uhls
work. Shooting started in June 1998. I went
to early story meetings with Uhls and Bell in 1996 to
discuss changes to the plot, to compress it. I went
to several weeks of shooting, but only as a tourist. Then
I helped promote the film when it opened in October 1999.
Are your intentions
intact in the film?
My intentions are fully
intact in the film. David was rabid about not making
the male lead too sympathetic.
How did the movie
of Fight Club change your audience?
My audience? The film GAVE
me an audience. Until the movie came out, my readership
was limited to a small crowd of critics and young readers. The
book had won some nice, fat awards and gotten great reviews,
but the 10,000 first printing of the hard covers didn't
sell out until the movie hit.
Do you typically
visualize scenes cinematically? Someone alone with a book
has a different kind of contact with a story than someone
in a crowded theater (or even a living room). Is this
something you consciously think about?
I still write by studying
F. Scott Fitzgerald, the writer we tend to think of as
the first "cinematic" writer. We both write in tight,
limited scenes where physical action and setting aren't
overwhelmed by dialogue. The best part of writing
fiction is varying the texture by inserting short "big
voice" chapters where the character can speak straight
to the reader and make observations about the world. These
chapters work well to space out "scenic" chapters and
imply the passage of time.
Also, books convey so much
more information than films. This makes it my job
to load each book with true-life facts and details that
support the story and amaze the reader. Without an emotional
epiphany, teachers say we don't remember stuff. Making
every plot point a dazzling puzzle of facts guarantee
a reader will retain it.
People seem to
respond strongly to your themes of subjectivity and identity.
Do you think that a film, more than a book, risks making
a kind of absolute statement about this (for instance,
to take an easy example, that Tyler Durden looks like
Brad Pitt), or that this really isnt a risk at all?
A film risks more only
because it reaches more people and it's harder to present
ambiguous, unreliable information. What we see tends
to become the instant true. It's tougher to revise
a viewers entire perception after an hour and a half of
showing them a "misleading truth." BUT. Because a
book forces you to create the story in your mind (you're
Tyler Durden), a book might risk becoming more of an absolute.
has recently been optioned? Can you tell me about that?
Clearly theres a strong visual component of the
story. Do you think it, or any other project (Survivor?)
NEEDS to be both a book and a film?
A British producer/screenwriter
named Jesse Peronel has optioned Invisible Monsters
and written a very good screenplay based on the book. He's
negotiating with Miramax and his agent is presenting the
screenplay to several actresses. I hesitate to say
more. Don't hold your breath waiting for Survivor
to become a movieabout a sympathetic hijacker?! Ouch! My
2001 book, Choke, is movie-bound, screenplay by
Clark Gregg. My agent is still negotiating the film
option for my new book for 2002, Lullaby.
It's never my goal to inspire
a movie, but my goal IS to bring exciting, twisted, funny
stories to people. Whether it's books or films, the
system of delivering those stories is beside the point.