Over the years we have adapted many books in our search for suitable vehicles for animation. Some of these have been illustrated books for children, others were major works of literature, and we also made an animated version of Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milk Wood”, using the BBC radio recording made with the voice of Richard Burton.
At one point in our corporate history we were part-owned by Scottish Television who provided a development budget to us on the basis that it could only be used for projects that already had some sort of profile with the general public, that had, in the jargon of the time, marquee value.
One of the problems with animated films is that they are difficult to market. If you’re making a live action movie you can sell the film on the basis of who is in it, who wrote it, who directed it, etc., and organise interviews and public appearances to make the most of the celebrities you have engaged. Using famous actors to provide voices for your film can give it credibility but it is difficult to exploit the actor’s charisma or sex appeal. A good voice performance is one where you are not aware of the actor, only of the animated character. There are a couple of animation directors, like Nick Park or Hayao Miyazaki, who are a box office draw but most directors and writers of animated films work in comparative obscurity.
For that reason, many animated films and television series are based on books that are already well known. Television channels are temperamentally conservative. To commission an original show is to leap into the unknown. Even if the show is terrific, there is no guarantee that anyone will notice it. More effort and money is going to be needed to launch an original show than one that your audience already knows about, based on a popular book.
Of course, if you create an original animated series or film that is successful you have the potential to establish a brand new franchise, with books and consumer products that will keep the idea alive for generations to come. An original idea is more risky but the rewards are potentially greater.
Adapting books for animation is never a simple matter and every book throws up its own challenges. What to you leave out? What do you add? What do you change? What do you keep faith with? How much do you involve the author? Over the next few blogs I’ll take a look at some of the shows that we have made that are based on books, and explain the rationale behind the decisions we made in adapting them.
The most important thing when adapting a book is to understand its appeal. Why has the books sold so many copies? Why does this particular book appeal to me? If you lose sight of this, then your adaptation will only disappoint.
The main difference between a book and a film or television episode is to do with timing. The timing of reading a book is dictated by the reader. You can pick it up, read a bit, put it down and leave it a while and return to it later. You can skip through the boring bits and dwell on the bits you like. If you are watching a film, then you do not have that possibility. The timing of your consumption of the story is dictated by somebody else. Filmmakers know from experience that their story has to have a certain structure and dynamic or else it will not engage the attention for the specified amount of time.
The reader of a book will also have a very personal idea of characters, places and even the action that happens in a book. However precise the description by the author may be, readers will create an image of what is happening that is shaped by their own experiences. Because of the nature of animation, the books likely to be adapted will contain a degree of fantasy. The adaptation needs to create a picture of what is happening that either matches the imagination of the reader, or surpasses it.
Finally, authors of books are often very different animals from screenwriters. Writing a book is a solitary process. You are in control. You can do exactly what you want and you don’t have to compromise with anyone else. This is not the same with writing for film or television, where collaboration and compromise are essential. The refusal of an author to accept compromise can be fatal for the adaptation.