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Selznick and the Maxims of Adaptation



Julia is a Managing Editor at The Fandomentals with far too many hobbies and complex emotions. She may or may not be an actual Martell.

We talk about adaptations a lot here at The Fandomentals—mostly horrible failures of adaptation. One in particular….

And though that can be a fun ol’ timeit’s probably worth the time to look at successful adaptations and ask ourselves what made them “good”, both as adaptations and as works in their own right.

It’s fair to say that the gold standard for book-to-film adaptation, even almost 80 years later, is Gone with the Wind, the novel by Margaret Mitchell that was turned into a film starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, and produced by David O. Selznick.

Selznick was undoubtedly the driving creative force behind the production. He already had two successful adaptations under his belt, David Copperfield in 1935 and A Tale of Two Cities in 1936, so by the time he got to Gone with the Wind, he could claim to know what he was talking about.

Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for posterity, Selznick was also an amphetamine addict who was rather famous for dictating long, sometimes rambling memos while high as a kite. These memos were later compiled into a single volume.* One memo was written quite early in the processes of producing the film and was addressed to the screenwriter, Sidney Howard. In it, Selznick discusses various concerns and gives advice, mostly based on his experience with his previous films.

Selznick never intended this letter to be some kind of list of maxims for those attempting adaptations, but I would argue that all adaptors could learn something from him.

Seven basic points or principles emerge.

1. “It’s much better to chop out whole sequences than it is to make small deletions in individual scenes and sequences.”

This is the point that is often paraphrased as “it’s better to cut something than to change it.”

Often, films are working with source material that doesn’t have nearly the same restrictions on length or scope that they do. People will read doorstoppers, but they seldom are willing to sit through a movie that’s more than a few hours long. Novels have side characters, subplots, digressions, prologues, and other things that can make a direct text-to-screen translations quite messy.

Selznick’s advice is to not feel obligated to put in everything, because this would probably just result in sub-par and rushed material. That side character might be funny or moving, but if you don’t have time, just cut him. Don’t reduce him to a cameo that makes not sense. Focus on the core stories and characters.

2. “I feel too, that we should not attempt to correct seeming faults of construction. I have learned to avoid trying to improve success.”

It’s just one of those things that works with, um, significant problems, from a literary point of view,  become popular enough to merit an adaptation. For a decent writer adapting an “inferior” work, the temptation will always be to try to fix it. But should you?

Well, Mr. Selznick was of the opinion that you should not. His argument is that what makes a work, or sequence, or scene successful is often rather ineffable, and changing things, even to make it “better”, may cause a successful scene to fail.

He also mentions the hubris inherent in thinking that you’re so awesome that you can “fix” things in the first place. *cough*

3. “I don’t think there is much harm in rearranging sequences so long as the sequences are as the readers remember them and so long as cuts in these sequences are made so carefully that the losses are not discernible.”

Selznick mentioned this in the context of important character and world-building scenes. Things don’t necessarily have to be presented in the same order. Unless, of course, the order matters. These changes might be necessary because of the change of medium. Written fiction can often use devices like flashback and internal monologue that are less successful on film. The place of this scene in the timeline is less important than the information it provides.

However, this must be done in such as way so as to be not out of place. It has to make sense in the context of the adapted work.

4. “We will be forgiven for cuts if we do not invent sequences.” [though they may be necessary]

When you adapt things, material will be cut. We all know this, even if we don’t like it. One of the inevitable consequences of this is that you may end up with cut material that still contains essential elements. And one way to deal with that is to have an invented scene. Or you may have to invent a scene to portray information from interior monologue.

However, Selznick cautions against both cutting out large bits of material AND inventing sequences that do not directly serve though two functions. This comes very close to the “I can fix it” mentality of #2. An adaptation is in a very real sense, someone else’s story.

5. “I urge against any change in Rhett’s character that might be indicated by the suggested apology. I think his boorishness and bad manners, if that’s what they are, are as much a part of Rhett’s character as his charm, and I don’t think we should attempt to white-wash him in the least.”

We all want to like the characters we’re watching, especially when they’re not actually villains. And characters are often liked despite their flaws and problematic aspects. When you adapt a character you personally like who’s less than perfect, the temptation is always to make her more perfect. So the audience can like her as much as you do.

This is almost always a very bad idea. Selznick said himself that a character’s bad qualities are as important as their good ones. And characters like that are what make a work challenging. White-washing her risks making the character, and the work, pretty boring.

6. Cut out or minimize material that includes inescapable, problematic implications in the minds of the contemporary audience.

Selznick speaks at some length about his strong belief that no explicit mention should be made of the Ku Klux Klan in Gone with the Wind, because the audience would see this as racist and antisemitic.

This may seem like a strange comment for him to make after the previous one about white-washing, but this is more about the audience than the actual story or characters. Extreme caution should be taken especially, when there’s a risk demonizing or exploiting a marginalized group. This is a matter of judgement, obviously, but it’s always a matter that requires careful thought.

I personally feel quite strongly that we should cut out the Klan entirely. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to clarify for audiences the differences between the old Klan and the Klan of our times […] Furthermore, there is nothing in the story that necessarily needs the Klan. The revenge for the attempted attack can very easily be identical with what it is without their being members of the Klan. A group of men can go out to “get” the perpetrators of an attempted rape without having long white sheets over them and without having their membership in a society as a motive. […] I, for one, have no desire to produce any anti-Negro[sic] film either. […]

I do hope that you will agree with me on this omission of what might come out as an unintentional advertisement for intolerant societies in these fascist-ridden times.

7. “Throughout the picture our greatest problem is going to be to get the background in unobtrusively while we concentrate on the personal story.”

Selznick’s focus was always on adaptation the characters and their stories, rather than the plot or the setting. The hierarchy is characters >> themes >> plot. Obviously, plot and world building are important, but characters and themes are what the story is about. Making an adaptation into a discrete set of plot points is always tempting, and most likely far easier than studiously maintaining character and motivation in the face of cuts and alterations, but anything less can be a grave disservice to the source material.

At worst, you end up with two stories that bear only superficial resemblance to each other. *cough*

Obviously, “rules are made to be broken” and I can think of very good adaptations that violate each of these rules. (Though probably not all of them all together…) But there’s another saying, “if you want to play jazz, you need to have the chops.” If you’re going to break these rules, you damn well better know what you’re doing.

If I had to articulate a “golden rule” of adaptation, it would be something George R.R. Martin said, “you should never make extraneous changes just because you think you know better than the original writer.” When you adapt a successful work, you’re standing on the shoulder of a giant, maybe you shouldn’t hamstring him.

(*)From: a letter to Sidney Howard, January 6, 1937, pg. 144. Memo from David O. Selznick: The Creation of “Gone with the Wind” and Other Motion Picture Classics, as Revealed.

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