Brenda Bell and David Paterson at the New York Public Library this past weekend.
When adapting a novel to the stage or screen, all writers will eventually be confronted with one question: How faithful will they remain to the original work? For New York playwright David Paterson, the pressure to stay true to the original piece may be a little more intense. After all, most of the major pieces he has adapted, including the 2007 film Bridge to Terabithia, began as well-known and beloved novels written by his Newbery Medalist mother, Katherine Paterson.
“Her publishers hate it because she gives me the license for a dollar,” he said with a smile.
Paterson appeared last Saturday at a panel presented by the Children’s Literary Café at the new Children’s Center at 42nd Street in New York City. Moderated by Elizabeth Bird, children’s librarian at the New York Public Library, the panel also included Brenda Bell, producing artistic director and founder of Literally Alive Children’s Theatre.
Bell had her own take on staying faithful to the classic children’s stories that she adapts into original musicals. She recounted the story of one of her first adaptations for Literally Alive—a musical version of The Ugly Duckling. With her script, she had remained true to the original story. She was confused, then, when the director of the show came to her and asked her for another scene between two of the characters. “He said he wanted more between them,” she said. “I looked at him and told him that there wasn’t any more. That was it, because in the book, that really was it.” Determined, she delved deeper into the relationship between the two characters on her own, and eventually created an entirely new scene, which evolved into its own musical number. “It was a lesson,” she said. “I realized I didn’t always need to be so faithful.”
Paterson, who says he really has no desire to add to or take away from his mother’s stories, does believe, however, that a stage or screen adaptation can never be truly identical to the original book, since the writer is working in a completely different medium. He describes playwriting as “the cheating version of writing,” explaining that when writing a play, “if someone walks into a room, you can just say, ‘he walked into a room’ and you don’t really need to describe anything.”
However, this can also work against a writer, he believes—one of the biggest challenges in adapting a novel to the stage, he said, is the question of how to convey a character’s inner emotions and thoughts to the audience, which in a book, can simply be written out.
One of his solutions has been to use music. “A lot of songs in a musical are really inner monologues,” he said. And while often an audience won’t stand for a spoken monologue, “for some reason, when it’s a song,” he said, “they buy it.”
Bell also uses music heavily in her stage adaptations, and has experimented with different styles, including a recent production which used percussion as accompaniment. She says that while watching shows with young audiences over the years, she has learned to sense when they are losing interest, and has noticed that they often pay more attention when the music starts. Emphasizing the importance of songs in her shows, she says that now, “I can’t imagine doing a play without music.”
In addition to the process a writer goes through when adapting a piece of literature, another issue that was raised by audience members was how one goes about choosing a piece to adapt in the first place. Balancing worthwhile projects and happy investors is a difficult one, Bell believes. When picking stories to adapt, she says, “I have to love it, or else I don’t think I can do it.” However, she continued, “if a parent has to ask what the story is about, it’s not going to sell.”
Paterson says he doesn’t struggle so much with which stories to adapt as much as how to get those stories before an audience. Children’s literature, he feels, has “a stink to it” in the business world, and in New York, the competition for having a show produced is especially fierce. He likened it to being 5’8” and wanting to be a professional football player. “It’s possible,” he says, “but it’s pretty unlikely.”
When looking for venues for a production, he suggests going to smaller towns, especially one’s hometown, and remembering that there are 49 other states out there. “It’s great to be in New York,” he says, “but it doesn’t have to be New York.”