The 2016 Boston Book Festival officially began Friday night with a kickoff session covering the range of experiences its panel of authors had taking their books to the screen. The blockbuster trio in attendance were Emma Donoghue (Room), Tom Perrotta (The Leftovers, Little Children, Election), and Maria Semple (Where’d You Go, Bernadette), with moderating duties handled by WBUR’s Robin Young. The official title of the session was “Storytelling for Page and Screen,” though Young joked that they’d been calling it, “Oh, thank god we don’t have to talk about the campaign.”
The authors had all come with different experiences of the adaptation process. Donoghue had written a screen adaptation before Room even got published to make sure she’d get to do the writing herself, Perrotta has had a series of adaptations made, starting with Alexander Payne’s work on Election, and Semple has a TV writing background and chose to have someone else take on screenwriting duties for Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
Though Perrotta had had the longest experience with adaptations, that didn’t mean it’s always gone smoothly. As he put it, “If it happens, it happens fast, but if it happens slow, it’ll never happen.” While Election was a huge hit, it wasn’t his first adaptation effort. There was an effort to make a movie of 1998’s The Wishbones, but he ran into trouble with some superficial similarities to another movie in production around the same time, since his book covered the adventures of a wedding singer. His version even got so far as to have a pair of up and coming writers work on it, but sadly Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (yes, really) never saw the movie make it to the screen. “What happened there?” asked Young. “Uh, they got famous,” replied Perrotta.
Donoghue, on the other hand, was very determined to write a screenplay for the movie herself, and started work on a spec script “as soon as I sold the novel,” she explained. Having a script in hand was a strong negotiating tactic, and she was then able to wait for the right director to come along. “The one very smart thing I did was wait for the right director,” she said.
Semple said she’d never really wanted to adapt her own novel. As someone who’d written for TV in the past, for Mad About You and other shows, she said she thought it would seem like she was trying to “sneak back in.” She did end up writing a draft, but was relieved when director Richard Linklater expressed interest, because he writes his own scripts.
Ultimately, for all that they’d taken different paths along the way, all three could agree on one thing: Getting asked who they’d like to see play their characters is “the most irritating question,” per Donoghue. So maybe don’t ask Maria Semple who the perfect Bernadette would be the next time you see her.
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