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What I Learned From the Grace of Charles Martin


Kate Winslet and Idris Elba in THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US

I have been staying in a rented cabin in a remote part of Northern New Mexico, to put the finishing touches on my novel, HOLLOW BEASTS, which is going through the editing and rewriting process at Thomas & Mercer in advance of its publication next year. When I'm not writing or hiking or watching the magpies "borrow" kibble from the dog bowl on the back patio, I am reading.


I brought a nice collection of books with me, but also found one the owners of the cabin had left on their bookshelf, Charles Martin's THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US. I had never read anything by Martin before this novel. I was drawn in immediately by his direct, clean writing and the compelling plot - a surgeon and a journalist find themselves stranded together in a snowy mountain wilderness after the pilot of the charter plane they were taking had a heart attack and, after landing the plane as well as he could, died. The characters of Ben and Ashley are realistically drawn, and likeable. The story is told from Ben's point of view, and the voice Martin creates for him is believable. He comes across as a very good guy, and Ashely comes across as a strong, resilient and funny woman. Without giving too much away I will admit to having sobbed at the end of this book - bittersweet tears. It has been a long time since I was so emotionally invested in a novel that, you know, wasn't mine (I kid, I kid), and it felt good to be in that delicious space where the world on the page is realer than the one around you.


Needless to say, I was thrilled to learn the book had been adapted as a feature film, written by the amazing Chris Weitz and J. Mills Goodloe, directed by Hany Abu Assad, and starring two of my favorite actors, Kate Winslet and Idris Elba. I eagerly watched it. The film was vastly different from the book, with major changes to the personalities (and even the names) of the characters. The dynamic between Ben and Alex (formerly Ashley) was completely different in the film than it was in the book. I felt the old familiar confusion and frustration that I have felt, as a novelist who has witnessed several Hollywood adaptations of my own books stall when those who were adapting it made too many changes for my liking. I wondered what Martin had felt about the way his book's most fundamental messages had been changed.


I found this blog post by the author, about this very thing. It seems many of his readers were also confused by the changes, and some of them had been blaming Martin. (That's my biggest fear in seeing my books adapted, by the way, that my readers will think any changes to their favorite bits and pieces would be my fault somehow.)


Martin's response to all of this was an awakening for me, a lesson is gratitude, grace, and cooperation. In short, he said that he had made the decision early in the adaptation process to let his story go, to let the team that was adapting it to draw inspiration from his book and make it something all their own. He complimented the film as a separate entity, and said it was thrilling to see something so beautiful come out of an idea he'd had, even if it was not the same.


I was humbled and inspired by these words, and realized that I'd had many opportunities to get out of the way and let others who were experts in their field (film and television) create something new and beautiful, inspired by my books. I have been too attached to the books, probably because I feel protective of the communities of Latinas I write about. But I have finally realized that the benefits of having a book adapted to the screen, even if certain things I feel strongly about are changed, would outweigh the potential pain or frustration those changes might cause me personally. After all, as Martin points out, many more people have read the book AFTER it became a film, because it was a film, and were therefore exposed to his original vision, along with the vision inspired by it as seen through the eyes of the adapting team.


I think my failure to allow my work to be adapted without my control or input is a personal issue for me, that stems from childhood trauma and a need to control everything around me. I was not raised in an environment that fostered a lot of trust for me in others. This has been both a blessing (it inspired me to write fiction so I could create worlds I could control), and a curse (I have repeatedly gotten in the way of my own best interests by needing to control things).


I would like to thank Martin, today. For writing the book. For allowing others to adapt it. For being gracious enough to see that the film - an outstanding movie, on its own, when not compared too rigorously to the source material - was beautiful and a totally separate being from his novel. Moving forward, should anyone wish to adapt any of my books to the screen, I will strive to follow his example of kindness, trust, compassion and, most of all, allowing others to have control.

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