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Writers, directors share challenges of adapting books for film during Sundance panel

Published: Thursday, July 2 2015 2:53 a.m. MDT

Randall Wallace, writer of Randall Wallace, writer of "Braveheart" and "Pearl Harbor," speaks at a panel called Staying True in Film Adaptation at the Filmmakers Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

PARK CITY — When Kathryn Stockett was writing "The Help," she was consistently rejected for representation by literary agents.

Stockett was in New York at the time, "living on beans," she said, but despite the lack of enthusiasm for her novel, she continued to write constantly, even making notes on her manuscript while in the hospital before going into labor.

"I just could not stop writing this story that nobody wanted to publish," she said.

After 60 rejection letters, Stockett's book caught the eye of an agent and a publisher soon after. The book went on to be a smash success, which opened the door to a new challenge of finding the right director for the feature film adaptation of her work.

From left, Kathryn Stockett, Bob Berney, Michael Flaherty, Nikki Silver and Randall Wallace sit on a panel called Staying True in Film Adaptation at the Filmmakers Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) From left, Kathryn Stockett, Bob Berney, Michael Flaherty, Nikki Silver and Randall Wallace sit on a panel called Staying True in Film Adaptation at the Filmmakers Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Stockett ultimately found the right fit in her childhood friend Tate Taylor, who at the time had few filmmaking credits but had encouraged her throughout her career.

"I had to find a filmmaker that understood Mississippi, for all its baggage and its beauty," she said. "And that’s not something I knew going in."

Stockett's remarks came during a panel discussion Thursday at the Sundance Film Festival. The event, moderated by Walden Media president and Deseret News Editorial Board member Michael Flaherty, focused on the challenges of adapting books and other works for the big screen and showcasing virtues such as courage, sacrifice, humility and gratitude in film.

In addition to Stockett, panel participants included Randall Wallace, the Academy Award-winning writer of "Braveheart" and director of such films as "We Were Soldiers," "Secretariat" and this year's "Heaven Is For Real"; Bob Berney, CEO of the production and distribution company Picturehouse; and Nikki Silver, producer of the upcoming adaptation of Lois Lowry's "The Giver."

Kathryn Stockett, author of Kathryn Stockett, author of "The Help," speaks at a panel called Staying True in Film Adaptation at the Filmmakers Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

During the event, the panelists spoke about the need for a film adaptation to remain faithful to the source material. But, as Wallace explained, remaining faithful doesn't necessarily mean exhausting over minute details but instead trying to capture the spirit of the story being told.

"The truth isn’t the details. The truth is something grander," he said.

In the case of Stockett's "The Help," the author was involved in the production of the film and would discuss plot and structure with Taylor. She said early on in the writing process the two met in Central Park and created an outline for the film by removing extraneous characters and plots — "killing babies," Stockett said — to make way for a new artistic vision.

"Just rip them out," she said. "Throw them away and create a clean, open space for the voices whose story you want to tell."

Michael Flaherty, president of Walden Media and a member of the Deseret News editorial board, and Nikki Silver, producer of Michael Flaherty, president of Walden Media and a member of the Deseret News editorial board, and Nikki Silver, producer of "The Giver," speak at a panel called Staying True in Film Adaptation at the Filmmakers Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

But authors are not always present during a film's production, leaving the task solely to the creative team to craft a two-hour feature film that honors the source material and satisfies its fans.

Lowry said that with adaptations, it's important to remember that books and films represent two different forms of storytelling. The role of the filmmaker, she said, is to make a great film.

"Movies show us things. Books tell us things," Lowry said. "Those are two very different things."

Wallace commented that artistic adaptation has been present throughout human history, with the narratives of a community or society inspiring still imagery and music. Film adaptations, he said, is an extension of that tradition but also a leap forward in what can be presented in a single work.

Michael Flaherty, president of Walden Media and a member of the Deseret News editorial board, and Nikki Silver, producer of Michael Flaherty, president of Walden Media and a member of the Deseret News editorial board, and Nikki Silver, producer of "The Giver," speak at a panel called Staying True in Film Adaptation at the Filmmakers Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

"In movies we have it all, all of it at once," Wallace said. "It’s the greatest, most powerful art form humanity has ever come up with."

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com Twitter: bjaminwood

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