'Cycler' Author Lauren McLaughlin Teaches Us The Perils (& Rewards!) Of Adapting Her Novel Into A Movie

Book fans are all too familiar with the fear that our favorite novel will be utterly destroyed when it's adapted for the screen. Can you imagine what it's like to be the author of a novel that's about to go through that process? Lauren McLaughlin was a film producer and screenwriter, working on such films as "American Psycho," before she wrote the gender-bending YA novels "Cycler" and "Recycler." But when "Cycler" was optioned for the big screen, she found herself on the other side of the process. Here, she tells the Book Report all about it.

Turning a novel into a movie is fraught with hazards. I know this intimately after adapting my own novel, "Cycler," into a screenplay. When I first set out to do this, it was like déjà vu all over again. "Cycler" began its life as a screenplay some time in the early '90s. It was a project I worked on in my off hours while I was producing and writing other people's movies. Then, one day in 2000, I decided to try my hand at writing fiction. It was only supposed to be an exercise, but it changed everything for me. Within months, I had decided to abandon my film career and pursue novel-writing full time. It was only then that I was finally able to unlock the story at the heart of "Cycler." It was, I was convinced, meant to be a novel, not a movie.

But then it was time to shop "Cycler" the novel to Hollywood. No problem, thought I. Someone else can adapt it. Someone else can produce it. I'm a novelist now. I needn't concern myself with messy film work. That world is behind me.

But the thought of someone else getting their hands on my novel, perhaps re-imagining it and turning it into something unfamiliar, started to weigh on me. My concern with the film adaptation has always been that someone would attempt to turn it into a trite girls-vs.-boys sex romp. That would destroy me. "Cycler" deals with gender stereotypes, but it certainly doesn't endorse them.

No, if "Cycler" was going to be a movie, it was going to be my movie. There was just one problem: I had done such a good job of burying all of those screenwriter instincts in order to become a novelist, I could no longer find them. The first draft was a disaster: full of voiceover, weighed down with excessive descriptions, encumbered by a meandering storyline and at 170 pages, about an hour too long.

Then I remembered one of the cardinal rules of adapting novels: Keep the premise and throw the book away. A novel is always too long to adapt faithfully into a movie. You have to delete, sometimes with extreme prejudice. At times, you even have to invent new scenes in order to propel the story in movie time. Novel time can be as slow as you like, but movie time is fast. You've got around 100 minutes to tell your tale, from attention-grabbing start to breathtaking finish. As long as you've stayed faithful to the characters and the main storyline, you can call it a success. After a few drafts, I think I achieved that with the "Cycler" screenplay, but I'm sure my readers will let me know for sure.

When my agent sold the screenplay to producer Don Murphy, of "Transformers" and "Natural Born Killers" fame, I was thrilled, but also a little unsettled. In the past, I had always been the one acquiring someone's screenplay. I was the one who held a screenwriter's dreams in my hand. I was the one with the power to deliver on that dream, or to destroy it. And, to be honest, I did both of those things from time to time. The exigencies of production — limited budgets, limited time, unlimited egos — sometimes result in painful compromises.

I left that world for good, defensible reasons. But there's a part of me that misses it. I miss the daily struggle of servicing someone else's vision as faithfully as possible while staying on budget. I miss the nuts and bolts of prepping a film and the almost military precision of a well-oiled crew. I miss the magic that happens when all the pieces of the puzzle — script, director, actors, music, editing, etc. — come together to create something greater than the sum of its parts. I even miss those days when the magic doesn't happen, and you try to figure out what went wrong.

Now, I'm just the writer. My work is done. If the magic happens now, it will happen because Don Murphy has conjured it into being. I have faith in him. But, because I've been through the ups and down of this process many, many times, I know that there's a heaping dose of luck built into the whole endeavor. I'll be keeping my fingers crossed until final credits roll.

This is the final stop on Lauren McLaughlin's blog tour. Check out her interview with book blog Beatrice.com from yesterday, and head over to LaurenMcLaughlin.net for a full list of the other stops on her virtual tour.