Mpw 460: Adaptation for Stage and Screen


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University of Southern California

Colleges of Letters, Arts & Sciences

Master of Professional Writing Program

Spring, 2009

Instructor: Phyllis Nagy


MPW 460: Adaptation for Stage and Screen (catalogue title: Playwright’s Workshop)
Wednesdays, 4 – 6:40


Wednesdays, 7 – 9:40

This course is an investigation into methods of dramatic adaptation, and how adapting works for stage or screen best serves source material by honoring – rather than mimicking – that source material. We will explore and analyze through close reading of short stories and short novels – then follow with close viewing of their respective film or stage adaptations.
Is adaptation all about reshaping the source material’s inherent structure to “suit” the stage or screen? Not necessarily. Is a “faithful” adaptation faithful because it mirrors its source material’s plot? Emphatically, no. These and other questions will be addressed.
Students are required to write a short (15-20pp) dramatic adaptation of a short story chosen from the list that follows this syllabus. This adaptation is to be delivered on or before April 1, 2009, as the last four class sessions will be devoted to in-depth discussions of each student’s dramatic adaptation. These stories are to be chosen by February 11, 2009. Please inform me of your choice in class or via e-mail.

Required texts:

Ryunosuke Akutagawa – Rashomon and In a Grove (two short stories, available in RASHOMON AND OTHER STORIES)

Len Jenkin – A Country Doctor (a play, available in PLAYS BY LEN JENKIN)

Franz Kafka – A Country Doctor (short story available in THE COMPLETE STORIES)

Henri-Pierre Roche – Jules and Jim

Yukio Mishima – The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea

Patricia Highsmith – Strangers on a Train

Susanna Moore – In the Cut

Required films:
Akira Kurosawa – RASHOMON

Francois Truffaut – JULES ET JIM


Alfred Hitchcock – STRANGERS ON A TRAIN

Jane Campion – IN THE CUT

All required texts are available – new or used – through sources such as Amazon or eBay. If you have difficulty locating any book, short story or film, please contact me immediately. All films are available to rent through Netflix.
Course Requirement and Grades

  1. Short dramatic adaptation (30%). What’s important here is stylistic progress, focus, and a demonstrated ability to apply techniques learned through reading/viewing and in class discussions to the writing of your play or screenplay.

  2. Active participation (20%). Please come prepared to roll up your sleeves and participate, to engage in active discussion with your peers, to ask questions, to risk failure, to be challenged, to engage intellectually and creatively.

  3. Reading and viewing assignments (50%). Since so much of the progress writers make is determined by how much we read and see—and how well we learn to analyze what we read and see—this component of the class is crucial.

  4. Should you miss a class, you will be expected to provide a written report and analysis of the text or film assigned for that week. These reports should be a minimum of 2 and a maximum of 4 typewritten pages and are due at the class following the one you miss.

Class Schedule and Assignments

  1. January 14, 2009

In class: Introduction, Getting to Know You and Akutagawa—class discussion of favorite pieces of writing, art, music, etc.; work that has influenced and inspired you, and why talking about such things is important in a writing class; for this first class, please have read the two Ryunosuke Akutagawa stories (Rashomon and In a Grove). These stories are very short! If reading these stories is problematic prior to the start of the semester, please contact me immediately.

For next class: Watch Kurosawa’s Rashomon.

  1. January 21, 2009

In class: Discussion of the Kurosawa film as it relates to Akutagawa’s stories. Special topics: Narrative conveying multiple (and simultaneous) points of views, “reliable” vs. “unreliable” narration.

For next class: Read Roche’s Jules et Jim.

  1. January 28, 2009

In class: Discussion of the Roche’s novel. Special topics: Telescoping time; the “problem” character; the classic “triangle.”

For next class: Watch Truffaut’s Jules et Jim.

  1. February 4, 2009

In class: Discussion of Truffaut’s film as it relates to Roche’s novel. Special topics: differences in temporal structures between film and fiction; de-romanticizing period drama.

For next class: Read both Kafka’s A Country Doctor and Jenkin’s adaptation of this short story.

  1. February 11, 2009

In class: Discussion of Kafka’s short story and Jenkin’s adaptation with an emphasis on imaginative leaps – how an adaptation sometimes best honors the spirit of a text when straying far from its literal plot. All students to have chosen a short story to adapt by this time.

For next class: Read Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea.

  1. February 18, 2009

In class: Discussion of Mishima’s novel. Special topics: adolescents and violence on stage and screen; taste v. tastefulness – is there ever a situation wherein something being “in good taste” is useful to a dramatist?

For next class: Watch Carlino’s The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea.

  1. February 25, 2009

In class: Discussion of Carlino’s film as it relates to Mishima’s novel. Special topics: the dangers of sentimentalizing; dramatic transpositions – do they ever work?

For next class: Read In the Cut.

  1. March 4, 2009

In class: Discussion of Moore’s novel. Special topics: the “inner” first-person narrative; the shifting anti-hero.

For next class: Watch Campion’s In the Cut.

  1. March 11, 2009

In class: Discussion of Campion’s film as it relates to Moore’s novel. Special topics: is sex on the page ever truly “adaptable?”; the mysteries of translating sexual chemistry from page to stage or screen; how to screw up an unhappy ending.

For next class: Read Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train.

  1. March 18, 2009


  1. March 25, 2009

In class: Discussion of Highsmith’s novel with a special emphasis on simultaneous action, building suspense, and the dramatic attractiveness of moral ambiguity.

For next week: Watch Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.

  1. April 1, 2009

In class: Discussion of Hitchcock’s film as it relates to Highsmith’s novel. Special topics: how taking huge liberties with the source material’s narrative, characters and even its informing spirit can sometimes result in brilliant works of art.

For next week: Read student work/prepare for discussion.

  1. April 8, 2009

In class: Discussion of student adaptations.

For next week: Read student work/prepare for discussion.

  1. April 15, 2009

In class: Discussion of student adaptations.

For next week: Read student work/prepare for discussion.

  1. April 22, 2009

In class: Discussion of student adaptations.

For next class: Read student work/prepare for discussion.

  1. April 29, 2009

In class: Discussion of student adaptations.

* * * * * *


Richard Ford Under the Radar (from A Multitude of Sins)

Eudora Welty Death of a Traveling Salesman (from The Collected Stories)

Carson McCullers A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud (from The Collected Stories)

James Salter Last Night (from Last Night)

Adam Haslett The Beginnings of Grief (from You Are Not a Stranger Here)

Ethan Canin Pitch Memory (from The Emperor of the Air)

Deborah Eisenberg Revenge of the Dinosaurs (from Twilight of the Superheroes)

Jayne Anne Phillips Gemcrack (from Black Tickets)

Shirley Jackson Men With Their Big Shoes (from The Lottery and Other Stories)

Flannery O’Connor A Good Man is Hard to Find (from A Good Man is Hard to Find)

Samuel R. Delaney We, In Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move On a Rigorous Line

(from Aye, and Gomorrah)

Lorrie Moore Go Like This (from Self Help)

Amy Hempel The Uninvited (from The Collected Stories)

Alice Munro What Do You Want to Know For? (from The View From Castle Rock)

Bette Pesetsky From P Forward (from Stories Up to a Point) **

** This book is out-of-print. Though copies should be available through a good library, eBay or Amazon, if you have difficulty locating this story, please let me know. I have multiple copies of the collection.

Statement on Academic Integrity: USC seeks to maintain an optimal learning environment. General principles of academic honesty include the concept of respect for the intellectual property of others, the expectation that individual work will be submitted unless otherwise allowed by an instructor, and the obligations both to protect one’s own academic work from misuse by

others as well as to avoid using another’s work as one’s own. All students are expected to understand and abide by these principles. Scampus, the Student Guidebook, contains the Student Conduct Code in Section 11.00, while the recommended sanctions are located in Appendix A: Students will be

referred to the Office of Student Judicial Affairs and Community Standards for further review, should there be any suspicion of academic dishonesty. The Review process can be found at:

USC Disabilities Statement: Any student requesting academic accommo-dations based on a disability is required to register with Disability Services and Programs (DSP) each semester. A letter of verification for approved accommo-dations can be obtained from DSP. Please be sure this letter is handed in as early in the semester as possible. DSP is located in STU 301 and is open from 8:30am to 5pm, Monday thru Friday; phone 213-740-0776.


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