Monday, April 16, 2007

The Screenplay of the Case of Charles Dexter Ward

This might be a bit of a cheat. I'm going to publish, this week, an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's novella “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”. And as an intro to this I'm going to write something I wrote three years ago when I was adapting the novella.

In tone, this is completely different from Ruthless and Defiled. Instead of a cyberpunkish neo-noir science-fiction, we've got a modern dark horror adapted from another form. It also represents an earlier writing style for me. Ruthless and Defiled was, consciously, fairly stylized. Before that, I was doing a “get back to the basics” program of working on essential story elements, like dialog, characterization, things of that nature. This dates to that period.

The screenplay has a lot of pages, but in terms of actual length, it's around 20,000 words – which is just five thousand more than Ruthless and Defiled. When you download it, don't be daunted that it's 120 pages long. The formatting of screenplays is designed so the movie based on that screenplay is about a minute a page. The whole thing can probably be read in far less than two hours.

Here's the introduction I'd worked up, back then, for the screenplay. Nowadays, it seems hopelessly pretentious:

I've been an admirer of H. P. Lovecraft's since I was a teenager. I had just discovered horror stories and Lovecraft's were the best, though I didn't have a good understanding at the time of why. Reading the occasional essay or foreword by an established writer didn't seem to clear anything up, either. They went on about the “fears of the unknown and unknowable” but that answer never seemed to really fit with me. Sure, we're all afraid of the dark for a while, but most of us get over it. Some of us, including many of the people closest to me, are dedicating their lives to the study of the unknown – including the very depths of space from which much of Lovecraft's horror comes.

After a several years of thought on the subject, I narrowed it down to my own personal belief of how a writer invokes horror in the audience – through a feeling of helplessness and a feeling of hopelessness. We become horrified when we realize there is no chance and no hope. Many horror writers, however, don't seem to follow through – their heroes end up defeating the menace. This is the reason why many horror stories fall flat at the end after a rousing good scare the first half of the story. When the audience becomes aware that the heroes will win there's nothing to be frightened of, really, no matter how vile or disgusting the horror is. Furthermore, most horror writers never differentiate between the helplessness and hopelessness. They conflate them and as the audience becomes aware the heroes are helpless, there is also no feeling of hopelessness.

Lovecraft's genius was an intuitive understanding that a person can disjoin helplessness from hopelessness. Other horror writers have a sense of this – which is why at the end of virtually every horror movie ever made there's a hint that the horror is not gone, to try to pathetically dredge up a last scrap of hopelessness from the audience before finally fading to black – but none the same way Lovecraft did. So while in his stories the horrors are usually defeated or driven back, what remains is a feeling of hopelessness amongst the characters. The Great Ones were, the Great Ones are, the Great ones will be – and some day they'll awaken from their aeons of slumber and throw off humanity with a shake of their great bodies, the same way a dog shakes off water. Everything we are and everything we will be is, ultimately, irrelevant, much in the same way that an ant colony is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. So, while the heroes win against their horrors, they are forever changed; they are fundamentally robbed of hope.

And that's damn scary.

Thinking about this has had a tremendous influence on my writing over the years. I feel a tremendous obligation to Lovecraft for all the inspiration he's given me. But what to do?

For a while I'd wanted to try writing a screenplay. I'd written one, before, as a sort of test, and I liked it. It was corny and pretty bad, but the length of a screenplay pleased me pretty well. I've found the short story format to be constraining and I rarely have enough to say to fit into a novel that isn't padded more than my posterior – but screenplays are about the right length for me. I enjoyed writing the first one and decided to give it another shot. I was also interested in doing an adaptation of something. I've long wondered why so many adaptations were so, well, bad. One would think a great book or story would provide more than enough material for a screenplay. I suspected there was something going on and I was curious to see what. I toyed with various books for a while – such as The Count of Monte Cristo, which is one of my favorite books and I had several ideas of how to do it in a unique way – but the sheer length of the adaptation process put me off. Turning 1,000 pages of Monte Cristo into a 20,000 words of screenplay seemed a little much.

Then I thought about Lovecraft. I'd never seen a movie based on Lovecraft that I thought was really top notch. So I decided to give it a try, eventually deciding on “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” because, to my knowledge, it'd never been done before. (After I was done, I did learn that there was a movie based off of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”. Such are the vicissitudes of fate. Still, I'm egotistical enough to think my screenplay is better and, besides, Lovecraft is in the public domain.) And I like the story.

I quickly learned why I had been so dissatisfied with so many Lovecraft adaptations. Lovecraft is essentially free of dialog! Movies are strongly dependent on characters speaking to each other, so this presented a barrier. A movie that was “faithful” to the story would be more like a documentary than a horror movie. While it would have been an interesting experience to try to write a good screenplay in that fashion, I decided not to go down that road and spent a fair bit of time putting words into characters' mouths. Fortunately much of the material in “Charles Dexter Ward” can fairly easily be conveyed through dialog – the characters talk to each other a fair bit, it's just that Lovecraft often doesn't quote them directly. The other thing I found out, about halfway through, is that if you were perfectly faithful to the story the movie would be something like three and a half hours long. I decided I'd need to prune a bit.

As exercises go, it was a complete success. I know feel I understand why screenwriters and directors make many of the decisions they make in adaptations. The method that books present information is much different than the way movies do. Something that requires two pages of description in a book can be covered in seconds in a movie, and some complex ideas are simply impossible to convey on screen in without becoming hopelessly pedantic. Plus, considering I had to trim away some material when adapting an 80 page story, I can only imagine the challenges that a screenwriter faces when trying to adapt a 400 page book. They eliminate broad sections of material that is often, quite arbitrarily, deemed irrelevant; they merge characters together, they change events from the story in a way so it conveys the meaning of the story better than a slavish following of the text ever could. In many ways, it was far harder to adapt “Charles Dexter Ward” than to write my own screenplay; finishing it was a trial because I had to keep going back to trim here and there, to re-write in a way I've never had to do when creating an original work.

But is it a good screenplay? I think so. While it is rough in some ways – I'm still not totally comfortable with the jargon used in screenplays and I'm sure I've made errors – I think that it is faithful and, if made into a movie, would scare the socks off of you.

It is, however, primarily my tribute to Howard Philip Lovecraft, who has been a tremendous inspiration on my life.



L>T said...

I'm ging to try to read your screen play. I generally like to read plays. Although I don't get into the horror thing.(unless Poe can be included) So of course I have no idea who H. P. Lovecraft is.

I did like your take on what makes for good horror fiction writing. It makes perfect sense.

April 17, 2007 8:11 AM  
Chris Bradley said...

I hope you like it. And, please, if you don't like it, don't be particularly scared to say so. I figure you'd do it with respect regardless of what you feel, which is all I could reasonably ask. :)

April 18, 2007 10:39 AM  
L>T said...

I'm back, finally.
The whole thing can probably be read in far less than two hours.
hmmm, well how about a week? :)

problem #1: (my problem not yours)i found out reading a screen play is not like reading a stage play or a story of fiction. A stage play is easier to set up in the mind. A stage play is like building something 2 dimensional as apposed to how a screen play could called 3 dimensional. & a book of course sets it's own self up in a way.
I was getting logged down in it, then early one morning I turned on the TV & started watching an old
B&W movie called "Rapture" starring Dean Stockwell. Very stark & minimal. then it hit me!
My problem was I was not simplifying It anough. So I
started to visualize your screen play in that same black & white minimal way then it started to move for me. :)
Problem #2:(mine again) since I've been "reading" all my books Audiolly(?) lately, I'm afraid I'm finding it hard to acually read a book or a story longer then a couple of pages. I really had to struggle to sit still. Not a good trend!

Now to your part in it. :)

I thought it was well written. Not cheesey at all. You really are a writer, not a blogger pretending to be a writer!
I thought you kept it nice & spare. there wasn't anything in it that wasn't relevent to the story.
The only character I had a problem with was Hannah. She was a relatively small character in importance & you made her too bright(?) or maybe I should just say I got hung up for a minute on the character. This is my uneducated opinion of course & I have no qualifications for criticizing screen plays(or any plays)I don't even know if it makes sense to you. I'm thinking... when writting a play, minor characters might become a problem, like how to put them in their proper Prespective. ?
All in all it was A great story & I enjoyed the experience.
If you want to ask me anything else about it go ahead.

April 28, 2007 8:37 AM  
L>T said...

don't be particularly scared Ha!Ha! I just noticed that wording.

April 28, 2007 8:38 AM  

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