Cinematic Writer
A conversation about screen adaption with author Chuck Palahniuk
By Jonathan Kiefer

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 Sciences’s recent opinions that 2001’s best film was made from 2001’s best screenplay based on previously published material. Which was based on someone’s 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, isn’t only a Nobel-winner and a delusional schizophrenic, he’s 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 it’s not really about math), and who’s to say that even Nash himself is any more or less real than you or I or the figments of someone else’s 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 material–that is, for as long as movies have been made. One of the more dynamic recent examples, in 1999, was director David Fincher’s and screenwriter Jim Uhls’ Fight Club, also, as it happens, based on a book.

Chuck Palahniuk’s 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 himself–and a diabolically charismatic alter ego–through an underground bloodsport, galvanized readers and moviegoers alike. And still does.

Not surprisingly, Palahniuk speaks lucidly on the subjects of truth, the beholder’s eye, and screen adaptation. He chatted with me from somewhere in cyberspace.

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 Tiffany’s, 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 your reactions?

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 isn’t 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.

Invisible Monsters has recently been optioned? Can you tell me about that? Clearly there’s 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 movie–about 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.