From Book to Big Screen

Recently a writer asked what she should do about an offer to make a TV program or a movie from a book she has written.

First, my experience here is limited. In the 1970s, I wrote a movie script for Tom Laughlin, who created the Billy Jack movies after observing the racism in his wife Delores Taylor’s hometown of Winner, S.D. (Tom was a man of great accomplishments in education and psychology; his story on Wikipedia gives considerable information about his life.) At that time, Tom wanted to make a movie about the life of Crazy Horse, whom he viewed as a hero in the Billy Jack mode. Perhaps because he had attended the University of South Dakota, where he met his wife, Tom asked me to write the script. Tom knew that I had attended USD and that I was running a small press publishing regional authors, so these facts might have influenced his decision.

Tom Laughlin Billy Jack
Tom Laughlin (in his Billy Jack persona).

I had not written a book about Crazy Horse, so I did considerable research, including interviews with various Lakota people to create the script. Laughlin flew me to Minneapolis to discuss the project and he and Delores Taylor hosted me at another meeting in Arizona (where a highlight was my seeing the tracks of a sidewinder rattlesnake in the sand). Negotiations were exciting; we discussed my being a consultant for the film at length, through many telephone calls and letters. One individual who said he was a priest called me late one night. He had been told that I knew the secret site where the great Lakota leader is buried, and promised me riches if I told him. I was not tempted.

I was paid for my writing, and I discovered a lot of information about Crazy Horse that is not general knowledge, but the movie was never made. I met some intriguing people, including both Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor. Both were brilliant and fascinating, and interested in so many things that they had trouble focusing on a particular project— a trait I came to believe may be typical of folks who are creative, and particularly those who get involved with movie-making. I came away from the project with no desire for further involvement in TV or movies. The whole process was just too exhausting, with too much time spent talking about creativity, or planning to be creative, or discussing what creativity means, leaving far too little time to create.

Movie Streep and Elliot
Linda (as played by Meryl Streep) and George (as played by Sam Elliot). What a movie!

Consequently, when there was talk of doing something dramatic with my book Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains, I couldn’t muster up very much enthusiasm, though my husband George and I joked about who would play us in the movie. I think we settled on Meryl Streep and Sam Elliott.

Several painters have created art works inspired by my stories, as has at least one weaver and several poets and I welcomed their efforts. One painter sent me her vision of my cows and a dog that hangs in my retreat house.

So, with that background, here’s my view. Remember, though, that this opinion has never been seriously tested, say by someone handing me a contract promising large amounts of money for something I’ve written.

I believe the books I’ve written are accomplishments of which I can be proud, though in each book and every poem I can usually find something I might change if I had the opportunity. I know that some of my writing has inspired the writing of others, and I felt no proprietary interest in their work. If someone takes my story and turns it into a dramatic performance, the new creation is a separate achievement, inspired by mine. (When Parris Afton Bonds copied more than 75 passages from my book Windbreak into her romance novel, she was not being creative but committing copyright infringement. I sued to stop her publication and won the right to discuss her actions, but that’s a story for another time.)

In thinking of how another artist might make a TV program or movie from your book, consider what happens when you buy a new car and sell the old one. In my case, I could recall some of the challenging or delightful travels I had, and I wished the new owner well. Then I turned my attention to learning which buttons to push on the new car to get the best performance from it.  Though I might still remember some of the things I liked or disliked about the old car, fixing its problems is no longer my job.

Ideally, if someone buys your work for TV or a movie, you can assure yourself that you have achieved the best of which you are capable in that particular work. All you are selling is an idea, an inspiration that someone else will use to create their own artistry. As I fasten the seat belt in my new car, someone may be driving away in the old one, smiling and planning a trip, thinking, There’s so much room in the back I can sleep there and my German shepherd dog can even sleep beside me.

Realistically, anyone might read your book in print and create their own interpretation of it without consulting you. You might never know. So if someone offers you cash for the idea, give serious thought to accepting. Consider what improvements you might make in your writing room with a little extra cash. Or go on a writing retreat.

Finally, understand that when someone else creates art in a different medium, inspired by you, your ideas may reach a new audience, spreading your achievement even further. After all, our goal as writers is to communicate with people, and perhaps the story you have told will grow beyond the boundaries you have set.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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6 thoughts on “From Book to Big Screen

  1. mamelund

    Very interesting report, Linda. At least you had the experience of script writing and survived. Streep would have been just right playing you. George . . . Remember Dennis Hopper as Peter Fonda’s bearded sidekick in Easy Rider? He would have done justice to George.

    I think my novel Boots Brevik had some screen potential. But it never got into many hands at all.

    Rodney Date: Sat, 27 Jun 2015 17:41:39 +0000 To:

    1. Sorry, Rodney, I just can’t see Dennis Hopper as George; maybe I’m judging him too much by his character in that movie, or what I know of his real life. And therein lies part of the problem with all of this: it would be so hard to watch someone try to be you on screen or stage.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Abbie; yes, sensationalism is the name of the movie game, I think–and who is to blame for that? Audiences. If there were movies that just told the story of quiet lives lived well, would we go?? I don’t know and am not a good judge, not being much of a moviegoer.

  3. Betsy Vinz

    Seems to me Will Weaver had a good experience when they made a film from one of his books; Jon Hassler was disappointed with the (television) movie they made from one his Agatha books. (Sorry I’ve forgotten titles of both books–and Mark’s asleep, so I can’t ask him.) Tom McGrath wrote some screenplays. He was handsomely paid though I don’t think any of them were filmed.

    I enjoyed reading this piece, as I always enjoy reading your work. Thank you, Linda!

  4. Thank you, Betsy; it’s always good to have a reader.I’m sure there have been good experiences, and I probably should have encouraged writers to talk with those who make the proposals and judge their intent and the likely results before making a decision. But I was truly impressed with Tom Laughlin and still glad not to have been drawn into that world.

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