In the second of a three-part article, Oscar Harding- whose pitch Clawback was longlisted in 2016 - talks about his experiences of entering the competition, and how he created a pitch that got through the first stage of the competition.
I’d chosen the passage from the Bible that I wanted to adapt into a short film: The Parable of the Talents. I dug deep and figured out why, above all the other Bible passages, it appealed to me. Then I began to work out what exactly the story’s morals and messages were. I had cracked the source material, but now I had to put my filmmaker’s hat on and ask myself:
How can I adapt it in an original way?
You need to include a USP - unique selling point - in your pitch. If you want to do a literal adaptation, set in the Holy Land in Biblical Times, then that’s going to be a stretch on the budget… even a £30,000 budget! This kind of adaptation has also been done so many times before. I wanted to do something new.
I can’t speak for the entries that went on to win, or at least make the final, but this was the kind of thought and detail I went into with my adaptation:
I got lucky because there were several different versions of this story, so I could draw from multiple sources. I decided to choose Matthew’s telling of the story over Luke’s. Matthew’s felt more cinematic, with a traditional three-act structure and colourful dialogue. Luke’s is more violent, but bogged down in backstory about The Master, which doesn’t really inform the story. I felt that the servants should be the focus, because they are more relatable. His dialogue is also more poetic, and less realistic, therefore this telling felt more literary and less easy to translate onto film.
However, you aren’t just restricted to one wording of these stories: there are countless different version of the Bible. The New International and Catholic versions were the ones that really helped me flesh out the “third servant”, who in my pitch was the one selfless hero of the four characters, and is punished for his good behaviour.
There was even a version of the story in the non-canonical Gospel of Hebrews. This wasn’t the basis for my film, as it is non-canonical, but there were certain parts that informed the details of the plot. For example, in this version of the parable, the servant is taken specifically to prison, which is what happens to my “third servant”. One of the servants wastes his master’s money on “harlots and flute-girls”, which informed one of my character’s personalities. I found relevant little bits from all over Scripture to draw upon that ended up enriching my pitch.
Artists like Rembrandt, Jan Luyken and Matthäus Merian created paintings of The Parable and I intended to utilise their use of colour and lighting to inform the film’s cinematography. I was also planning to include references to John Milton’s sonnet “When I Consider How My Light is Spent” and Bertolt Brecht’s “The Threepenny Novel”, both of which commented on the Parable, and have some sort of cover version of John Wesley’s hymn “Slave of God, Well Done!”, a hymn that alludes to the Parable, playing in the background of the charity gala were my film was set.
As someone who has worked on feature films as a researcher, I tend to go overboard, but as you come to research, you’ll surprise yourself with just how in-depth you end up going- especially for a Bible story, which has inspired so many other works of art and leaves behind a trail of inspirations for you to look at.
Adaptation goes beyond just translating the words of a story to the screen. It’s up to you to decide the best setting and time period for your film. My advice is that however you want to do it - traditionally or in a more liberal fashion - you have to justify your interpretation and always find a way to bring it back to your source material.
Adapting from the Bible is not as restrictive as you might think - there is a wealth of material to draw upon so you can make something special. Previous winners and runners-up have made Epic Space Opera and Period Pieces. The sky’s the limit!
Tomorrow, in the final part of my article, we’ll consider perhaps the most important question: what is your film trying to say?