Film Vs. Novel–Whose Story Is It Anyway?

In my ten days in New Zealand watching Sweet Georgia Gal, one of my first novels, being turned into a movie for German television, I answered a lot of questions.  I asked a lot, too, since that’s a hazard of my profession, plus I drew a lot of comparisons between New Zealand, Germany and the United States, which probably drove everybody nuts.  But that, too, is part of the “novelist thing.”  Understanding is the first requirement for writing.  The more we understand, the more we have to say.

Understanding seemed to be a given on both sides, and those involved in filming this movie and those to follow wanted to be certain we were on the same page–or frame.  The production company was most concerned that I might be unhappy about changes that were being made to my story.  Lots of changes, beginning with setting. 

You might ask how a novel set in rural Georgia came to be filmed in New Zealand.  This was never a serious question for me.  New Zealand has a spectacular, varied landscape and a flourishing film industry.  In fact if you look at the original cover–yesterday’s blog–you could mistake that background for New Zealand.  Except for my novels in which setting is almost a character itself (Iron Lace and Rising Tides, for instance) the “flavor” of almost any setting can be met on either the North or South Islands. Sweet Georgia Gal is not about Georgia. It’s about love and the way it sometimes surprises us. It’s a traditional romance with a marriage of convenience plot. 

But not anymore.  At least not on film.

We’ve all read marriage of convenience novels, even if we didn’t peg them that way.  The plotline isn’t limited to romances.  It can be a catalyst in literary novels, in mysteries, in fantasy and more.  In a marriage of convenience, a couple is “forced” into marriage by some outside event.  Then slowly, despite a boatload of problems, they fall in love.  Reasons for the marriage tend to revolve around inheritances, safety, deportation, or cultural expectations–like Janya and Rishi’s marriage in Happiness Key

The marriage of convenience in Sweet Georgia Gal is based on a child custody issue, also a popular device.  In this case, Ryan, the hero, has temporary custody of his nieces and nephews after their parents’ death, but he’s afraid he’ll lose them to a scheming relative unless he presents a more traditional lifestyle to the courts.  So Stacey, the children’s temporary nanny, agrees to marry him.  She has her reasons, of course, and not all of them are because he’s incredibly attractive and she’s incredibly innocent–which she is.

The film touches on this, but in a completely different way.  There IS no actual marriage of convenience in the film version.  This surprised me at first, since marriage of convenience plots are still popular and that seemed to be the point of the story.  But after reacquainting myself with the novel, I tried to imagine how to make what I had written work on the screen.  I couldn’t.

You’ve seen some of your favorite novels made into films, haven’t you, and wondered at the changes, even been angered by them?  Film and novels are different mediums.  In this case there’s a “fantasy” quotient in a traditional romance novel, an assurance that our readers will suspend disbelief and give us leeway to make our magic work for them.  Not so in film.  Stacey as I’d written her, was far too good to be true, too innocent to survive in the real world, too–sorry as I am to say so–lacking in backbone.  Stacey as portrayed in the film is stronger and more realistic.  The story is more realistic, too.

Will it keep the magic?  The actors–to the right in the above photo–are wonderfully attractive, perfect for their roles, and the air sizzles when they’re on camera together.  John, the director–on the left–is a creative taskmaster working hard to get the best out of everybody on set.  And the screenwriters worked hard to keep essential parts of the novel in place.  Could I ask for more?

Novelists learn very early that if they are lucky enough to have their books filmed, they should stand back quietly and watch. I learned my lesson well.  This is no longer MY story.  It’s OUR story, a lesson in collaboration.  It’s a lesson I’m enjoying immensely.

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