Alice on T.V.
In 2006, "Alice, I Think" was turned into a 13 part television series. Here are some thoughts on the adaptations process...
I'd read accounts of great writers who were singed or outright burned by the film and television business, so I knew the score going in. Many books are called, but few are chosen. And those few are quickly rendered unrecognizable by screenwriters, directors and actors, all of whom want nothing more than to distance the end product from its novelistic beginnings.
People in the film and T.V. business despise writers, especially novelists, and employ the term "I love it!" loosely. Most importantly, they have money — vast, overflowing cauldrons of it — and they aren't afraid to spend it. Even on novels.
Based on this deep understanding and my natural pessimism, I developed a set of expectations for the potential adaptability of the three comic novels I've written about Alice MacLeod, a teenager living with her embarrassingly countercultural family in Smithers, B.C.
Expectation one: the books would never be optioned because the books are set in Smithers, which let's face it, isn't exactly Orange County.
Expectation two: If, by some miracle, my books did get optioned, they would never get made because nothing ever gets made.
Expectation three: If they were optioned and made, it would be by an eighteen year old, as part of his certificate program at a college that spends most of its advertising budget for ads printed on the back of matchbooks. He would condense all three books about the MacLeod family into a single six-minute short, starring clay figurines. When he and his camera-man (his best friend from high school) weren't filming, they'd be vigorously duelling with Star Wars toy light sabers. A month after the film's release, the young auteur, who would forget to put my name in the credits, would be offered a job directing the next Vin Diesel vehicle by a huge American studio. I would be left with my three-figure payout and no evidence that my books had ever been adapted.
The sad thing about these rock bottom expectations is that they didn't diminish my desire to see my stories on the screen. When it looked like my first expectation was correct and no one was interested in optioning the books, I began to hatch vague plots to do it myself. I muttered threats about getting out the old digital video camera. I entertained visions of myself as the renegade author/filmmaker presiding over a ragged but undeniably talented film crew who would create what would become the television equivalent of Napoleon Dynamite, only we'd be working on an even more miniscule budget. Perhaps two hundred and fifty dollars or so.
The truth is that I spent the bulk of my time imagining what our cold opener would look like. That's the bit at the start of a television show that's the same each week. It seems key element to any program's success. In fact, the cold opener was half the reason I watched Six Feet Under. Unfortunately, thinking about that was as far as I got, so I was relieved when Slanted Wheel Productions optioned the three books. They were safely in option limbo-land and I was sure that would be the last I'd hear of it.
It came as a shock when I began to get excited messages from the producers: "We've pitched it to CTV. They're very interested!" "We got funding!" "They just ordered thirteen episodes!" Even after several meetings with the producers, writers, and television executives, I still had trouble believing anything was going to happen. I knew from my vast understanding of the business that film and television people said things . "It's looking really positive" was just another version of "we love it!"
When they began to give me scripts, I maintained my skepticism. Sure, I thought, I'm holding a copy in my hand, but none of it's real until the cameras start rolling. People asked how I felt about the changes that were made to the stories. Characters had been condensed and in some cases left out, scenes had been altered and added. I had no problem with any of it. The scripts were funny and well written and I loved seeing the stories and characters take off in new directions. The changes were necessary to fit the stories to an entirely different medium. But since nothing was going to happen anyway, I wasn't going to get too worked up. I wasn't some unsophisticated writer who could be snowed by a seemingly endless stream of good news.
Then I was invited by Susin Nielson, show runner and co-executive producer, to do a cameo. I wasn't sure how they were going to fit me on the same stage as the clay figurines, but I was game. How intimidating could a couple of kids dressed in Star Wars uniforms be, anyway?
As soon as I set foot at the Langley location I was confronted by the overwhelming reality of what it means to make a television show. Trucks, cables, trailers, everywhere and not a light saber duel in sight. The unseemly awe I always feel around anything connected to the film business kicked in. I usually cross the road when I see the trailers, not because I am considerate and don't want to get in the way, but because I have a terror of appearing impressed. What if I walk by a location and accidentally lock eyes with Joaquin Phoenix and he gets the impression I am a fan? I am a fan, but I wouldn't want him to know that.
Once, when dining at a restaurant on Queen Street with my editor and a few booksellers, someone mentioned that the cast of the Trailer Park Boys was behind us. I couldn't say another word for the rest of the meal, and when it was over, I hurried out without looking back.
In other words, I am not good with settings that suggest fame, or even with intensely collaborative, high profile workplaces. Where I really shine is at home, alone. This is why I am a writer. The set for a T.V. shoot is no place for a socially awkward introvert. It might have been wise to remember this before agreeing to the cameo. I suppose I figured that the lack of appreciation and sheer disregard I would encounter would balance out any feelings of awe.
But a lack of recognition was not a problem on the set of Alice, I Think . I was introduced to everyone as "Susan Juby — the reason we're all here ." I was presented with gifts. Given a trailer. I felt like I'd won a radio contest that allowed me to go behind the scenes with a celebrity for a day. Of course, I felt flattered.
But most of all I felt terrified. My cameo involved saying three words and handing over a credit card. Yet, every time I heard the word "action", my heart began to jackhammer. Unfortunately, I heard the word quite a lot because I kept botching things.
The director, breathing a little shallowly himself, came over to me. "Okay, Susan. That's great. Just remember to stride out of the store after you say your lines."
Got it. I may not be capable of getting an autograph from the Trailer Park Boys, but I could certainly stride out of a store with the best of them.
I spoke my lines and turned away, flustered, but proudly on course. I was striding quite magnificently, too, until I ran headfirst into a large light. The hollow sound was heard around the set. Producers and public relations people came running from every corner.
Author down! Author down!
The good news is that the mild concussion probably helped me to get through the rest of the cameo without incident. I'm sure they've got some sort of filters to hide the fact that my pupils are different sizes.
The show has now been shot and the post-production phase is nearly over. All that's left is for it to air. Of course, my pessimism remains, but even that has changed. It may not even be the natural kind, according the writer Mark Salzman. He says that his father "was a natural pessimist who expected the worst as a matter of course." But he defines himself as "a synthetic pessimist, someone who tries to protect himself from disappointment by convincing himself that pessimists have the right idea. Natural pessimists suffer when their harsh predictions come true, whereas synthetic pessimists get a kick out of being right for a change."
It seems to me the latter position is an ideal one for a writer entering the adaptation process. I'm keeping my expectations modest, but I am willing to be pleasantly surprised.