since the dawn of storytelling people have been adapting, transforming, borrowing, and repurposing tales into new forms. sometimes this adds life to a story, other times the new work is a poor reflection of what came before. so what makes a successful adaptation? there are a few factors I think are important.
• the source needs to have universal themes.
• the new medium needs to familiar to the audience should follow its conventions, regardless of source text.
• the adaptation must take into account the cultural norms of its new audience.
today I’m going to discuss how I adapted Saki’s “The Open Window” into my film CERTIFIED. mostly I’ll be writing about the changes made for cultural norms and conventions of the medium. it’s a bit of deep read so buckle up, strap in, and let’s go!
er one sec. before we start… if you haven’t seen CERTIFIED, or it’s been a while, you should take 8 minutes and watch it. the rest of this will make WAY more sense if you do =)
note: Saki’s original text will be shown in bold italics. his Framton & Vera become my Frank & Alice.
“My aunt will be down presently, Mr. Nuttel,” said a very self-possessed young lady of fifteen; “in the meantime you must try and put up with me.”
Framton Nuttel endeavoured to say the correct something which should duly flatter the niece of the moment without unduly discounting the aunt that was to come. Privately he doubted more than ever whether these formal visits on a succession of total strangers would do much towards helping the nerve cure which he was supposed to be undergoing.
this opening presents two challenges: Frampton Nuttel is in a stranger’s home… and he’s a nervous individual.
the first challenge with adapting this short story was the idea of cultural norms. people don’t go “calling” on strangers any more. it’s an antiquated practice and seems almost suspicious now. additionally, the idea of going to the country for a “nerve cure” sounds laughable in our age of anti-depressants and shrinks. when I examined the narrative goals it became clear the entire story is predicated on these two details:
• Framton is a stranger
• he’s got a delicate sensibility.
I realized that it didn’t need to be a literal translation – as long as those thematic elements were respected.
so in what situation would a modern American audience accept a young girl inviting a stranger into her home? even if her Aunt was to be “down presently” this seemed like an odd thing. I tried to imagine a more innocent time when this would be believable… and the days of door to door salesman sprung to mind. this led to the idea of an old time friendly mailman. now, I don’t know if a mailman in 1958 would have gone into someone’s home… but it seemed believable that they might have – and that’s what was important.
I changed the story so that instead of having them start in the drawing room, the film begins with the postman approaching and then entering the house with the goal of getting a signature for a “certified” letter. this extra screen-time provided the opportunity to set up his character.
“Privately he doubted… would do much towards helping the nerve cure” is one of those lines that works great in prose – but does not translate to cinema. how do you visualize a “private” thought? spoiler alert: you can’t. instead it is sometimes done by an omniscient narrator or an internal monologue from the protagonist. but I don’t particularly like either of these techniques and I wanted to show his mental state to the audience… not tell them.
my solution was to show the postman being easily startled while reading an “EC style” horror comic. this allowed for a few things:
• it put the idea of zombies in both Frank & the audience’s head
• it visually foreshadowed the figures approaching through the window
• it showed that Frank had an imagination
• it established he was a nervous guy.
“Do you know many of the people round here?” asked the niece, when she judged that they had had sufficient silent communion.
“Hardly a soul,” said Framton. “My sister was staying here, at the rectory, you know, some four years ago, and she gave me letters of introduction to some of the people here.”
in order for the girl’s story to work, he needed to be unfamiliar with the family. hence, he’s a new postman. this is communicated by the line “our old postman used to always come in for a soda” as she lures him into the house.
“Then you know practically nothing about my aunt?” pursued the self-possessed young lady.
“Only her name and address,” admitted the caller. He was wondering whether Mrs. Sappleton was in the married or widowed state. An undefinable something about the room seemed to suggest masculine habitation.
“Her great tragedy happened just three years ago,” said the child; “that would be since your sister’s time.”
since the fact that he was a “stranger” was established at the door, we now needed another way for her to begin telling the story. I suppose she could have just launched into it apropos of nothing, but I felt like she needed to an entry point into it.
“Her tragedy?” asked Framton; somehow in this restful country spot tragedies seemed out of place.
“You may wonder why we keep that window wide open on an October afternoon,” said the niece, indicating a large French window that opened on to a lawn.
“It is quite warm for the time of the year,” said Framton; “but has that window got anything to do with the tragedy?”
the location we found didn’t have french windows (or “doors” as we’d call them in ‘Merica), so I needed to find another way in to her story. the act of hospitality, visa-vi the sodas was my way to do this. having the sodas as a reoccurring story element also solved a few other issues:
• the offer of sodas gets the postman into the house.
• Alice including four sodas for just two people clues him in to the fact that something is wrong.
• the extra sodas are the bait, once he asks – she has motivation to begin her story about of the tragedy.
• one more that’s a spoiler… stay tuned.
by having the running element of the sodas, it allows the plot to unfold organically without exposition until she begins her story.
“Out through that window, three years ago to a day, her husband and her two young brothers went off for their day’s shooting. They never came back. In crossing the moor to their favourite snipe-shooting ground they were all three engulfed in a treacherous piece of bog. It had been that dreadful wet summer, you know, and places that were safe in other years gave way suddenly without warning. Their bodies were never recovered. That was the dreadful part of it.” Here the child’s voice lost its self-possessed note and became falteringly human. “Poor aunt always thinks that they will come back someday, they and the little brown spaniel that was lost with them, and walk in at that window just as they used to do. That is why the window is kept open every evening till it is quite dusk… “
I changed her story to reflect the new American setting. an interesting note, the way the group “died” was the last thing I wrote as it was dependent on the location we found for the house. earlier drafts of the script had them dying in a Texas oil fire. once we had our “West Virginia” location, it became a coal mining disaster.
She broke off with a little shudder. It was a relief to Framton when the aunt bustled into the room with a whirl of apologies for being late in making her appearance.
“I hope Vera has been amusing you?” she said.
“She has been very interesting,” said Framton.
“I hope you don’t mind the open window,” said Mrs. Sappleton briskly; “my husband and brothers will be home directly from shooting, and they always come in this way. They’ve been out for snipe in the marshes today, so they’ll make a fine mess over my poor carpets. So like you menfolk, isn’t it?”
since Alice makes a point of calling out the “wedding ring” I was able to shorten what the Aunt says by including the ring visually. when she sets it down we believe that Alice’s story was true. we don’t need to hear the Aunt explain the entire situation because the audience connects the ring to its mention in the story moments before.
She rattled on cheerfully about the shooting and the scarcity of birds, and the prospects for duck in the winter. To Framton it was all purely horrible. He made a desperate but only partially successful effort to turn the talk on to a less ghastly topic, he was conscious that his hostess was giving him only a fragment of her attention, and her eyes were constantly straying past him to the open window and the lawn beyond. It was certainly an unfortunate coincidence that he should have paid his visit on this tragic anniversary.
“The doctors agree in ordering me complete rest, an absence of mental excitement, and avoidance of anything in the nature of violent physical exercise,” announced Framton, who laboured under the tolerably widespread delusion that total strangers and chance acquaintances are hungry for the least detail of one’s ailments and infirmities, their cause and cure. “On the matter of diet they are not so much in agreement,” he continued.
cinema functions best (imho) when characters have defined goals. in the original short story, Framton was at the home just to “chat”… I guess??? he didn’t have a strong objective. in the film, Frank has a very clear goal, get someone to sign for the certified mail then get the heck out of there. he attempts to do that as quickly as possible but the Aunt is blocking him.
“No?” said Mrs. Sappleton, in a voice which only replaced a yawn at the last moment. Then she suddenly brightened into alert attention – but not to what Framton was saying.
“Here they are at last!” she cried. “Just in time for tea, and don’t they look as if they were muddy up to the eyes!”
the audio cue of the dog barking is motivation to look through the window, a nod to the original story, and foreshadowing for the final story that Alice tells.
Framton shivered slightly and turned towards the niece with a look intended to convey sympathetic comprehension. The child was staring out through the open window with a dazed horror in her eyes. In a chill shock of nameless fear Framton swung round in his seat and looked in the same direction.
In the deepening twilight three figures were walking across the lawn towards the window, they all carried guns under their arms, and one of them was additionally burdened with a white coat hung over his shoulders. A tired brown spaniel kept close at their heels. Noiselessly they neared the house, and then a hoarse young voice chanted out of the dusk: “I said, Bertie, why do you bound?”
Framton grabbed wildly at his stick and hat; the hall door, the gravel drive, and the front gate were dimly noted stages in his headlong retreat. A cyclist coming along the road had to run into the hedge to avoid imminent collision.
this section of the story worked nearly verbatim in a cinematic retelling. the only changes were made to match it to the rural 1950s America setting.
“Here we are, my dear,” said the bearer of the white mackintosh, coming in through the window, “fairly muddy, but most of it’s dry. Who was that who bolted out as we came up?”
“A most extraordinary man, a Mr. Nuttel,” said Mrs. Sappleton; “could only talk about his illnesses, and dashed off without a word of goodby or apology when you arrived. One would think he had seen a ghost.”
again, this translated very well – just a few tweaks to match the new story. the reoccurring visual motifs of the soda, the wedding ring, and the question of tragedy all come to ahead in the shot that reveals if the Uncle is an undead monster or not…
“I expect it was the spaniel,” said the niece calmly; “he told me he had a horror of dogs. He was once hunted into a cemetery somewhere on the banks of the Ganges by a pack of pariah dogs, and had to spend the night in a newly dug grave with the creatures snarling and grinning and foaming just above him. Enough to make anyone lose their nerve.”
the first change I made to this concerned her motivation. like with her earlier tale, I didn’t think it worked for her to just volunteer the information. now she’s not telling a story for “funsies,” she’s telling it to get herself out of trouble. it needs to be a motivated telling – so the Aunt and Uncle look to her expectantly before she begins.
next, this story needed to be adapted for cultural relevency. “The Open Window” was published in 1914 by a Scottish author living in London. it’s a fair assumption that both he and his audience would have been at least somewhat familiar with the Ganges river in India… and so would the characters in his story. India was an “exotic” location whose customs might have been a little bit outside of the normal knowledge. for instance, in the Hindu tradition bodies are cremated as they float down the Ganges – not buried alongside it. could there have been a western graveyard nearby with an open grave? possibly, but it is unlikely. however, the facts aren’t important here, what is important is that she tells a story that’s just believable enough. she stretching the truth in a fiction – telling a lie within a lie.
for the adapted story, I wanted her tale to be something that an American family in 1958 would understand, as well as a viewing audience in the 2010s. since the USA didn’t have colonies – its exotic location would be Europe of World War II. I picked a battle that was well known, The Battle of The Bulge, and crafted her tale around that. this new tale also includes an unlikely element. the troops surrounded in that battle were part of the 101st Airborne, an elite, all-volunteer unite of paratroopers. so while it’s possible Frank could have been there, it’s unlikely someone as nervous as him would have been part of that unit.
I kept the dogs, but instead of a grave, it’s a tree and has the added danger of Nazis (our favorite movie villain). similar to how the soda leads us to Alice’s first story, the family’s dog helps to lead the audience into her final tale.
Romance at short notice was her speciality.
the last line of the short story is extremely important to understanding both the girl’s character and the story as a whole. it reframes and recontextualizes the entire thing. we now know that she was intentionally deceiving the postman through her earlier story. we also realize she wasn’t being malicious. at least, in the same way that a cat playing with a mouse isn’t trying to be cruel, they are just doing what they do.
by calling it “romance” Saki is using a euphemism for her storytelling (or “lies” if you prefer). Alice is creating romance for herself. it’s less about torturing the postman and more about amusing herself. if Saki had meant for her actions to be interpreted as cruel, he could have used a word like “deception” or “lies” or something other than romance which has generally positive connotations.
so how to convey this in cinema? it could be told with a voice over or a title card… but both of those are rather hamfisted and like his Frank’s nervousness, I wanted to avoid telling the audience anything directly. as an audience I find it’s so much for fulfilling to make connections on my own – and that’s what I wanted here.
after a bit of thought, I realized this sentence was a line to the reader. it’s not part of the story – it’s an aside directed to the audience. cinema has a convention for addressing the audience directly called “breaking the fourth wall“. it’s a term borrowed from the theatre for moments when the actors acknowledge their audience. in film it’s done in the same manner, but instead of an audience, the actors look or speak to the camera lens.
by having Alice look at the camera and smile she’s letting us “in on it.” she’s gotten away with the stories she’s told and by acknowledging us, we are now in on the secret.
truth be told, this was something I came up with on set. it wasn’t in my shot list and even during editing I wasn’t sure I’d keep it. now, looking back it’s impossible to imagine the film without it. this is a great example of how even the most thought out plans need to allow for inspiration and innovation.
well, that wraps it up! hope you enjoyed this rather detailed breakdown of the process adapting “The Open Window” to CERTIFIED. so what about you? do you have any favorite book to screen (or otherwise) adaptations? some of my favorites include A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT, ALL THE PRETTY HORSES, and EDGE OF TOMORROW.
p.s. here is the link to the complete version of “The Open Window.”