Q. What were the key challenges in adapting a 440-odd page novel into a feature length screenplay?
Once I was brought on board for Dragonlance, I discovered that there had been several attempts to bring the story to the big screen in the past. My understanding was that Margaret and Tracy weren't happy with the scripts for those projects. I decided immediately that I would write my adaptation to please only them -- not the studio, not the movie-goers, not the executive producers.
Needless to say, it was a daunting task. The script had to be 95 pages, which is short for a screenplay (which usually come in around 110 to 120 pages). Since each page equals one minute of screen time, we're talking a length of an hour and 35 minutes. That worried me. So I realized the most important thing would be to find the spine of Dragons of Autumn Twilight. Once I had that, I could add the scenes and sequences that fit with that spine until I was out of page-count.
I reread the novel three times in rapid succession, and then I read Margaret's and Tracy's notes in the Annotated Chronicles so I could better understand what they were thinking and feeling when they wrote the novel. They had mentioned that in writing this first Dragonlance book, they were constrained by the Dragonlance adventure modules, which had already been written. That caused the novel to have more of an episodic feel than they would've liked (they reversed this process for Dragons of Winter Night and the subsequent books so that the story came first).
As far as characters went, I knew Tanis was the key to everything. Once I fully understood and fleshed out his character arc, I had a better sense of what I could condense, cut out, and combine. My original draft came in at around 106 pages. I tried to keep it at that length, but for budgetary reasons, I was compelled to continue cutting until it came down to about 96. Further cuts have been done in the animatic and production stages to get it down to 90 minutes (some made by me, some not).
Q. How closely does the storyline of the film follow that of the book? Which areas needed the most work in adapting? And are there any major sequences which have been left out?
The plot follows the general structure of the book almost dead-on.
(SPOILER WARNING for those who haven't read the novel.)
We meet our heroes in Solace. They flee with the Staff. Run into draconians. Deal with the specters. Meet the Forest Master. Head to Xak Tsaroth. Encounter the Plainsmen's destroyed village. Sneak through Xak Tsaroth with the help of Bupu. Deal with Onyx. Return to Solace only to get captured by Fewmaster Toede. The companions are "rescued" by the elves of Qualinesti. Agree to undertake a dangerous mission into Pax Tharkas. They free the slaves and face a final encounter with Verminaard, Pyros, and the draconian army.
(End SPOILER WARNING.)
Most of the adapting was in crafting a central throughline. The filmic form demands clarity and simplicity (not that a story can't be complex, but the overall plot has to be clear and concise or you start losing your audience). I wanted the mission from the time the heroes get the staff until the final battle with Verminaard to feel like one story, as opposed to a series of episodes in which the heroes complete one objective and then take on an entirely new objective, unrelated to the first.
I also wanted the film to be rated PG-13, which is in keeping with the tone of the novel. This is a story for adults (13 and up) and I wanted to make sure it stayed that way when it was transformed into another medium. My biggest nightmare was to see Dragonlance turned into a "kid's" movie.
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