Page to Stage and Screen

November 30, 2008

"Christening by digital fire." That's how Elisabeth Benfey, a lecturing fellow in the theater studies department, describes her undergraduate filmmaking class. Recently, Benfey worked with writer Michael Malone, a visiting professor of the practice, on a collaborative project between fledgling filmmakers in her class and students in his course on adapting literature for the screen.

 In studying the art of narrative adaptation, Malone's students examined how fiction is translated, successfully or unsuccessfully, from one medium to another. Writers Lee Smith, Allan Gurganus, and Daniel Wallace each gave the class permission to adapt a short story. Visiting writer-in-residence Oscar Hijuelos contributed a chapter from his 1983 novel, Our House in the Last World. All four writers met with the class to discuss their works, three of which became film scripts and, one, a play.

Benfey's filmmaking students broke down the scripts, created storyboards, wrote shot lists, cast the scenes with students from both classes, and rehearsed and directed the films. "One of the things I like most about writing fiction is that so many things can happen to it after it leaves home," says Wallace, whose novel Big Fish was made into a commercial film of the same name and released in 2004. The students adapted Wallace's short story "Graveyard Days."

"Seeing a written narrative become a film is the ultimate compliment, because a group of people have gotten together and decided that something about this story is worthwhile and deserves to be seen and understood in another context," Wallace says.

"I love to let the story go, love to see what others will do to it, because the story—my story—doesn't change. In fact, no matter how the film turns out, its existence serves to enlarge the story. And let's face it, it's just plain fun."

Gurganus says he enjoyed the raucous laughter that greeted the student production of his story "Nativity, Caucasian." "I wrote this story just ten years out of high school. It was meant as a love song to all the pretty, able women my mother's age. I loved them all. They could and should have run multinationals. Instead, they played killer bridge and made exceptional refreshments for Cub Scout troops, Kiwanis picnics, and card tournaments.

"The Duke students' film provided a generational frame from which these women might be more richly appreciated."