There’s news floating around that Watchmen, the graphic novel, is being developed by HBO into a TV series. Some of you might remember the earlier movie version, which did a solid job of replicating key scenes from the graphic novel without really bringing the meaning along with the conversion. It’s unclear whether a TV series, with its longer running time and greater ability to explore side stories and character development, will do a better job. Although I can’t say I’m disappointing about spending more time watching Dr. Manhattan construct giant, empty palaces on Mars because he’s bored.
As the linked article references, the creators of the graphic novel, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, worked to make the content uniquely fit the graphic novel format. Translating Watchmen to film or straight text shouldn’t be easy, because the people who created it didn’t plan for that to happen. Didn’t expect it to. Didn’t want it to.
You might notice the picture on this piece is John Adams, a former president and generally well-known founding father. He is not, so far as we are aware, a superhero of the supernatural variety. He could not fly, and did not fight crime – at least, not in the fist-punching sense. However, the biography did get adapted, like Watchmen (and plenty of other material) into a miniseries. Now, you may think that you can’t “write” a biography in a way that allows it to be adapted to film, but really, you can try. You can make it easier for those directors, actors, or producers looking for something compelling to read your words and form the scene in their heads.
John Adams is written visually – David McCullough does his best to relay Adams’ life as Adams saw it, as Adams lived it. We’re treated to frozen depictions of a ride to Philidelphia in the winter of 1776, the stormy seas on a boat crossing to France, the tense relationships with various titans of the age. There is rarely a section that, if you thought about it, could not work as a movie scene. The audience can track who is doing what and why. People have motivations that make sense, and causes we can champion. There are no stories-within-the-story like in Watchmen (whose comic within the comic was left entirely out of the movie version). There aren’t massive monstrosities that would be difficult to film, or references that most of the potential audience for a movie would miss.
As such, transitioning from the book to the miniseries with John Adams isn’t a challenging endeavor. You can recognize scenes from the book in the show or put Paul Giamatti’s narration over every letter printed in the biography. They work in concert, and neither is diminished in comparison with the other.
When it comes to writing like this, there’s a bit of a conscious decision to be made. You have to decide, as the writer, whether or not you want to make your work easy to adapt (either by yourself or someone else) into a different medium. TV and Film being the most immediately obvious. For me, Wild Nines could conceivably work as a space-action film. There’s not a lot in any of those books that couldn’t fit its way in front of lens, especially with modern special effects. Riven, on the other hand, would be more difficult. The setting is strange, and many of the story details would be difficult to communicate solely in a visual medium. Not impossible, just hard. I look at the recent difficulties faced by the Dark Tower adaptation as an example of what happens when a complicated narrative property loses what makes it compelling in the transference to film.
That all being said, what I’m taking away from this is not that novels and stories should be written with the movie in mind, but rather to consider the visual element of scenes. What does the reader see, and how do they interact with the scene you’re presenting?
And if you can communicate that idea clearly, then who knows, maybe a director can too, and one day Hollywood might give you a call.