Adapting a Text for Film by Joe O’Byrne | Resources | Write for Stage & Screen

Joe O'Byrne

Joe O’Byrne presents a screenwriting seminar at this year’s Adaptation Film Weekend (Leitrim 23-25th Sept). Full details

Here he describes the challenge of producing a screenplay for the 1995 feature film Korea, directed by Cathal Black and adapted from the three page short story by John McGahern.

It is now quite a few years since I did the adaptation for Korea, and as with most things the and still now in the film business it came about in a roundabout way. Cathal Black had been planning to make a short film of the story, and during a chance meeting, he mentioned the project to me, and the idea was mooted whether it could be turned into a feature film. I thought, of course, why not. Every film starts out as a germ of an idea, gets expanded into a story, then into a script. So why should a short story not undergo that process?

Naturally, when you look at the short story, Korea, the one thing you will conclude is that it is indeed short. It is the journey of a father and son on a boat out onto a lake. This would be the climax scene, but everything else leading up to this would have to be written. But in reading the story, the thing that hits you, is how dense it is, how sparse, how detailed in its economy it is. Delving into the story, it was possible to trawl through the many details, and use them as hooks for the writing of the events of the story of the film that would lead up to the final climactic scene. But it would also be necessary to add components to the story, add sub-plots that would allow the story to expand to the necessary length for a feature film.

The normal approach in the film business, particularly in Hollywood, is you buy up the raw material, such as novels, short stories, even people’s lives, then the attitude often is, you may do as you wish with the raw material, develop it in any way you want. This, however, wasn’t how we wanted to proceed. It was a beautiful short story by John McGahern, and we wanted to be faithful to the spirit and content of the original.

KoreaIt might seem odd to state this, but Korea is a romance, if a very muted one. In the short story, the central character of John Doyle, is a man of the land, a man of the lake. In his strong attachment to the lake, to the fishing, there is great passion, great romance. He is also a man who has lost his wife, and who still vividly remembers their honeymoon on Howth Head. He also has a great attachment to his son, and this becomes the crux of the story, the terrible conflict with which he is faced.

John Doyle is a man of a now forgotten time, when children were one’s offspring, but also one’s assets. It is hard to believe nowadays, when parents can feel like the servants of their children, that at one time children were counted and accounted. The more children one had, either to work, or to export abroad to send home remittances, the wealthier a family was. John Doyle only has the one son. If this son were to leave, he, as a widower, would be left on his own. But economic circumstances force his hand. He is to lose his fishing licence, so that the fishing can be served up to tourists, and this means his small farm will no longer support father and son.

This would have been a fairly common set of events at the time, but McGahern pulls a master stroke in the way he draws world events into the story.  Obviously set around 1950, one of the principal events in the world at the time was the war in Korea, hence the title. Many Irish people who emigrated to the United States at the time might have been unaware that when they swore allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, Uncle Sam had the right to come calling. And for quite a few he did. The son of a family in the village had answered the call, and paid the ultimate price. It is arguably one of the most poignant and beautiful scenes in Irish cinema, as John and Eamon Doyle join the convoy of boats with the coffin draped in the American flag across the lake to the island graveyard.

It is then at the ensuing wake that John Doyle learns of the insurance payout that the American military make for soldiers killed in action. It is a bitter twist, a moment of fierce calculation, as John Doyle transforms his son from offspring to asset. This is how we have expanded and visualised the book, the clue that McGahern gives in the story as to the reason for the murderous tension between father and son as they slowly progress out onto the lake. There were a number of other strands we developed and added, but all were part of the attempt to tease out a complete story from the cryptic clues offered by the short story.

McGahern’s story is of its time and timeless. Clearly he was drawing from the events of that period, but also he was creating a story that has at its heart questions: what price love? What price family? Nowadays, we in Ireland are no longer the subjects of such a brutal choice. We have moved up in the world, we are a society of affluence, and those that went abroad in times past now have the option to come home, just as going abroad to work is generally a matter of choice. However, our new economy has drawn people from many nations who may be coming from societies or countries which are experiencing what we did in those dark days. We know of countries where children, girls are sold into slavery to feed the Western World’s demand for paid sex. We know of countries riven by strife, by political upheaval. And the sight of a coffin draped in the Stars and Stripes is now a common sight, as American troops suffer casualties in unwise wars in far flung places.

Stories, cinema, can entertain. They can enchant. They can give one pause to think. John McGahern’s Korea is one such story. Cathal Black’s film does this in equal measure. What makes them more than just of their time, however, is their romance, their passion, in the muted key one associates with McGahern’s writing. The task in doing the adaptation, was to do justice to his vision, and at the same time to create the basis for a film that would live and breathe in its own right.

(c) Joe O’Byrne

ADAPTATION is a weekend of films celebrating the relationship of literature and cinema. Presented by Bandit Films in association with the Glens Centre, Manorhamilton, Co. Leitrim. Friday 23rd – Sunday 25th September 2022. See here for full details.

About the author

Joe O’Byrne has written and directed for film, television, radio and theatre. He wrote the screenplay for “Korea” and his own film “Pete’s Meteor, and was a writer on “An Brontanas”. In theatre his plays have included “En Suite” at the Peacock, “The Article” at the Altes Schauspielhaus, Stuttgart. He has also directed “Frank Pig Says Hello” and “The Dead School by Pat McCabe, and “The Woman Who Walked Into Doors” by Roddy Doyle. For radio he has written and directed “Yardstick”, and directed “The Revenant” by Pat McCabe, as well as “The Blue Hyacinth” by Maeve Brennan. Most recently he directed the filmed versions of “The Aran Islands” by J.M. Synge and Marina Carr’s “The Cordelia Dream”, and for the stage “The Safety Catch” by Nick Snow.

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