In an occasional series, Screenings will look at a specific aspect of filmmaking as it relates to publishing, and this week talks to screenwriter Helena Kriel about adapting Ahab's Wife.
Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeta Naslund was already a bestseller for Morrow/Perennial when Front Street Productions producer Jonas Goodman brought it to Helena Kriel to adapt. Kriel was a veteran of adaptations, having written screenplays based on The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford, Athol Fugard's novel Tsotsi, his play Valley Song and The Kama Sutra, among others. Goodman had been shown the manuscript by Paul Bresnick, then Naslund's editor at Morrow, and optioned it from agents Joy Harris and Sylvie Rabineau. Front Street then made a deal with Dan Halstead's Camelot Pictures to finance and develop the script.
Kriel first read the book to "evaluate whether there was a compatibility in storytelling style and whether I would be a match for the material." She had a challenging task in adapting this book, as it is more than 700 pages long, and had to be condensed into a 120-page screenplay. "Ahab's Wife provided me with an enormous amount of material. The challenge was to choose the correct narrative line and stick with it. There were decisions to be made about the structure of the screenplay, as the book is not linear. Out of the richness of the book, the main challenge was to make the correct choices.
"This book had already caught the public's imagination and become a bestseller, so my approach was to examine just what it was communicating. I also wanted to bring my own interests to it, but not to hijack it. I felt the main theme of the book is an exploration of what constitutes home and what constitutes freedom, and how to balance them. Another theme is how people ransom their personal lives in the pursuit of fame and money. The third thread explores the notion of the tyranny of religion versus the freedom of a more mystical approach to life."
Once an author sells film rights it is rare that they get a chance to consult on the adaptation. It is even more rare that the author is pleased with the result. Kriel said, "I read the book four times before I met with the author, and I formed a clear impression about my take on it, and how I was going to approach the issue of male/female politics. I drove to the meeting thinking that I had a strong point of view, and how difficult it would be if she didn't like my ideas. What happened was that we were so in alignment that the more we spoke the more excited we became. At the end of the meeting she said how pleased and relieved she was. I left feeling both that my instincts were right, but also that I now had the additional responsibility of having connected with her and wanting to serve her vision."
"After this, I sent her a breakdown of the script for her comments. I included as many of her notes as I could, but there were some I could not use. There is a narrative in the book that she loves, that the producers love, and which readers also respond to, but there was no room for it in the screenplay. I was very concerned that she was going to be upset, but she responded by saying that I had honored her book at the same time as taking it into a new medium.
"When I started writing, I sat down not only with the weight of the book on me, but also with the awareness that I was venturing into the much-loved territory of Moby Dick and whaling, which is so embedded in the American consciousness. I reread Melville and also did extensive research into the period, such as reading captains' logs and first-hand accounts by wives who went to sea. I was handed the huge literary character of Ahab, but I had freedom in that in Jaslund's novel, he is not yet Melville's character, and I could reinvent him as a young man. As I was researching the story, it struck me how very pertinent it is today in that oil is still a major factor determining our history and our choices. The conquering of the whales also represented a sort of imperialism, as well as a choice that men make of setting money, fame and power over a personal life, all of which is just as relevant today as it was 150 years ago."
Kriel said Naslund "offered me so much material that it was exciting, exhilarating and terrifying. I just hoped that my instinct served me and that I made the correct choices. I was so aware of that there was money on what I was doing and if it worked, the project would go to the next step, and if not, it would be in jeopardy."
Happily, the producers, as well as the author, are delighted with the adaptation and are now submitting it to directors before going to studios. It's still a long road before Ahab's Wife is in the movie theaters, but the first hurdle has been cleared.