'Alias Grace' to 'Little Women': TV Writers Reveal the Challenges of Adapting Classic Novels

10:00 AM 6/2/2018

by Bryn Elise Sandberg

"I am very aware that most adaptations are judged not on what they contain, but on what they leave out," says one scribe.

Courtesy Photos

  • Alias Grace (Netflix)

    Novel by Margaret Atwood

    FIRST IMPRESSIONS I first read the book when I was 17 years old, and I remember little else of that year besides the transformative experience of reading that book, over and over again. It reached deep into me, in a way I'm not sure I completely understood at the time. It addressed things that were hidden from me, but pertinent to my life: the split­ting off that can happen in a personality when someone has been harassed or assaulted or has come of age in a world where women are prey, the ephemeral nature of memory and the idea that we're all unreliable narrators.

    WHAT WAS KEPT FROM THE BOOK It was extremely important to me to keep the immigration from Ireland, in all its squalor and struggle, in the show. It was expensive, and it would have been an obvious thing to cut, but I felt that — especially in this political climate — it was important to show how hard and brutal it can be to have to leave home and seek refuge somewhere else, and to remind people who take their citizenship and rights for granted that this is how most of our ancestors, grandparents or parents got here.

    WHAT WAS CHANGED I made the history of sexual abuse in Grace's past, with her father, more pointed and literal, and I tracked the line of her trauma and dissociation to this part of her history. I wanted to create a more obvious narrative of harassment and abuse and what that can do to a person. The pieces of the puzzle were in the book, but I wanted to shine a light on that aspect of it more glaringly. When I wrote it, I thought I would have to explain this decision or that people would miss that thread. As it turned out, the series came out at the same time as the #MeToo movement, so no explanation was needed and everyone seemed to get it. It was a shocking, thrilling surprise.

    ANOTHER BOOK I'D LOVE TO SEE ADAPTED The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm

  • Howards End (Starz)

    Novel by E.M. Forster

    FIRST IMPRESSIONS I first read E.M. Forster's novel when I was a student. Professor White was my English teacher and we studied the story of the Schlegels, the Wilcoxes and the Basts, discussing at length the themes of class, social mores and the changing cultural landscape of turn-of-the-century England. But when I reread the book as an adult, and as the father of two teenage daughters, the story of Margaret and Helen, the two Schlegel sisters, took on a completely different and strikingly contemporary resonance. Here were two smart, independent, single-minded young women in search of their own identities, navigating the tough and often confusing realities of a man's world and struggling to make their way with integrity and without compromise. It seemed relevant to the world we live in.

    WHAT WAS KEPT FROM THE BOOK Though we wanted to place the story of Margaret and Helen center stage, it was very important to remain faithful to the story and broader themes of such a famous and well-read novel.

    WHAT WAS CHANGED [Screenwriter] Kenneth Lonergan was concerned that the two main romantic relationships in the story would be difficult to dramatize because both girls were so intellectual in their attachment to other people, but most of all he was not sure the book explored fully why Helen was drawn into a relationship with the character of Bast. At first, Kenneth was reluctant to adapt the novel for these reasons, but I persuaded him that his concerns were the very reasons I thought he would be great to adapt the book.

    ANOTHER BOOK I'D LOVE TO SEE ADAPTED J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye

  • Little Women (PBS)

    Novel by Louisa May Alcott

    FIRST IMPRESSIONS I was 8 years old — my mother gave me her own childhood copy to read. I fell deeply in love with the March girls and their world, and wanted to be the fifth sister. I reread the novel many times over the ensuing decades, but because of the power of that first, very juvenile, encounter, I suspect I always saw it through a child's eyes. Sitting down to adapt it for the screen in 2017, as a 55-year-old woman, I was stunned to realize how deep, complex and multilayered it actually is.

    WHAT WAS KEPT FROM THE BOOK I'm very aware that most adaptations are judged not on what they contain, but on what they leave out! There were two aspects of the story that struck me as especially precious. Firstly, this isn't just a story about Jo. The story is very much about Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, and I wanted us to spend time with the sisters as individuals and as a group, understanding what makes the family dynamic tick. So I only gradually closed in on Jo. Secondly, although the death of Beth is one of the most deeply felt events in literature, I believe that what comes after it — the absolute devastation of her surviving family — is one of the best depictions of grief in fiction. I felt we had to make room for that, and not treat the death as the end point of that story strand. Beth's death is, in fact, like all life's great sorrows, the beginning of so much more

    WHAT WAS CHANGED It was essentially not a change at all, but simply a departure from the norm in terms of adaptation: I looked in depth at the Marmee who Louisa May Alcott created, and found myself stunned by her complexity, her self-knowledge, her resourcefulness and, most notably, her struggle to suppress her anger. Many adaptations present Marmee as a patient, saintly figure — in fact, she is anything but, and she knows it.

    ANOTHER BOOK I'D LOVE TO SEE ADAPTED I feel Villette, by Charlotte Bronte, has been somewhat overlooked in the Victorian canon, as has Esther Waters, by George Moore.

  • The Alienist (TNT)

    Novel by Caleb Carr

    FIRST IMPRESSIONS Carr's story is an epic roller-coaster ride that takes you on a journey deep into the dark and seedy underbelly of New York in the late 19th century.  This metropolis is finding its own identity and faces issues that are still relevant today: class division, immigration, the old versus the new, how do we treat the weak in our society? The timelessness of this story is what resonated with me the most.

    WHAT WAS KEPT FROM THE BOOK The Alienist is a series of contrasts and we wanted to highlight these extremes — like the seediness of the brothels juxtaposed against the luxurious and excessive world of fine dining at Delmonico's. One of our main goals was to create a city symphony that brings the audience a unique insight into everyday life during the Gilded Age. Our obsessive research and the importance of detail were key to re-create a world that feels very authentic, visceral and real.

    WHAT WAS CHANGED The book is told from Moore's POV. The audience is therefore unable to spend time with any of the characters when Moore's not present. In this adaptation, the writers give equal importance to Laszlo Kreizler, Sara Howard and John Moore. This allowed us to spend more time with each character separately, mostly in a moment of introspection. The camera often overstays its welcome and lingers on the characters, which allows the audience to really get under the skin of these intriguing individuals — thereby having the viewer become the voyeur.

    ANOTHER BOOK I'D LOVE TO SEE ADAPTED Days Without End by Sebastian Barry. During the Indian Wars and Civil War, two former soldiers adopt a Native American girl. It's a relatable story about family and identity set against an epic backdrop. And Raven's Gate by Anthony Horowitz — an outcast teenage boy learns that he alone holds the power to protect the world from a nuclear disaster. This book has the potential to be an ecological thriller mixed with a coming-of-age tale.

    This story first appeared in a May stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.