Monday, October 6, 2014


Recently I finished reading China Dolls, by Lisa See, a book that takes place in San Francisco from 1936/38 and concludes in 1988. Reviews lauded it as an accurate account of the period it represents. This is not my review but a treatise on how we writers choose to tell a story, and how that might differ in media other than novel forms.

As written, it’s a linear tale. Like many of Jodi Picoult’s latest books, it’s told in first person via POV character chapters. Unlike Picoult’s works, the voices here are not as distinctive. The problem is the three main characters are Asian, first generation American Citizens. In an effort to give them a contemporary-to-the-40s, accurate case of the “golly gees/jeez”, blatantly avoiding anachronisms, their voices are lost in sameness—Americanized and not individual.

But China Dolls would make an excellent, multifaceted movie. All the elements are there: music, dance drama, violence, tragedy, betrayal, and secrets. So how would this story play out in a movie script in today’s market? Very well, providing the movie industry is not squeamish about discussing the main issues: period nostalgia; the politically incorrect Asian references necessary to tell the story; domestic violence, and the impact of AIDS in San Francisco that bubbled under the surface until it became the ultimate reality.

That being said, let’s think about how screenwriters could gin up this good story from linear and first person POV text for the movies:

Let’s take the long denouement at the end of the book and put it at the beginning of the movie, using Grace Lee as the omniscient POV character. Let her tell about the fifty-year reunion of its characters. Frame the story with the tone of the times as seen from 1988 looking dramatically back at the end of the depression. Follow that will the Second World War and the inevitable changes in culture. Link the story with Hollywood’s contribution to war morale with some USO flashbacks. In other words, show the plot in linear form within the framework of the times. And end where the screenwriter begins with Grace See revealing how they “all lived, 45 years later…” older, wiser, compromised or confused.

So, how would you reformat your next book for a movie? Linear? Fragmented? Or as is?

The visual media approach cuts out a lot of “dull”. We could work with that.

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Liz Fountain said...

The art of scriptwriting has much to teach the art of noveling, although they are two distinct media. Like poetry helps novelists understand the power of a single word - not just meaning, but sound - thinking about film helps us understand the power of imagery and economy of "explanation."


Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Well put, Liz.