With the final Harry Potter nearing theaters and her own Avalon High premiering on Disney, we’ve been thinking about what happens when young adult books become movies and, of course, we thought of Meg Cabot, who wrote The Princess Diaries and so much more. We were thrilled to have a chance to sit down with her for an exclusive chat. Her new books this year include Insatiable, a modern twist on the vampire tradition, Runaway (part of the Airhead series, about a bionic teen supermodel on the run), and two new additions to Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls.
By Meg Cabot, as told to Figment
Almost all of my books have been optioned for film, but only two of them have actually been made into movies—The Princess Diaries and Avalon High. They made a sequel to The Princess Diaries, but it wasn’t based on any of my books. There was also a television series on the Lifetime Channel called Missing based on my book series, 1-800-Where-R-You? (the book series has since been re-released under the title Vanished).
An option is when someone, usually a producer, pays a writer for the option to develop her book into a movie or TV series for a limited period of time. What the producer is paying for is the exclusive right to make the film in the future, even though the producer doesn’t necessarily have a studio deal in place. So when the writer agrees to an option with a producer, she usually doesn’t know—or have any control of—whether her book is going to end up as a feature film, a TV series, whatever. Nine times out of ten, her book is probably going to end up right back where it started—her lap, because options generally go nowhere. But every once in a while, magic happens. So options are good things.
I’m a novelist. My job is to write books, and of course to try to reach as many people as possible, because there’s a little message inside each of my stories about how it’s okay to be yourself (because when I was growing up I felt like a bit of a loner freak). I feel like I’m on my way to accomplishing that goal, and it’s partly because of how many people loved The Princess Diaries movie. I know this because so many people wrote to tell me how they rushed out to buy the book (and how, for many of them, it was the first book they ever read, and how ever since they read it, they can’t stop reading). So I’ve realized how, while writing books and getting them published is great, when books get made into movies, you can reach even more people, who might otherwise never even have heard of your books, or possibly never read a book at all. That’s powerful stuff.
As writers, we’ve all had to make the hard decision about which we want more: tons of people who might otherwise never have heard of our book suddenly getting a peek at our beloved story—even if it’s not necessarily a 100% faithful peek—or much fewer people ever hearing of it.
I’ve come to understand that it’s virtually impossible to take 300-plus pages of novel and cram them into a 90-page screenplay and not have changes made to the story. People who talk about how writers can have clauses put into their contract about how “certain things can’t be changed to the film adaptation of their book” need to understand how truly difficult that is to accomplish. I know, because I wrote a film once. It was called Ice Princess, and it starred Michelle Trachtenberg and Kim Cattrall. Very little of the original screenplay I wrote actually ended up in the film. When you write a book, it’s just you (and possibly your editor) making the decisions, whereas in the movie business, so many people have a voice in the process—the producers, the director, the studio. I realized after that experience how many people are involved in making a movie, and why so many times the story that ends up on screen can be so very different than the source material.
And that’s not even mentioning that with a screenplay, you’re writing a story told entirely in dialogue. A scene as simple as a character thinking something in her head is extremely difficult to “show” to a film audience. How do you have an actor “show” what he or she is thinking? Yes, you can fall back on the old voiceover narration trick, or make the character be writing a letter or email to someone, but that’s kind of cliché. It’s better to show what a character is thinking simply by having him or her speak out loud to someone else on screen, or perform an action.
But then this necessitates making up scenes or conversations (or even characters) that possibly didn’t exist in the source material (if you’re basing your screenplay on someone else’s work). As a viewer, I’d rather watch a scene that moves the story along than sit through something boring that remains doggedly faithful to the source material. But I understand this might seem sacrilegious to readers who don’t want to see the source material changed.
This is why writers rarely, if ever, get sent scripts before the films of their books come out. Because when writers read screen adaptations of their own books, they freak out. I find it really hard to read a screenplay based on my own book. It’s never quite your book, but it sort of is . . . it’s so weird! When writers actually SEE the film, however, it’s different, because hearing actors read the lines isn’t as bad—it’s just a different medium. It depends, I guess. The script I just read of my book, The Mediator, is really great.
My favorite literary adaptation would probably have to be the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth. It’s eight hours long, and they took many liberties with the subject matter (in no part of the book did Jane Austen mention Mr. Darcy taking off his jacket, diving into a pond, and then walking around his estate soaking wet and running into Elizabeth Bennet) and it’s very fun. Also, the scene where Elizabeth sees Mr. Darcy’s floating head outside the carriage (in her imagination) telling her that he ardently admires her still makes me laugh. But I love it and I wish I had written both the book AND the screenplay.
Meg Cabot is not writing a screenplay right now. To see what she is up to, visit MegCabot.com.