Call it destiny, call it coincidence, call it luck, call it “God working in mysterious ways.” In October 2005, I published an essay, “Heart of Darkness,” in The Sun magazine (one of my favorite magazines). The contributor’s note included my website, and a man in North Carolina did what every writer with a website dreams of: he liked my essay so much that looked up my website to find out more about my work and ended up getting a copy of A Year and a Day. Then he read it. The book resonated with him, so he emailed me: about the original essay and the novel.
It turns out this man, Jim Haverkamp, grew up in Iowa City, which is where I grew up. Not only that, he grew up about two blocks away from me and also went to Robert Lucas Elementary School, which was up the hill from where we lived. In fact, he remembered my younger sister. Even now, still in Iowa City, his father and step-mother attend a bridge group with my parents.
It also turns out that Jim is an independent filmmaker who decided that he would very much like to adapt my novel, A Year and a Day, into his first feature film.
Lawyers, agents, contracts, blah, blah, blah: the deal. I am thrilled and honored and humbled by this beautiful outcome of my essay appearing in The Sun.
Because I can’t even begin to imagine what it takes to put together a movie, or adapt a book to a screenplay, I asked Jim if he would write a short piece about his creative process. After reading it, I’m sure you’ll agree with me that my novel has found a good home. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so quick to discard the word “destiny”:
Movies, the 800-pound gorilla of pop culture, have mangled and mutilated many a fine novel. For every Housekeeping, it seems, there are fifty or more Bonfire of the Vanities. And it’s not the most horrid adaptations that hurt the most (spectacularly bad can still be spectacular, as those low budget Edgar Allan Poe flicks with Vincent Price can attest). It’s much more common to experience that crushing ache at seeing a sublime novel rendered completely pedestrian on screen—A Death in the Family or The English Patient spring to mind for me.
So it was with some trepidation, then, that I decided to try adapting a novel into a screenplay (and, hopefully one day, a film). Hippocrates is my writing coach, sternly whispering in my ear every time I sit down, “First, do no harm. Remember Cold Mountain.”
I don’t know how ideas present themselves to novel writers, but for me, a film always begins with an emotion that triggers pictures. Sometimes it’s caused by a piece of music, or a phrase, or seeing the light hit something a certain way. It might be something inconsequential. But that feeling and an image are enough to start building.
In the case of this novel, I started writing the screenplay—that is, seeing images—from the moment I started reading it. And that was definitely a rare occurrence. To be sure, I have been moved by novels many times, felt completely absorbed by them, had them change my life radically, but rarely have I been so enraptured by a novel that I made a movie the whole time as I read it. Obviously the feelings, ideas, and story of the book deeply resonated with me. So, after contacting the author out of the blue and some great good fortune, I’ve got a chance to try and drawn down that mental screenplay onto paper. How completely exciting, and how completely terrifying.
It puts you in an odd position, this type of writing, as it feels like trying to keep one eye on the novel, one eye on the screen, and one eye on the page in front of you. I’m trying to remain reverent but not dully slavish to the structure and events in the book, as obviously the film can’t be a literal translation. I’ve noticed that the few things I have added thus far are “character moments,” things that can be covered quite nicely with a few sentences in a novel, but are naggingly difficult to pull off elegantly on screen. The novel is in some sense about unspoken things, how people get in the habit of not talking about what really matters, and the toll that takes. This adds an extra layer of difficulty at the writing phase, because I have to constantly remind myself that these words I’m jotting down are meant to be spoken and acted by talented people, and that their true meaning, the hidden meaning, will be drawn out by the actors’ tone of voice, the flicker of emotion behind their eyes, the awkwardness between two flesh and blood human beings, in other words, the actual unspoken words between them.
Screenwriting books will tell you that screenplays are simply blueprints for films, things that will be changed by a thousand different factors once the circus tent of a movie shoot is erected and the resulting chaos ensues. That makes sense, and yet at this phase it all seems so delicate. I have to think about the house this blueprint is meant to build, including the cost of various additions and rooms and such, and yet I also have to keep that all out of my mind as well, and concentrate on trying to get something real, something akin to the original emotion I felt while reading the book, onto the page. It’s obviously there in the source material, but is there a way to make that same alchemy work in script form? Can I tell this story as a film simply and truthfully, and, more importantly, without easy sentimentality? This, as always, is the rub.
I can’t promise The Godfather, Hippocrates, but I’m going to try like hell not to pull A Scanner Darkly, either. ~~Jim Haverkamp
About Jim Haverkamp: Jim Haverkamp is an Iowa-born filmmaker and freelance editor who resides in Durham, NC. His credits include co-producing and co-editing the documentary feature Monster Road with Brett Ingram, which is currently showing on the Sundance Channel. He has also made several short narrative and documentary films that have screened at more than 100 film festivals around the world.
In addition to freelance work, he teaches a production class in the Continuing Studies Department of Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies. He has also served on the selection committee of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival for several years, is a board member of the Southern Documentary Fund, and is a former organizer of the Flicker Film Festival in Chapel Hill. He was awarded a Filmmaking Fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council in 2000.
Lately, he and his wife have been changing a lot of diapers and dreaming of three continuous hours of sleep.