Write Byte

Romance & the Movies

We deviate a little from the general format of these topics for discussion this time. Our own Laurie Likes Books was in contact with author Laura Hayden (aka Laura Kenner), who has been involved with Romance Classics (a new cable network owned by cable network American Movie Classics (AMC) ) and AMC. They discussed the odd phenomenon that overtakes critics and the powers that be in the movie industry whenever a romantic movie is successful, and what the future holds for romance at the movies. They also discussed Laura’s experiences with AMC and RC.

LLB: Why aren’t there more romantic movies being released/made for television? And, why aren’t more romance books being made into movies/telefilms?

Laura Hayden: What the film/TV industry has failed to acknowledge are the expectations of romance readers when it comes to romantic movies. In some ways, it boils down to a problem of semantics. Hollywood has no idea what we consider a romance. According to the film industry, Jerry Maguire was a comedy/drama, The English Patient was a drama and French Kiss was a straight comedy. Hollywood actually considers the Dennis Quaid/Ellen Barkin picture, The Big Easy, a crime thriller. Yet any romance reader will assure you that all of these movies are card-carrying romances because they meet romance readers’ expectations with respect to the progression of a sensual (and sometimes sexual) relationship of two people through the character growth of one or both.

There are several major trends emerging that may signify a change in the number of romance books optioned and produced for films and television. First is the increase in the number of books of all genres being turned into successful movies. Look at the current list of movies topping the recent box office charts and you’ll see adaptations of books written by John Grisham, Stephen King, Michael Crichton, and several other best-selling authors. Second is the increase in the number of romantic movies being produced. In 1995, the product listing of MIFED, the International Cinema and Television Multimedia Market, listed only 8 romance movies. This past October, according to The Hollywood Reporter, the 1996 listings included 41 romance movies, representing a 412% increase.

In addition, we might consider the recent explosion of highly successful media-tie in books (Star Trek, Star Wars, X-Files, etc.) to represent the film/television industry’s recognition of the growing significance books as a marketing tool and their acknowledgment of their target audience’s reading tastes. Is it so difficult to imagine that the reverse process — creating the movie from the book — might benefit as well?

Also we must consider the trend toward diversification in the romance publishing industry over the last few years. The romance market has widened to include cross-overs from other genres such as mystery and science fiction. By widening its market, the romance novel industry is increasing its appeal to filmmakers who are looking for projects with mass appeal.

The ball is in Hollywood’s court. The romance publishing industry is primed and ready. A very hungry target audience is waiting. The number of adaptable books is growing by leaps and bounds. What it may take to start a crack in Hollywood’s wall is one successful, well-produced, medium to high budget movie made from a “real” romance book as defined by the hardcore readers of the genre. Until then, we’ll have to suffer through Hollywood’s limited and flawed definition of romantic movie where heroes die, sexual tension is replaced with coitus interruptus, and glitz and glamor are substitutes for passion and plot.

LLB: Are there aspects generic to the romance genre that don’t or won’t translate in a filmed version? Conversely, are there aspects to a filmed romance that are/would be difficult to create in a written version?

Laura Hayden: When it comes to adapting romance novels to film, there are several inherent pitfalls. Sensuality translates well to the screen because it’s a matter of orchestrating a relationship where simple gestures and words have far deeper meanings. However, scenes of sexuality that a reader might read in a book without blinking an eye become an exercise in voyeurism when brought to life on the screen. The reader has a chance to identify with a character and essentially take that character’s place during any (or all) parts of a book. But a film personifies their characters with real actors. Viewers might have empathy for certain characters, but they lose the ability to substitute or cast themselves in that role. Whereas simple scenes of consummation are appropriate for a book, in the scope of a film, they are magnified under a harsh light and gain an element of explicitness which doesn’t blend in well with the rest of the movie. In skillful adaptations, these scenes are brought down several levels in sexuality, allowing the implication of sex to replace the actual on-screen act.

Another pitfall involves the concept of internal dialogue which is commonplace and appropriate in fiction, but not in film or television besides the occasional use of opening narration. (“A long time ago in a galaxy far away. . .”) Prose scenes which might have been moments of quiet reflection or thought are usually restructured so that they are revealed through action and dialogue in a film. Secondary characters can gain increased importance when they become dialogue foils.

Conversely, there are techniques which fare better on film than they do in print. Broad comedy, car chase scenes — anything which relies on a series of purely visual scenes are best presented in a visual format. Also, screenwriters can incorporate hidden elements easier than fiction writers. For example, a camera can pan a living room, allowing the viewer to see a wooden fireplace mantle containing a series of framed pictures, a flower arrangement and a pair of brass candlesticks. If one of those brass candlesticks turns out to be the blunt instrument that killed the butler, the fiction writer will have to describe all those elements–the pictures, the flowers, the candlesticks, in hopes of hiding the important among the innocuous.

One of the on-going debates in the romance writing world is the argument about point of view (POV). Should POV be limited to one character? Should it be changed only at chapter or scene breaks? Can it bounce from one person to the next without hesitation? If it shifts without provocation, is the reader going to be confused?

The camera eliminates these worries because it directly represents the filmgoer’s point of view. The camera can both limit our range of vision, calling increased importance to an object, character or situation, or give us a sense of omnipresence which is difficult to achieve in print.

Consider the scene from Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom where Indiana (Harrison Ford) and Willie (Kate Capshaw) are in separate rooms of the palace, waiting for the other one to fall prey to desire and come a-knocking. According to the script, the camera cuts seven times between them, as we witness paralleled escalation of their joint sexual frustration. The short choppy scenes add to the comedy pacing when, while Willie waits with high expectations, a sudden assassin forces Indiana to fight for life rather than love.

This also drives home the point that broad physical comedy is difficult to write in prose form, yet a delight to watch on large and small screens. Can you imagine trying to write the prose equivalent of Kramer’s entrances in Seinfeld, Frasier’s smirk, or Lucy’s adventures at the candy factory? Few authors can pull off moments of slapstick, but those who can (for example — Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Jenny Crusie, Janet Evanovich) are well appreciated by their audience for their abilities to write physical scenes of comedy as well as their master ability to write humorous dialogue.

Luckily, Hollywood recognized the visual impact of Janet Evanovich’s work and her first “Stephanie Plum” mystery novel, One for the Money, is in preproduction at TriStar. Although the book is a mystery, its structure reflects Janet’s sensitivities gained from her romance-writing successes.

Maybe this will help break the log-jam which has blocked Hollywood from realizing the wealth of source material that fills the bookshelves and the hearts of romance readers and the large audience segment they represent.

We can only hope.

LLB: How did you relationship with AMC and new cable network RC come about? And please, share your experiences with our readers. Laura Hayden: As to Romance Classics, the concept of using a published romance author arose out of a conversation between parent organization AMC and RWA. AMC sent a letter to all published authors in RWA telling us about the network plans, what the job would entail and what they wanted in terms of speculative material. The first ten applicants were paid for their spec scripts and they were the first authors considered for the job. If AMC couldn’t find a suitable writer in those first ten, their plans were to open ten more packages, pay those authors and examine those scripts, returning all unopened packages once a final selection was made.

Realizing speed was of the essense, I put together the entire package in 24 hours and overnighted it to AMC in New York so that it would arrive in time to be one of the first ten received. A prophetic ten days later, AMC called and offered me the job based on my writing skills as represented by the spec script and related materials (concept treatment, character sketches, etc).

I’m thrilled to have earned this opportunity to work for AMC and RC. It has already led to some additional scriptwriting projects including an offer to write an episode for the award-winning “dramedy” show, Remember WENN.

Laura Hayden

Recently, Laura updated me on various aspects of her writing career. I thought I’d pass her words along to any fans who might read this:

On Romance Classics:
Unfortunately, Romance Classics seems to be stalled in their efforts to find the right actors to portray the couple who introduce the movies.

I have co-written an episode of “Remember WENN” which should air this season. The episode, entitled “And How” has been described by the show’s creator and producer, Rupert Holmes, as “the most socially significant episode of the season.” The episode should air sometime in November. (Check your local listings, or e-mail me at [email protected] to be put on a “WENN does it air?” list.)

On Other Fronts:
Along with my collaborator, Courtney Henke, I’ve finished a script adaptation of Maggie Shayne’s book, Fairytale for a production company in Florida.

My next category book is tentatively entitled Childhood’s End (I know it’s going to be change, but to what????) which will be a May Harlequin Intrigue.

It is true that Kensington has phased out paranormals, so there is no home yet for the paranormal, but I’ve been busy moving to North Dakota and reintegrating myself into the military life after three years at the Pentagon (which surprisingly, doesn’t offer much interaction for military dependents.)

Laura Hayden has written the following:

  • The Star of Kashmir – original romance on audio cassette from Audio Entertainment
  • A Margin in Time – winner of RWA’s Golden Heart Award, published by Pinnacle Books under the Denise Little Presents imprint
  • Chance of a Lifetime – published by Pinnacle Books under the Denise Little Presents imprint

Written as Laura Kenner:

  • Someone to Watch Over Me – Harlequin Intrigue, February 1994
  • A Killer Smile – Harlequin Intrigue, March 1995
  • Hero for Hire – Harlequin Intrigue, February 1997

E-mail Laura