This week 10 people have contacted me for help with different personal stories they want to translate into film treatments. If you go to my Web site, marilynhorowitz.com, and sign up for my newsletter, you will receive an article I wrote about how to write a treatment, with a sample treatment included as my gift. While the online article is sufficient for planning a traditional, 3-to-10-page treatment, there are further considerations for people organizing a story based on real-life events. Here are three things to keep in mind when translating true stories into film treatments.
- Focus on only one part of the overall life story. All life stories are bigger than any movie because movies most often follow the adventures of a single character as he or she wrestles with a problem and, in the end, either triumphs or fails. That’s why true stories such as The Perfect Storm work so well as films—they are linear and compressed in nature, as opposed to most real-life stories, which tend to have more layers and complications and occur over longer periods of time. Therefore, when converting a personal story to film, try to find one limited period of the subject’s life to dramatize. For example, a client of mine recently wanted to translate his memoir about surviving both a concentration camp and then cancer into a film. However, there was just too much story there to present in a traditional linear fashion. He needed a framework that would somehow link the two halves together. In this case, I suggested he start the story with the cancer diagnosis and then use that traumatic event to propel his character in the film to write about his concentration camp experience, making the latter the bulk of the plot. Even though my client’s own life didn’t actually happen this way, it made emotional sense to him, and we are now working with a flashback structure that uses his cancer treatments as painful reminders of having been tortured by the Nazis.
- Realize that some poetic license will be necessary. In my experience, a feature film will hold as much information as a good short story. This is why full-length biopics are so difficult—movies’ traditional linear shape is unforgiving. In translating a real-life story to the screen, you will likely find that events must be compressed, moved out of the order in which they “really” happened, and that some characters may have to be combined or even created anew. And it’s not without pitfalls. Change things too little, and your film may not have the dramatic drive it needs. Change it too much, and your audience may peg you as dishonest or worse. So, how do you know how much poetic license to take? By staying focused on the point of the story. In the case of the cancer victim/holocaust survivor, the point is that optimism can carry us through even the most difficult challenges. By staying focused on this theme, this writer was able to select the events that best dramatized how his own optimism helped him survive both cancer and the Nazis.
- Translation is an art, not a science. As with any art form, when you convert a real-life story into a film treatment, there are no hard and fast rules. At first it may look easy. After all, the real-life events are right in front of you, just waiting to be put on paper. But as you work to find a compelling structure for your film, the usual challenges start to rear their heads. Because the events are true, you may feel guilty for leaving something out, or changing the facts in service of the film. Keep in mind: not only will you not be able to fit everything into the film; it likely would be a mistake to try. Documentary filmmakers are well aware of this fact. Michael Moore made timeline changes to Roger & Me, some of which he has been criticized for, but in the end he made a great and important film. As my friend Adam Nadler is fond of saying, “You can’t just regurgitate the ‘truth,’ you have to express a truth.” And in the end, isn’t that why we write any story, whether from a real-life source or not?
To recap, when adapting real-life experiences to films, a treatment is an excellent way to explore and discover the structure of the film. Keep in mind these three principles: 1) Focus on only one part of the overall life story. 2) Realize that some poetic license will be necessary. 3) Remember that translation is an art, not a science.
Here’s to Your Successful Writing!
Professor Marilyn Horowitz