NEITHER WOLF NOR DOG FILM — From book to movie, a long, strange trip. Entry One: the author and the filmmaker

A filmmaker has a difficult job when converting a book to a film.

He or she was drawn to the book for a specific reason.  Perhaps it was the story, perhaps it was the characters; perhaps it was the descriptions of scenes and settings that made it come alive visually in his or her imagination.  Most likely it was a little bit of each.  But, somehow, the decision was made that “I think this would make a really good film.  I’d like to devote a chunk of my creative life to making it happen.”

Then, suddenly, reality hits.  What was about 300+ pages of book of about 300 words per page has to be reduced to 120 pages of script at maybe 30 or 60 words per page.  You are faced with the monumental decision of how to shape that sprawling mass of words, ideas, and images into a tight cinematic presentation.  What to keep?  What to throw away?

Here is where the filmmaker/screenwriter often runs afoul of the author.  The author crafted the book with conscientiousness and skill, and it has been edited down to where, ideally, it cannot be cut up further without losing its character.   When the filmmaker, either alone or in tandem with a screenwriter, begins to chop, the author begins to scream.  “You can’t take that out! You’re losing the whole sense of the book!”

Yet chop the scriptwriter must.  Scenes must be removed, themes must be ignored, dialogue must be turned into shorthand, characters must be adjusted and adapted.  In the author’s mind, the screenwriter and director are manhandling the book.  They are turning a symphony into a jingle.

The best balanced authors very often just hold their noses and throw the book at the filmmaker, then disavow whatever comes out, being satisfied to take the money and run.

But, what if, as in this case, there is no money?  How, then, does the author make peace with the inevitable chopping up of his or her creation?  Surgery is tough enough; butchery is unbearable.  At the end, you’re not even sure that the patient will live.  Once you hand your work over to the screenwriter and filmmaker and, ultimately, the film editor, you have good reason to think that your literary child is going to wind up so mutilated and disfigured that you will not be able to look at it.

But, conversely, consider the filmmaker’s plight.  Imagine being a person about to build a house who has fallen in love with the interior of a rich, beautiful home nearby that is having an estate sale.  You must decorate your new house with only what you purchase from this sale.  But you have come on a bike, and can take home only what you can fit on that bike.  Do you buy the most precious objects?  Do you buy based on what colors you plan to put in your home; what period or style you plan to employ?  There are a million variables to use for your purchase, but only a few purchases to be made.

This is what the filmmaker faces.  Do I keep the plot and jettison or distort, or even add,  characters?  Do I focus on the characters and cut the plot to fit the incredibly short time frame of a film compared to a book?  What do I do with causality?  With description?  With dialogue?  I might have loved a scene in the book where several characters talk meaningfully for five pages.  But when it’s time to put it on the screen, I can only give each about two or three sentences to get that scene across.

Until you have to face this translation from medium to medium, you don’t realize how difficult these choices are.  And, as an author, until you see how little of your actual book can fit into the film, you don’t realize how radical the surgery is that is about to be performed.

Steven and I spent a lot of time talking about these issues in regard to Neither Wolf nor Dog.  The conversations were not always pleasant.  But, fortunately, I had been tasked with writing a version of the screenplay before he came along, under the guidance of a well-known Hollywood director.  I had learned, with some difficulty, the incredible difference between a book and a script. I had been faced with the choices of what to keep and what to throw away; I had learned that in films, unlike in books, dialogue does not drive scenes, dialogue augments visuals.  In the end, I had produced what I thought was a very solid screenplay, informed by a crash immersion course in the works of Harold Pinter, who believed in oblique and minimal dialogue.  I was wedded to it and very protective of it.  But when Steven looked at it and started making suggestions, I realized that many of his ideas improved upon what I had created.  So I perked up and became much more pliable.

This is not to say that I agreed with all his decisions.  But that’s no different than working with an editor on a book.  You have to negotiate these things out, and when the working arrangement is good, you find a balance point.  If I, as the author, was insistent on something and Steven wasn’t adamant, my point of view would carry the day.  Conversely, if he was adamant on something and I was only mildly committed to my position, his point of view would carry the day.  When we were diametrically opposed to each other and each believed we were right, the temperature in the room tended to go up a bit.

What I had to do was remind myself constantly that many people who will see the film will never have read or even heard of the book.  I had to learn to see the film as its own artistic entity.  In the last analysis, it was Steven’s genre and Steven’s artistic creation, and I had to give him my trust.  Having seen the final product, I can say that the trust was not misplaced.

Still, it was not an easy birth.

Steven is very driven as a filmmaker, almost maniacally so.  You cannot make a feature film with basically yourself, a group of actors, a sound man, and a few go-fers, and not be perilously close to having a screw loose.

I, as an author, am obstinate to the point of pathology in regard to consistency and quality.  False notes in my books, clumsy sentences, sloppy descriptions, arbitrary plot devices, etc., make me into a madman.  (There is, for example, one speech of Dan’s in The Wolf at Twilight that took me two months to write, working day and night.  I once drove 300 miles to an abandoned house to make sure that I had gotten the description right.)  I do not take kindly to changes to works where I have labored for weeks over single sentences.

Two men with such stubborn streaks had better hope that their respective streaks are complementary, or any collaboration is destined to come to a bad end.  Blessedly, ours did not come to a bad end, as the film will show.

The reason, to my mind, is simple.  If you go back to my blogs of August and September of last year, you will get a feel for how closely tied this film is to our common respect for the lives and culture of Native peoples.  We differ in such things as our belief in the relationship between Indian and non-Indian Americans, with me believing that there will always be a  shadow between us, and Steven believing that our common humanity is greater than any historical shadow.  Such differences impacted the way we saw the shaping of the film and the choices of what to take and what to leave from the book.   But we both were humbled by the power of the Lakota land and filled with respect for the core strength and beauty of the Lakota people.  In our different ways, we each would sacrifice everything before we would sacrifice the authentic depiction of contemporary Native reality as we had come to know and respect it.  And we each saw it through eyes that the other respected.

As a result, the film, in both its choices that reflect the book and its choices that go outside the book, is always and uncompromisingly respectful and accurate in its depiction of Native people and life.  To my mind, there is not one false note in the portrayal of Native reality.  I can say, with pride, that I have never seen any film, created by Natives or non-Natives, that brings the viewer closer to the experience of a journey through reservation life.  We simply refused to compromise on this aspect, and in our refusal to compromise, we found our common ground.

Yes, Steven changed the book.  Yes, he adapted it; yes, he augmented it.  But he nailed it.  The choices he made were exquisite.  His film is at once different from the book and better than the book.  There are reasons for this that I will get into in a future blog.  For now, just know that the story you see on the screen may differ from the book you saw in your mind.  In many ways it differs from what I saw in mine.  But, in an act of astonishing creative transformation, one stubborn, incredibly talented man with a camera did something I did not think was possible:  he made a completely new work of art that honored the original work of art while carrying it to a new level.  He took my literary child and made a man of it.  I am pleased and honored and grateful, and I believe you will be, too.



27 thoughts on “NEITHER WOLF NOR DOG FILM — From book to movie, a long, strange trip. Entry One: the author and the filmmaker”

  1. Krystyn (Rose) Knights

    Making a movie out of any book has it’s issues, but I am proud to hear that the movie will be as much like the book you put your sweat into, and look forward to seeing the movie. Each reader has their imaginary view of the people, the area, the trials and tribulations you experienced, I look toward viewing your book in a movie. God bless you sweet Kent,

  2. I’ve read this book carefully and thoughtfully. I like it very much and believe it accurately reflects its subject, although I’m no “expert.” My brother and I traveled through “Indian Country,” including Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations and were exchanging comments and views on the trilogy. Sadly he died before we could complete our conversation. Now I’m anxious to see the film and learn just how the middle-book has been made visible.
    David Haag,PhD

  3. Thank you for that piece. When one loves a book, film adaptations can really cut deep, for good and bad. The process, as you’ve so well brought out, is fascinating. Sounds a lot like life overall: ideals and just living. It’s not easy. Your words, here, make the transition from book to film easier. Much respect and gratitude to the both of you and much thanks for your hard work sticking with this.

  4. Leigh Ann McDonagh

    Has a release date been set yet? I live in England and despair of getting to see the film.

  5. Shawn Gilbert

    Thanks, Kent, for such insightful background into the upcoming movie. Your comments are captivating and illuminating, and they certainly must ring true for any artist who dares free a new creation into the hands of another to interpret. Guess that’s what the Great Spirit has done with God’s own creation, so the path you’re following explains your generosity of spirit.

    As always, I’m very glad I’ve read your books before allowing another to explain to me what I’ve read. A great deal of the joy I get from books is from the freedom I’m allowed to develop my own understandings, form my own questions, and create my own images as I read. Then, once indulged, I’m open to and interested in receiving another’s picture of “the same.”



  6. Hi Leigh Ann,
    The process is a convoluted one, and beyond my pay grade. Check out Steven’s facebook page, Neither Wolf nor Dog Movie, and ask him through that. He may already have posted something on the issue. All I know is that it isn’t straightforward and it’s a bit of a crapshoot when you are doing a legitimately independent film. You have to get a distributor to take notice, and that is usually done through being seen at festivals. And to be seen at festivals you have to be invited to festivals, which involves a submission process. All of this is a different world from the clunky world of writing and publishing books. Check with Steven’s site for better information. I do hope it gets to England, though. Then I’d have an excuse to come back there and hang out in Oxford, the city I find most congenial to my character of anywhere I’ve ever been.

  7. Kent, your insights are so provocative, your writing always strikes a chord inside. Creating takes courage as does setting that creation free. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  8. Kent,
    This is my first entry and response to you. Thank you, first and foremost for your writing – which is beautiful- and your commitment to expressing the truth about a culture we as Americans have badly abused. Your point that the movie should be viewed as a separate work and enjoyed as such is so valid. I very rarely watch a movie rendition of a book that I previously enjoyed reading. When I do I usually come away with a greater appreciation of the book and author. Thank you again for what you have done and what you continue to do.

  9. Such splendid prose even describing the process of creating a movie! I’m eager to learn of the release date! Thank you for staying open ~ and encouraging us to do likewise!

  10. Thank you for another illuminating journey from book to film. I will now try to view these separately on their own merits, save for the original intent of book to film.


  11. I think this is all you can wish for: that your work is placed in hands that care for it as much as you (and all those who have read it) do. Your confidence in Steven is all we need to hear. I am so looking forward to the film.

  12. If I was Steven, I’d be ‘thrilled’ by what you just wrote ! What a testimony to his work ! That is SO cool that you both found something more powerful — portraying an accurate picture of Native life— that you could both compromise and work for ‘the greater good’… I’m sure the movie will be wonderful, and as you said, will take it further… but it is ‘your writing’ and your ‘exquisite dance with words’ that brings all of this ‘to life’…. Each will have it’s place in our hearts…. and nobody writes ‘like you’ Mr. Nerburn !! Nobody !

  13. I had never thought about the book-to-movie process that you describe. Of course, how could I have? Just as a reader who truly values your “Dan” books, I hate to think of your book being changed for the movie. I can’t even imagine what it has been like for you, especially when the book is about something that you care so deeply for. But, thankfully, from what you said about Steven, it is something that he cares deeply for, too. That you are pleased, and honored, and grateful at the way he handled the movie, and that you feel his part honored your part and took it to a new level is good and exciting news! Thanks for your words. Rather than being disappointed at the difference in the book and the movie, I am looking forward to the difference and the next level it takes us to!

  14. Kirk Knighton

    Hi Kent – I am impressed with all you have said here about book-to-movie realities. I’ve been looking forward to the seeing the movie – and yet maybe I don’t want to see it. The book is so special to me I can’t imagine a reinterpretation.But I am sire I will see it. Or maybe not!
    I have another favorite book, a novel called Housekeeping. That was made into a movie, and I have to say it is the best book-to-film adaptation I have ever seen. The film is true to the book, but it can stand by itself as a deeply moving work of art. Have you read this book and or seen the movie?
    I trust you and Louise are well and happy in Portland these days. Are you there this month? I am off for the entire month, and we plan to visit Portland sometime.

  15. Kent,

    I’m always torn when a movie is made of a favorite book. For me, rarely has it turned out well. However, reading your books, blog and watching some of the Common Ground interviews I had the feeling that if your were involved things might work out. Then when I read in one of your posts in the initial Kickstarter process mentioning how Steven would treat the landscape as a major character and not just a backdrop – I was totally hooked. I’m rubbing my hot hands in anticipation of the release….. Rock on! -Cliff

  16. Hi Kirk,
    We’ll be here, but there are guests coming and going all through the month. Give me a bit of lead time and I’ll know better. It would be great to see you. You’re not driving the Veedub are you?

  17. Kirk Knighton

    Why of course! Summertime is THE time of year for my heater-less air cooled cars. I think Mary and I will be coming down to visit our son later this month. And then in the end of August we will be bringing our daughter Karin down to Portland to start her college life at the University of Portland – same place Timothy went.
    Portland remains a vital part of my life: my first home after finishing my tour of duty with the Air Force in the 70s, and now the home of son and perhaps my daughter. It’s a good place to call home!
    Why don’t you PM me your phone# and I will call you when I know when we’ll be coming your way.

  18. I cannot wait to see the movie, I hope it will be available in the Netherlands too. The book was really great, most impressive and also emotional. When I was reading the book, it gave me the feeling as if I was there, in the story. Even at the moments when I was not reading I was there. Of course I have also bought the other books. Thank you for the beautiful and respectful way you wrote the book.

  19. The film is entirely outside of my hands. Steven Simpson, the director, is in charge of all aspects of the work from this point forward. I am a cheerleader, at best. I would hope he has considered that route. You might want to write to him through the facebook page, neither wolf nor dog movie. Thanks for caring, Valerie. If you have any ins with Redford or his production company, I’m sure that would help.

  20. Tad Standing Bear

    Kent – you’re book changed the course of my life. I am very looking forward to this movie. Thank you!

  21. Thank you for your honesty as you reflect on what it is like to experience having another creative human being turn your powerful book into a movie. We at Pilgrim Place and Claremont United Methodist Church (our book group reflected on this book) are hoping the film will be shown at the Whitehead Film Festival next January. It would be wonderful if you could come to share with us! We are so eager to receive our DVD so we can experience this new creation for ourselves. Eager to read your next blog. Thanks for your openness and willingness to risk!

  22. I look forward to seeing the film. I was happy to read the book as a portrayal of compassion and justice in response to previous and ongoing harm aimed at indigenous peoples from western “civilization”. However, I question whether the author has at all earned the authority (if not audacity) to say, “the film . . .is always and uncompromisingly respectful and accurate in its depiction of Native people and life. . . I can say, with pride, that I have never seen any film, created by Natives or non-Natives, that brings the viewer closer to the experience of a journey through reservation life.” Shouldn’t such words come Native peoples who have walked their own lives and listened to stories from their ancestors? And by the way, what does Harper Collins know about Native peoples and their histories (referring to Nerburn’s website accolades)?

  23. You should check with the facebook page, neitherwolfnordogmovie. The director, Steven Simpson, has control over the movie. I am completely out of the loop.

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