The Fear and Joy of Watching Your Book Get Made Into a Movie

My philosophy on book to movie adaptations has always been pretty simple: the bigger the change, the better.

I figure I’ve already read the book, right? I don’t need to see the exact same thing, slavishly reproduced in another medium—I want to see a new artist’s take on it, with new ideas and a new personality. To see what happens to, for example, the Harry Potter universe when Alfonso Cuarón gets his hands on it. I love it. And now I have to put my money where my mouth is, because I’m sitting on set while a film crew is adapting my book I Am Not a Serial Killer. I’m learning that ideals are a lot easier to stand up for when it’s somebody else’s baby being adapted.

The story of this film starts around six years ago, when the book was first out and I got an email from Billy O’Brien, a director who wanted to make a movie of it. He was an indie director, without a huge studio backing him up, and I harbored not-so secret fantasies of a mega blockbuster, but his letter was just so good—I could tell that not only did he love the story as much as I did, he loved it for the same reasons. We signed the contract and started the long, arduous Phase 2 of any indie production: raising the money. Phase 2 took five years. Finally in January of 2014 an investor stepped in, and we went into high gear on the technical side, putting together a cast and designing the monster effects, and so on. Billy and his team were not obligated to include me in any of this—I have no contractually obligated creative control over the movie—but we’d become pretty good friends, and we had long talks about who the characters were and how the monster worked, and how it all fit together.

By this time I’d read several drafts of the script, and given my notes, and had my first big awakening to the process of adaptation: they changed a lot of the story. I was fine with all the obvious changes—scenes that had to be shortened or cut for time, settings that had to be moved for filming reasons, and so on—but what about that big scene that was added? WHY DID THEY ADD A NEW SCENE I DIDN’T WRITE THAT WHAT’S GOING ON HERE? I wrote Billy a giant, six-page letter about why that scene was wrong, and why it wouldn’t work, and why did he have to go adding scenes to my brilliant work of art, and he responded with a simple: “I like it, we’ll make it work.” I took a deep breath and let go—if I really trusted him with my book, I needed to trust his artistic decisions as well as his technical ones. I took another look at the scene, and you know what? It’s a pretty good scene. Maybe this guy knows what he’s doing after all.

We started rolling film recently, on February 28, and I was finally able to talk about the incredible cast, and then on Monday, March 2, I actually arrived on set and got to meet them. John Cleaver, the teenage sociopath main character, is being played by Max Records—who I, I’m proud to say, suggested to Billy in the first place. John’s mom is Laura Fraser, most recently of Breaking Bad fame; the kindly neighbors (who may or may not turn out to include a shapeshifting monster—SPOILER WARNING) are Dee Noah and Christopher Lloyd. Watching them breathe life into the characters I created is absolutely magical. Lloyd in particular has been a delight to work with: he’s snarky off camera, he’s brilliant on camera, and he brings a sense of personality and charm to Mr. Crowley that I never imagined was in there. These actors know their characters on a deep, deep level, and it’s both terrifying and thrilling to realize that the characters aren’t just mine anymore.

One of my favorite questions to ask fans of the series is “what kind of music do you think John Cleaver listens to?” I have my own answer, of course, but it’s never made explicit in the books, and it’s fun to see how close people get to the mark. I asked the same question of Max Records, and was delighted to realize that he’s thought about this a LOT, but as he rattled off several different ideas, my delight turned to horror. He was wrong! That’s not what my John listened to at all! But again, as with the script, I had to put away my own ideas and see this for what it was: another artist bringing his own spin to the character. I imagined a character who listened to classic rock, not because he enjoyed it but because his father listened to it, and he used that similarity as an artificial connection to his family. Max created a character who listened to local grungy rock bands, using them as a wall of sound to help block out the world and maintain his isolation. They were two completely different ideas, both equally valid and interesting. This whole experience on set has been like that—one opportunity after another to watch incredible artists—the actors and the wardrobe and the art designers and even the camera operator—bring their own ideas and creativity to the project.

This movie won’t be exactly what I wrote, it will be so much more.

This article was originally published in March 2015.
The film version of I Am Not a Serial Killer was released in 2016.

Dan Wells is the author of the John Wayne Cleaver trilogy.

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