Adapting Screenplays: Blade Runner

As part of English 408A, Media Writing at the University of Waterloo, I have been doing some extra reading regarding screenwriting. While movies are clearly a visual art, where they excel is clearly in the narrative performance. Due to the compressed length, a screenplay is far shorter, and thus the narrative must be compressed. This is one of the reason why many movie adaptations are so very different from the original novel. Complex subplots which stray from the main plot are cut loose, perhaps replaced with shorter subplots which provide a quicker payback.

I’ve occasionally wondered exactly why it is that the short stories of Philip K. Dick are so frequently adapted by Hollywood. Blade Runner, starring Harrison Ford is a prime example, and is also a film classic. There are a number of themes from the novel which were dropped from the film. The most obvious of which is Mercerism, and the empathy boxes. The shared artificial reality, designed to allow users to share pain in a spiritual manner, can be read as a critique of our modern media culture. There’s also an interesting parallel to the video screens in Fahrenheit 451. Dick was critical of modern media, in a way that wouldn’t necessarily carry over into a commercial film.

Sadly, this and several other themes are left out of the film. In the case of Blade Runner, I think these changes were justified. Film emphasizes the visual, and while I believe that Philip K. Dick was an exceptionally visual writer, many of the themes in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep just wouldn’t translate well into film. Where in a novel, the author can show the thoughts of the protagonist, where in film, this can only be achieved artificially, such as through a narrative voice over.

By trimming down these themes, Ridley Scott was able to emphasize those that remained, and to emphasize the new form of visuals. The world of Blade Runner is very different from that of the original novel. Where Dick’s world was a post-nuclear wasteland, depopulated through emigration, the world shown in the film is a dark, densely populated melting pot of American and asian cultures. This visual style later came to embody the cyberpunk aesthetics.

It’s interesting to consider some of the other adaptations of Dick’s work, especially those from short stories. Where in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? themes were removed from the screenplay, when adapting his short stories, the stories are fleshed out. Not every adaptation remains true to even the core plot of Dick’s original story. Often, the main elements which remain include the name, those of the major characters, and the key plot point of the story. Others, like the Minority Report, follow the path of Blade Runner, weaving together many of the strands of the original narrative, keeping “mostly true” to the original tale, which in some ways, becomes a minority report of its own.

Formulas For Writing

I’m really enjoying my Media Writing course this term at the University of Waterloo. Every week, we have a different writing assignment, and so far, they’ve been quite varied.

Week one was an obituary. Morbid perhaps, but as the format is extremely well defined, it was a good introduction to writing for the media. We have since written newspaper feature articles, magazine feature articles, broadcast journalism, and the current assignment is writing some public relations material.

Part of the challenge in this course is applying writing skills to a particular format. Each week’s assignment tends to take a different approach. It’s a combination of changing audience, and purpose. The expectations of the different formats require a much more comprehensive approach to writing. It’s far different from creative or essay based writing which I’m familiar with. Its also really quite enjoyable. While I don’t see myself joining the dead beat (obituary writing), all of the other formats I’ve been writing in have opened new possibilities for writing, which I’ve never seriously considered before now.

While at the Ad Astra science fiction conference in past years, I’ve often attended the various sessions on writing groups, and breaking in to the fiction market. Many of the writers on these panels have advocated freelance writing of one sort or another. It’s something to keep the mind focused on writing, and keeps the skills finely honed.

Which is all well and good, if I wasn’t swimming in essays at the moment. The only non-coursework writing I’ve been able to manage the past few weeks has been my daily blog posts. I’m not quite ready to give up on them yet.

Creative Writing Retrospective

My thoughts on English 335, Creative Writing I at the University of Waterloo.

Last term, I was enrolled in English 335 at the University of Waterloo. This course was a workshop based course on creative writing. This course had a great deal of potential, but only partially lived up to my expectations.

The course is composed of three main areas of creative writing: poetry, short fiction, and drama (called “collaborative performance” in the syllabus). While I was most interested in the short fiction component, I also greatly enjoyed the poetry unit. For each of the first two units, two new poems or short stories were written and workshopped. One of each was then chosen to be thoroughly revised, and justification provided for the revisions. The collaborative performance was written and edited in groups, and was presented in class on the last day.

Possibly the best part about the course was the license to write. I not only wanted to write, but I was compelled to do so. The poetry unit helped me to think more deeply about the fundamentals of language, while the fiction unit allowed me to concentrate on narrative.

In contrast, the drama unit provided me with little value. The collaborative work was interesting, but there was little focus placed on revision after the presentation. This unit also took considerable time which I would have rather spent writing more poetry or fiction. The performance aspect of the work was also uncomfortable. My group read our script, rather than memorizing it. I did not have the time to spend memorizing a script. This is a creative writing course, not a drama course. Maybe this part of the course was more meaningful to others in the class, but I felt it detracted from my experience.

There was very little academic content in the course, which is expected for a creative writing course. It is listed as a workshop course, not a lecture. There are other courses which focus on the short story, and others which focus on poetry from the academically critical perspective. This course focused on creating and revising effective writing.

The workshop portion of the course was valuable, but also frustrating at times. The class size was excessive. There were over twenty people enrolled in this section of the course. When workshopping as an entire class, critiques of everyone’s work meant taking two nights to cover everyone. For the second piece in the poetry and fiction units, we broke into smaller, more focused groups, reading five pieces instead of twenty. In general however, there was not enough time to effectively critique the writing. If the class was smaller, more time could be spent on each individual piece, or each student could write another piece.

In general, I found the critique process to be poorly defined. The majority of the time was spent discussing what people liked, and what people didn’t. A particular phrase was often pointed out as being cool. It was more rare to hear a critique which focused on elements such as pacing or plot construction. The instructor frequently brought up the need to focus on characterization. This is a fault I was guilty of, in at least one of my stories, which I later gutted and rewrote from scratch.

Another frustration was having my work reviewed last in both the poetry and fiction sections. I realize that someone always has to be last, but it’s no more fun in creative writing than it is in high school gym class.

The pacing of the course seemed excessively slow. Over twelve weeks, we wrote two poems, of which one was revised, and wrote two pieces of flash fiction, of which one was revised. Added to this was the writing, editing and performance of a collaborative drama. Five pieces of original writing, and two revisions. I was expecting more writing in the course, and ultimately found the level of workshop discussion unsatisfying, primarily due to the lack of time for individual reviews.

I think this course would benefit from a bit more structure in the critique process. What sort of things should be looked at during a critique, for example. A simple list of some of the basic elements of fiction, such as plot, characterization and effective dialogue would have improved some of the reviews. By the middle of the term, I was getting rather tired of hearing the phrase “I really enjoyed this story” prefacing a simplistic review.

The instructor also has a bias against genre fiction, although it was allowed in the course. This can be understandable, as it is much more difficult to assess work in a genre in which one has little experience. From my perspective, it’s much easier to write in the genre in which I read. Without knowing the conventions of a particular genre, it can be difficult to determine if a certain phrase or concept is typical of the genre. The instructor primarily reads literary fiction, I believe.

I’m not sure if I will enroll in the advanced creative writing course. I think I need to spend some more time to absorb the experience of the first course, before I come to a decision.