• The Art of Adaptation: Camille DeAngelis and David Kajganich on Taking Bones and All from Page to Screen

    In Conversation at the Inaugural Refocus Film Festival

    Last month, the inaugural Refocus Film Festival took place in Iowa City. The festival highlights films, conversations, performances, and art inspired by the work of literary adaptation—transforming one art form into another.

    The opening film of the festival, Bones and All, featured a conversation between novelist Camille DeAngelis and screenwriter and producer David Kajganich, moderated by Ben Delgado. They discussed David’s process of adapting Camille’s novel, how each of them went about humanizing cannibals, using a fiction MFA in screenwriting, the importance of ego management, and more.

    This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


    Ben Delgado: Let’s start from the beginning. Camille, as a novel, where did this come from?

    Camille: Well, first I went vegan. I was doing some historical research back in 2011 for a novel that will be set in Scotland, and I found this 18th-century Scottish cookbook, and the “flesh” section of this cookbook was very upsetting. And I thought, gosh, I’m really glad I’m not a flesh eater anymore. That year was a very, very creative year for me. I started working on Bones and All because I thought, “Cannibals in love, that can’t end well.” That’s how it started.

    I had a premonition that there was going to be a film version, when I was doing the last revisions before the book went out to editors in early 2013. The book was published in March 2015. And then in the summer of 2015, Theresa Park got in touch to say she wanted to buy the film option. Do you want to take it over from here?

    David: I’d never met Theresa. She wrote me the loveliest email saying, “I thought of you for this.” I didn’t know what “this” was yet, but I was really flattered. And then I got the book and I read it, and I was deeply flattered because the book is so interesting. It has a collision of so many things that unpack questions about identity and growing into oneself and where one sits in society and in community. And it was unpacking these things with a grammar I’d never considered.

    I wrote back and said, I’m only worried about one thing, which is, am I the right person to do this? I was specifically thinking that maybe Camille would prefer a woman write this, because even though it’s about cannibals and it has extremes, it did feel personal to me. I thought, I can understand this on a deeply personal level, having grown up gay in the Midwest in the closet, fearing for my safety in the 80s and all of these things, but I didn’t want to project all of that into the book. I wanted first to understand what Camille cared about with the book and not step in front of that if I was going to do this adaptation.

    So I asked for a meeting. We had a phone call, and I asked if it sat well with you that maybe a man would write this adaptation, and you were very gracious about saying that it wasn’t off the table. You asked if we could have a longer conversation the following week about subtext, and I was sure that the subtext you wanted to talk about would be feminist subtext. So I spent the week reading and thinking about eating disorders and body dysmorphia and trying to get ready for this conversation. And we got on the phone, and you said, “All I care about is that the film is vegan.” That was not what I was prepared for. And so I asked you to tell me everything about that.

    “I wanted first to understand what Camille cared about with the book and not step in front of that if I was going to do this adaptation.”

    Camille: I just remember saying that the subtext, as I had intended it, was way too subtle in the novel. And apart from that, I just wanted to see what you could do with it. A lot of people have said, oh, the film is so different from the novel, and folks are surprised that I’m delighted by the changes that Dave and Luca and the rest of the team made, because I think people have this idea in their heads that the story as I wrote it is precious to me. The truth is that I wrote this novel a decade ago. It’s ancient history for me, creatively speaking.

    One of the reasons I was not interested in adapting my own work is that the ideas I had about the characters and their motivations, and where they were coming from and where they were going, and how they were going to collide—that had all calcified in my imagination. My philosophy is that you need to bring a new sympathetic writer on board to keep building out the world in a different direction for the cinema. And I could not be more thrilled with the work that you all have done.

    David: And you did something that I thought was incredibly generous, which is that you said to me, “I’ll see you at the finish line.” You didn’t want to insert yourself in the process. You said, I’ll be very curious, but just get in touch when you’re done. And for a writer adapting someone else’s work, that level of trust—you really seemed to be comfortable with the fact that I was going to now go off and somehow translate this book into a visual language.

    Ben Delgado: When did you finally read the script?

    Camille: It was two days before I went to the film set.

    David: What did you think?

    Camille: I just remember staying up really late. I don’t stay up all night anymore. The first couple novels, I was up all night writing—now I keep more reasonable hours. But I stayed up late reading the script, and my heart was so full of joy. I really cannot express how full of gratitude I am for this entire experience, and for you, just to have such a wonderful, kindred spirit.

    David: Did you remember the conversation we’d had? And did you feel that it was reflected in the script? Because that was my only concern. I wanted you to feel that something had come full circle.

    “My philosophy is that you need to bring a new sympathetic writer on board to keep building out the world in a different direction for the cinema.”

    Camille: Yeah. The scene in the slaughterhouse, I wish I had written that. I say this all the time—I wish that I could go back in time and novelize the script and put Dave’s name on the book along with mine.

    David: Did you miss anything?

    Camille: I mean, my novel still exists in my head, and it will always exist. And each one of you who have read the novel, you have the version in your head, which is different from my version, which is different from your version and everyone else’s. But this version is one we all get to experience together, and I love every single change you made.

    David: I just remember, when you got to set, I asked you to think about something. We were standing in a parking lot in this sort of haunted school, looking at all the trucks and looking at all the people working. We probably had almost 200 people there. And I just wanted Camille to remember that she was the first link of the chain that led through all of these people and now leads through everyone in this theater. I wanted you to try to articulate what that felt like because I’ve never felt that. I’ve never written a novel that started a chain like this. I was so curious what that must feel like. I don’t think you had an answer then, but I wonder if you have an answer now.

    Camille: It’s deeply, deeply humbling. It’s so clichéd to say that I feel so grateful, but I do. To be able to watch Taylor [Russell] win the Best Young Actress Award at the Venice Film Festival, playing a character I created—I don’t have a word for it. I’m humbled and I’m grateful, and those words are not sufficient, but they’re what I have.

    David: How many people have read the book in the audience? Did it seem very different to you? Because now we have conversations where we can’t remember what’s in the book and what’s in the script, and I think that’s a good sign. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, which is the lovely thing. But does it feel different? Can you say how? We’re very curious.

    Ben Delgado: The comment was that there’s an innocence in the novel that you don’t see in the film. Because it’s a YA novel, the characters feel so young, and it’s more innocent than what was a little more graphic in the film.

    “Now we have conversations where we can’t remember what’s in the book and what’s in the script, and I think that’s a good sign.”

    David: That was obviously one of the first things to figure out in terms of an adaptation. How do we somehow retain the tone of the book when we have to have a much higher level of visual disclosure? Once you point a camera at someone biting into someone else’s flesh, you either have to drive that in an extreme direction toward fantasy and fairy tale, or you have to somehow get quite practical about it, quite naturalistic.

    I chose to move in the direction of naturalism, because I thought ultimately what I wouldn’t want to happen with the film adaptation is that it would feel like it was protecting the characters in a way that prose doesn’t shield you from the characters. Prose gives you a tone in which to greet them and get to know them. But a camera is sort of pitiless. You can direct a camera to somehow encode empathy into the image, but it’s really hard.

    And so I thought, well, maybe that’s my key to this adaptation, is to not try to protect them—and to put the audience in a situation where the characters really are, in some respects, others. And then you have to decide how much you’re willing to go toward them, and how much of their otherness you can accommodate in your empathy for them.

    Can you put aside the thing about the story that is notorious in favor of a connection with the characters, as if it weren’t partly a horror film? I don’t know if you could or not, but I hope you could. We didn’t make this movie because we loved the idea of making a cannibal movie. We made the movie because we loved the idea of telling a love story that Camille had designed. Telling a love story that asks you to work toward the love in an interesting way.

    Ben Delgado: It’s such a difficult thing to do, to manage the tone that both of you did in the novel and on the screen. Was there a moment where you were like, I don’t think we’re going to be able to get people to feel for cannibals? It really is such a big task.

    “I wouldn’t trade the training I got in fiction that I’m using in screenwriting for anything.”

    David: Well, the preciseness of the shots that are in the film speak to how subtle the differences are between takes and between the length of a shot. It really is almost scientific. There was more violence in the film in an earlier cut, and we quickly understood that the violence didn’t equate to pathos. There was a limit, and you have to cross the line to know where the line is. Finding that line was upsetting, because we had to step over it and then realize that we didn’t need to push the audience around—we just needed to not protect the characters from their needs and their behaviors and their desires. There were plenty of moments on set where I was like, oh, if this makes the final cut, I don’t know how this is going to work.

    Ben Delgado: Camille, same question for you. As you were writing the book, did you ever think, I don’t know that there’s any way people are going to relate to these characters?

    Camille: Yeah, I’m never going to write a book like this again. I’ve joked, but I’m not joking, that I felt like I had to exorcize this book. It took several rewrites to get to the point where I could say that Maren was a truly sympathetic monster. I mean, again, it’s up to you to decide.

    Ben Delgado: We’re here in Iowa City, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask—Dave, how do you think that your time in the Iowa City Writers Workshop shaped where you are now?

    David: I wouldn’t trade the training I got in fiction that I’m using in screenwriting for anything. If I had gone to film school or had taken screenwriting classes, which I didn’t—they ultimately teach you one shape for narrative, which is the shape that fits into 110 to 120 minutes and has three clear acts and a clear protagonist. Many films benefit from that shape, but not all films do. And this film certainly would not have benefited from that shape.

    I think having read widely and deeply and learned how to take a book apart respectfully and with a kind of intellectual rigor, but also an emotional rigor and a psychological rigor, there isn’t better training for screenwriting. Certainly for adapting someone else’s work. Because if I had tried to apply that screenwriting shape to this book, it would have been terrible.

    And honestly, that screenwriting shape would have even precluded me from thinking about the story visually. It’s a dangerous shape because it’s such a limiting shape. I suppose it’s fine if you’re generating ideas to fit into that shape, but I would think that would get tedious pretty quickly. By the time you’ve written your dozenth screenplay designed for that shape, I would think you would start to lose your curiosity about what film is for, what it can explore.

    Ben Delgado: Camille, do you have any tidbits of wisdom for anyone who is a writer and wants to get published and or even be adapted?

    Camille: I talk a lot about ego management, which I think is a concept that any aspiring writer should be prioritizing. I wrote a book called Life Without Envy: Ego Management for Creative People. It came out in 2016, the year after Bones and All came out. At the time, no one would have called me a successful author. I kept getting new publishers, and then the books didn’t sell very well, which is the course of many, many an author’s career. But what are you going to do? How are you going to feel about yourself when things are not going as you hoped they would? And how can you eventually make a transition from seeking recognition to making a contribution and becoming part of a creative community?

    I’m really glad that this experience is happening for me 20 years into my career. I’m 41, so I’ve been at this for a while. That’s the thing I really want to share with anyone who’s writing, is to prioritize ego management. Your creativity is bigger than you, and that is true whether or not you are seeking publication or you’re actually making the film for a wider audience or whatever it is that you do. However you choose to express your creativity, remember that you are making an impact in the lives of the people around you and possibly in the lives of people you will never meet.

    It’s so awesome to get to see this movie and all the changes that were made, because I love all the changes. I don’t look at it and see, oh, these filmmakers thought they can do my story better than I can. It’s not like that at all. It’s the opposite of that. But I’ve also been doing a lot of inner work to get to that point where it’s not about me. It’s bigger than me.

    More Story
    Diary of a Pilgrimage: Marking the Gravesite of Assia and Shura Wevill About a quarter mile from Sylvia Plath’s grave in Heptonstall, West Yorkshire, there is a wooded path, lined with sycamore...
  • Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

    For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.