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Uh oh, I’m at it again, comparing various dramatized versions of a story to the novel that was the original source material. (See the post below, dated Feb. 12, 2012, on War Horse.) This is always instructive, a great tutorial in dramatic structure. This time I’m tackling Cabaret.

I started with the book of the musical, then decided to go back to Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories , the piece of fiction that started it all. After that, I read the straight play I Am a Camera by playwright John Van Druten, an interim version that preceded the musical, also based on Isherwood’s stories. To make this sleuthing project even more confusing, each version of the musical Cabaret that’s been produced – the film and all the various stage productions – has revised the book. I concentrated on the book written for the 1990s revival starring Alan Cumming as the Emcee.

So what are some of the oh-so-instructive changes? Isherwood’s stories are a memoir of his time in Berlin in the years leading up to WWII, and are portraits of the people he met there. The stories are linked, but episodic. One story, for instance, is about the irrepressible Sally Bowles, who transferred easily and memorably to the stage. But of course Cabaret had to combine the characters into one story and give that story a single dramatic arc. To dramatize the issue of the encroaching Nazi threat, for instance, the musical created an entirely new character, Ernst Ludwig, who is (spoiler alert) a Nazi, the threat personified.

It also created a romance between the owner of the boarding house and a new character, a Jewish grocer, who courts her and proposes. That gives the story a very pointed dramatic tension – will she, a Gentile, marry a Jew at a time when the political winds are shifting and Jews are increasingly being targeted? What happens when a rock is thrown through the window of his grocery? Or when their engagement party is disrupted by the Nazi guests who object to their mixed marriage? These new plot turns help focus the story.

The musical also, very shrewdly, took some of the nightlife settings in the stories and made them a principle setting. With Sally Bowles installed as a singer at the Kit Kat Klub, the role of the Emcee took center stage. The cabaret numbers serve a dual purpose. They contrast the freewheeling sexuality of 1930s Berlin nightlife with the encroaching nooselike strictures of Nazism. And, very cleverly, they also comment directly on the action of the play.

Life is seldom neatly dramatic. When crafting a story arc, the details have to be shaped. And I do find it instructive to look at material originally written for the page, material that is perhaps a bit more meandering, and examine how that material was adapted in scripts for the screen or the stage, rendering it even more dramatic. Read More 

Books to Film: Lessons in Dramatic Structure

When working on a draft of a novel, I always find some sections that feel mushy, ones in which there needs to be more forward movement, a tighter structure. That’s when I ask myself WWHD? Or, What Would Hollywood Do? Well, not Hollywood exactly; I’m not a car-chase kinda writer. But I ask myself, What would a screenwriter do? I imagine some no-nonsense screenwriter taking his or her red pen to my novel: Cut this. Combine these 2 characters. Build in some urgency. Condense the time. What are the stakes? Make them higher! Is the protagonist active? Does he/she change? Is the climax in the hands of the protagonist?

Of course, in the early drafts, before I'm working with an actual editor, I’m the one who has to come up with the specific ideas of how to rewrite. But in some perverse way it’s easier for me to do if I make an appeal to this ruthless, fictional screenwriter who's schooled in dramatic structure.

One fun exercise is to read a book, then watch the film made from the book and analyze the differences. What did the screenplay change? Recently, I saw the film of War Horse. Though the film adheres closely to the book, I was interested to note some changes. Here are two I found instructive:

• In the book, there are some vague allusions to the fact that the father needs to make more money to support his family. The film, however, heightens the threat by making it much more immediate – the family may lose their house! The film added a new character, the landlord, who personifies the threat. He visits the house and tells the family he’s going to throw them out if they can’t pay the rent by a specific day. Thus, the screenplay ups the stakes so that what's at stake is now specific and concrete – the house. It also introduces urgency by confining the time. Pay the rent by this specific day – or else!

• The film also heightens the very moving scene near the end of the long, grueling war in which two soldiers from opposite trenches climb out to free Joey, the horse. The scene in the book is already quite cinematic, with Joey running wildly through the no-man’s land between the trenches. But the movie takes the scene a step further: Joey is now tangled in barbed wire, so the soldiers have to work together to cut him out. This gives the soldiers a specific task to accomplish, and illustrates another writing principle: give your characters something active to do, always a much better strategy than having them stand around discussing an abstract goal. The scene was made that much more poignant, and the result? I was profoundly moved; the tears flowed freely. Read More