Time keeping can be a tricky thing in film. As a film major, one of the first things you asses about a film is the narrative time in which it takes place, keeping track mostly of the points where is speeds up, and absorbing the material that is exposed when it slows down. A lot of times character-driven films will start off quickly, maybe covering several hours worth of character actions in a few minutes in order to quickly acclimate the viewer with the protagonist. Then, in the moments before and during the main inciting event, time will slow down so we can watch the drama of the situation unfold. Whether you are aware of it or not, time in films is incredibly important. A filmmaker must allow for the viewers mind to subconsciously account for missing time in an effort to not disorient the world of the film, and to allow for the pacing of events unfold how they desire them to, and how it would be comfortable to watch.
Time goes further than editing too, timing is kept in mind all throughout the directing process as well. Directors are constantly thinking about how certain movements, acting choices, and shots will represent passing time, or affect the viewers interpretation of time. Also, when directing or acting, knowing when your character is in the script and how their relation to other characters or events are related impact their decisions greatly— essentially the entire basis of acting and directing. Timing means everything in a story. It’s what grounds us as viewers, it’s also what disturbs us or brings us in. When films are kept in time we are more comfortable as it is a pacing that we recognize as our own. When a film speeds up we are either excited or disoriented. When a film slows down we are intrigued or confused. When events happen out of order we are upset, when the laws of time keeping are not followed by the director, the film becomes representative of a certain message or ideal other than narrative. Conventional timing is used to build trust between the filmmaker and the audience. Breaking this trust results in a bothersome crowd. Whether or not it was your intention, as a filmmaker, to bother people will strongly impact your favor of the results. All this is to say is it is imperative to consider time in filmmaking— the most important factor, in my own opinion. So, what does this mean for storytelling across other platforms? Well it means that there is a right and a wrong answer when communicating time, and I took an entire course on how its done. Here are some snippets of what I learned in my semester studying adaptation.
Whether you’re aware of it or not, most popular television series or films are not completely original. Many of these are adaptations of previous works. Adaptations are different from remakes because remaking a book as a film would be a horrific viewing experience. It is important to translate the two mediums. When translating, the vibe/style and story stay the same, but the pacing and time are altered. This is why JR Tolkien spends pages upon pages describing the textures and cultures of the Hobbits and their native land, whereas the Lord of the Rings film series can achieve this explanation with a single shot, and develop it further as the film progresses. Books do not have this luxury as many of the sensory detectors that films get are not present in the reading experience. A reader needs to have their environment and character deeply explained so their reading experience is not one of someone wandering a dark room with spots of light. The reader needs the whole room.
In my final paper for my adaptation class I related the art of adaptation to that of translation. When my language professors would warn the class to not use google translate, I always thought they were just trying to prevent us from using a very useful tool because it was essentially cheating myself from learning the language. Later, as my skills developed, I realized that speaking another language is much more than a 1:1 transfer of words or phrases. Translating a language is much more of an interpretation than it is a translation. In order to say a phrase or communicate a message you heard in one language in another, you must have a very deep understanding of what it means to the ear of a native speaker, and you must know more than the words that successfully translate it, but also the feeling and pacing behind the words that you are choosing to represent the message. In film, it comes down to that. If you are taking a page of comic book frames and moving them to film, you might begin to realize that just because a new frame has begun does not mean a new scene has begun. A filmmaker must take the comic book and completely absorb it for what it is before moving forward and beginning the task of interpreting (adapting)it into film. If you begin translating a english sentence into Spanish one word at a time, you will find yourself restarting the transliteration after almost every word. Timing is sensitive in adaptation, and one must carefully consider the choices they are making when adapting any book, comic book, poem, play, or anything else into a film.
When Lin-Manuel Miranda was working on Hamilton, a fellow playwright gave him advice in a point of writers block adapting Ron Chernow’s book “Alexander Hamilton” into the 2.5 hour musical. He told him to remember to just write the parts that are a musical; there is no need to write the whole story. Miranda references this as a turning point in his writing process. Chernow’s book is a thick historical biography, and ultimately too dense to be considered a piece of pop-culture. Miranda took this comprehensive writing to learn a fuller story about Alexander Hamilton and was able to take the twists and turns of his life and the surrounding story of the American Revolution into the most successful Broadway play of all time. Chernow even joked that he felt legitimately embarrassed when he heard the opening lines to the play, which ask the question, “How does a bastard, orphan son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” Saying that that one sentence essentially summarized the thesis for his book which he outlined over the course of a lengthy first chapter. Miranda knows how important the information Chernow laid out was, but he also knows that a musical audience will understand the gist and would just like to get to the action. Both are successful and both audiences will leave knowing the same story. All that is different is the time it will take to communicate the two, and that is the power of adaptation.