Film Rites: With Terry McMillan's third adaptation coming to HBO, other black novelists are embarking on the road to Hollywood
Adapting novels to the big screen is not a new thing. Oscar Micheaux, one of the first black directors in this country, began his career by writing novels and selling them door to door in the 1920s and '30s. He soon made one of his best-known films, The Homesteader, from one of his novels. Micheaux's films -- he went on to make dozens of them -- offered a very different view of black life than the films coming from Hollywood studios. Gordon Parks, Sr.'s film The Learning Tree, also began as a book. This '70s film adaptation once again presented a view of the integrity and quality of black life often missed by Hollywood. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings continued to prove that there was something to offer in black books; more diverse material to grab the attention of a wider audience. The Color Purple, Beloved, A Lesson Before Dying, Devil in a Blue Dress, Waiting to Exhale and The Wedding are books that have been converted to movies for the big and small screen, a trend that has been fueled by the recent proliferation of black authors writing on diverse themes.
According to Kisha Imani Cameron at New Line Cinema, good original scripts are hard to find. Books are more easily translatable and may even have big-name stars already interested, which can make a book very attractive to a studio.
Optioning a book is the first step in getting the book to a movie. Leah Hunter, of Whitney Houston's company Brownhouse Productions says, "the process can be tedious." Someone in the company likes the book and begins the process of acquiring the rights to the story and the characters via agents and attorneys. After the deal is the adaptation. The company's development executives make a "wish list" of writers they feel can cinematically capture the mood and themes of the story. Authors do not have much input, although Terry McMillan had a definite say in the way her novel was brought to the screen.
Brownhouse recently acquired the rights to the Eric Jerome Dickey novel, Friends and Lovers. In an unusually fast process -- a short meeting with the author and Dickey's agent and the deal was done. Dickey has little input in the adapting process but says he does get to contribute his thoughts on the script. He is realistic about the fact that changes have to be made to his story, and that many scenes will have to be cut. "Because this is a work of fiction, and not a biography, things can be changed," Dickey says. He compares this process to parenting a child: "You raise it, do your best and see what happens when they become adults."
April Claytor, who is black, is adapting Friends. Claytor is no stranger to adapting books to screenplays, having Live at Five and Long Distance Life by Marita Golden as credits. "In movies you want to focus on one character, unlike in a novel where three or even four can be central to the story," Claytor says. "After reading the novel, it is up to the adaptor to choose the character that will now be the backbone of the story and make the story theirs." She has free license and feels it is a huge responsibility. "Someone has spent a great deal of time creating this book and I come along and refashion the story. In the book you just have the writer's point of view. I want to be careful with my interpretation." At the same time, she realizes that she is writing for a different medium and tries to approach Friends as a new piece, separate from the novel.
Casting, subject matter, and release dates have a lot to do with how well a movie does. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved did very well in book sales but was a box office disappointment. Leah Hunter feels Beloved makes one clear point about movies: sometimes it is the right climate and sometimes it is not; nothing is guaranteed. Stacy Spikes, former vice president of marketing for Miramax and October Films and founder and executive director of the Urbanworld Film Festival, agrees. He recalls going to see Beloved the first Friday it was released. Bride of Chucky opened that weekend and the theater lobby was packed with 18- to 25-year-olds going to see that film. He notes that Beloved was marketed well; however, the climate was not right for a movie that focused so intensely on human suffering.
Others complained that having a white director, Jonathan Demme, affected its translation. Hunter says Beloved was just a difficult story to tell and is not sure Demme can be blamed. The Color Purple was heralded as a great movie with Steven Spielberg at the helm.
Hunter notes there are techniques black directors may use that white directors may not. Forrest Whitaker used sepia tones in Waiting to Exhale, making beautiful stars even more beautiful. Claytor notes that it is very rare for a white person to understand the nuances of being black. Things are said between the lines that are culturally specific. "If a white person has not been privy to black culture or social circles," says Claytor, "it may be harder to pick up on those things."
Though studio executives have to be careful with difficult themes, Hunter says, there is an audience for all books written by or about black people -- from romances to nonfiction to science fiction. She mentions books by Octavia Butler, a black female science fiction writer, and says, "The incredible story lines she writes about are the types of stories that can keep the hunger for black material alive."
Not all adapted stories come from novels. This year a previous short story by J. California Cooper, "Funny Valentine," aired on BET/Starz!3 as a feature-length film and starred Alfre Woodard and Loretta Devine. Zora Neale Hurston's short story, "The Gilded Six Bits" was recently shot in Virginia as a 30-minute piece featuring Wendell Pierce (Waiting to Exhale) and T'keyah Keymah ("Cosby"). Booker T. Mattison, the adaptor and director, says he adapted this piece because "it is set in 1933 and atypically does not focus on racism and how the `white man' keeps black people down. Instead it explores the love between a man and his wife."
Large and small screen companies are realizing that adapting books is a great way to fulfill the need for diverse and interesting subject matter. My Soul to Keep, a love story set against the backdrop of a supernatural thriller written by Tananarive Due, has been optioned by the Samuel Goldwyn Co. Benilde Little's successful novel, Good Hair, was produced by Natalie Cole. Terry McMillan's Disappearing Acts is on Home Box Office's schedule with Wesley Snipes producing and starring in the lead role. Oprah is going to test the waters again with a film adaption of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston's acclaimed, classic novel. Ice Cube has optioned the rights to the Iceberg Slim novel, Pimp. Other books that look like they are on the fast track to the big screen are E. Lynn Harris' And This Too Shall Pass and The Man from Scottsboro: Clarence Norris and the Infamous 1931 Alabama Rape Trial, in His Own Words by Kwando Mbiassi Kinshasa. Additionally, Black Entertainment Television has purchased a whole line of black romance novels that are being aired on that station.
Mattison feels the success of this "trend" depends on audiences. "Once black audiences open their minds and continuously support varying black subject matter, Hollywood will see that there is money to be made from all types of black films."
Photo (Halle Berry)