What kinds of novels make good material for adaptation?

As a screenwriter, I’m asked this question often. I have to chuckle every time I hear it, because of the presumed assumption that I read books. Or “novels,” as my interlocutor would have it.

Whatever. When I’m in a hurry and just want to rip somebody off because my script is due in a couple of hours, here are the kinds (or would that be “kind”?) of books that I raid:

5. The Bible (all due respect to those who treat it as non-fiction) – Nobody reads no more. The only way you’re gonna meet Jesus is by going to the movies. But straight to video would be ok, too, for home study and prayer.

4. Huckleberry Finn – White kid runs away from home and has adventures with a big black man. This movie will not be for everyone.

3. Casino Royale – The first of the James Bond novels. After you make the movie, you come back to the other Ian Fleming books. Sequel gold! The only thing that could screw this up would be the fall of the Soviet Empire.

2. Any book where a guy and a gal meet cute and have tussles before the final clinch. I’m thinking “Pride or Prejudice” or a Danielle Steele book or something else the same as them.

1. Spot, the Dirty Dog – Or any other fracking dog book. Those things can’t miss!

Thanks to bloglily for the topic.

Screenwriting in Russia

Note: This post is not about Rutger Hauer.

There is an actor working in Hollywood, an old warhorse, who has made more than a hundred, maybe more than two hundred, movies, most of them stinkers, and who often employs me as his script doctor. We were born in the same year on opposite sides of the planet but we like to drink in the same dives, which counts for more than any differences between us caused by his European and my backwoods origins. He’ll sign on to any project offered to him because he likes to keep busy; I read the script after he’s on board and explain it to him before we’re both too loaded to remember what I’ve said.

The other day, he told me that he was off to a shoot in the Ukraine and that he wanted me to come along as his dialog coach and general gofer. We met at LAX the next morning, each with duffle picked up at home after the bars closed.

For some reason, we took a flight to Istanbul. The movie industry is thriving in Turkey and Roger (not his real name) has friends there who met us at the airport. The next thing I knew, we were on a train north to Sofia, Bulgaria, to catch Selim Güneş’s film “Kar Beyaz” (White as Snow) at the Sofia Film Festival. It won the Jury Special Award, which caused a lot of celebrating amongst the Turks, such that I don’t remember our trip back south. When I finally came to, I found myself seasick on a scow in rough water on the way to Odessa. Roger was fine and laughed at the sight of me hanging over the rail barfing into the Black Sea.

A production assistant driving an old Russian Zil right out of some spy movie picked us up at the dock and rattled our bones north out of the Crimea and into a rural wasteland of a landscape that was not at its best in March.

We stayed in a rural village with peasants who looked at me as if no one foreign had come through since Ragland, Cardigan, and Nightingale.

I got my first look at Roger’s dialog out on a hill covered with dirty snow. I made a couple of suggestions and when the director walked by, Roger spoke to him in Russian (or Ukrainian, for all I know). The director laughed, told him something, and moved on.

“He says I can spout out whatever I want. I can insult my wife, my girlfriend, my mother, or God Himself during a scene, because everything I say is going to be dubbed over anyway.”

“Then what am I doing here?”

“You never know. I like to get it right on the film. Film lasts. Every so often, one of these things makes it to England or South Africa or the States. Of course, then they just dub over the Russian with English of their own, but still. You never know.”

I admire Roger’s Dutch work ethic, such as it is, but he didn’t get anything serious out of me after that. Didn’t seem to bother him, though, as it was during our carousing after hours that I made my real contribution, serving as his geriatric wingman.

So I didn’t win any Oscars for my work on “Sex and My Tractor,” but one good thing about the shoot was that I was never able to call California, my cell phone being inoperative, which meant that I never had to lie about or otherwise try to explain away the cloud of Russian whores attracted to the project, its actors, and its dollar-bearing gofers like flies, of which there also were plenty.