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The Big Sick: How To Adapt a True Life Story
This week we are going to be talking about The Big Sick by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani.
I am excited to talk about The Big Sick not just because it was a successful film, but also because it allows me to talk about a topic that I have wanted to discuss for some time:
How to adapt a story from your life.
There is a wonderful scene in The Big Sick, one of the scenes that actually doesn’t get talked a lot. Kumail (for those of you who haven’t seen the film) is a Pakistani-American Uber driver who has fallen in love with a white American girl.
And in one of the really lovely scenes in their romance, he invites her to this terrible play that he has created about Pakistan. It is meant to be a one man show but it comes out more like an extremely detailed and dry history of Pakistan.
The scene has a lot of wonderful little jokes for the audience. But the joke for the character is that Emily shows up for her boyfriend’s show and it is the worst thing ever, and everybody knows it is the worst thing ever, and now she has to pretend that it is good.
If you are an artist and you have artist friends, you know what that experience is like. You know that there is often a desire, when that happens, to protect the person whose work we have gone to see: to tell them things are good that aren’t good, to protect their ego rather than their art.
Emily, in the film, does actually a much more loving thing, actually a much more brave thing. She doesn’t trash the play, but she does tells Kumail the truth.
She says, “I learned a lot about Pakistan, but I didn’t learn a lot about you.”
And this sets up a beautiful structure in the The Big Sick, which is really a story about Kumail learning what it is to tell the truth.
In fact, in a way, it is a story about all these characters learning to tell the truth.
Emily’s father, Terry, played by Ray Romano also has to learn how to tell the truth, how to not be a coward.
What makes Emily’s mother, Beth, played by Holly Hunter, so wonderful is that she always tells the truth– even if it means that she is going to attack a racist heckler in the middle of a performance.
So all these characters are eventually going to go on a journey about telling the truth. And the biggest journey about telling the truth is Kumail’s journey.
Kumail is a character who is afraid to tell the truth.
Kumail is a person who is trying to please everybody in his life. And because he needs so badly to please, he isn’t saying what is real.
He has convinced his parents that he is going to accept an arranged marriage with a Pakistani woman, even though he isn’t taking any of his potential dates seriously.
He has convinced Emily that they are in a relationship, even though he doesn’t believe he is ever going to marry her because he is afraid of being disowned by his parents.
And as an artist he isn’t yet able to tell the truth with his writing.
Ultimately, he is going to go on a journey in relation to his one man show, in which he learns to tell the truth about himself.
And in that way earns his happy ending; he earns his happy ending by telling the truth.
When we are adapting a true life story, our job, like Kumail’s job, is to tell the truth.
And oftentimes we have a lot of different urges pulling against us.
What is interesting is that Kumail and Emily’s story is based on a true story– is based on their true story– the true story of how they fell in love, how she fell into a coma and how, during the time that she was in that coma, he realized that he wanted to marry her no matter what his parents thought.
So this is a movie based on a really beautiful true story.
And like most true stories, at first glance we might think that it isn’t enough to be a movie– which is how a lot of us feel when we first write a true story.
I remember the first class that I was hired to teach– before I created the Studio. The dean of the school (which will go unnamed), who is a very lovely man, during our orientation sat me down and said, “Okay, look Jake, you do whatever you want. We don’t really have a curriculum. The only thing is: don’t let them tell true life stories, because you know it is just going to suck.”
And I remember asking him, “What makes you think it is going to suck?” And he said, “Well there won’t be enough for a movie there.”
And a few weeks later he came into my class and he saw the work that was happening, and he said, “How did you teach these people to do that?”
And I said, “I didn’t teach them to do that, I allowed them to do that. I allowed them to tell the truth, I allowed them to tell the stories of their lives.”
Because the truth is that every movie you write, whether it is fiction or non-fiction, whether it really happened in the real world or whether it only happened at the world of your mind, every movie you write is an adaptation of a true story.
It is an adaptation of your true story.
There is a common piece of wisdom that you are supposed to “write what you know.” And I think this is actually a very confusing piece of wisdom, even though it is quite wise.
The reason that it is a confusing piece of wisdom is that, oftentimes, we feel like “writing what you know” is very limiting.
We start to get nervous: “What if I didn’t live a really interesting life? What if I grew up in the suburbs with a nice family? What if my story isn’t valid enough?”
“And what if I want to write a fantasy or a Sci-Fi or a horror movie? What if I want to write a movie that isn’t based on real life things? How am I supposed to write what I know if I want to write in one of these genres?”
“Or a Western! I have never lived in a Western, how am I supposed to tell that story?”
But the truth is that every story is an adaptation of a true life story; it is an adaptation of your true life story.
If we look at a movie like The Lord of the Rings, which was based in a book by J.R.R. Tolkien (which is actually even stronger than the movies)–
I think we can all agree that J.R. R. Tolkien never saw a hobbit, never fought a dragon, never saw an ogre, never confronted The Dark Lord Sauron or had to throw a ring into a magical burning river.
I think we can all agree that the world of Middle-earth wasn’t a world that he knew. But the world of Middle-earth and the war between good and evil in Middle-earth isn’t really what The Lord of the Rings is about.
The Lord of the Rings is about a guy who is addicted to a ring. You lose this in the movie, but it is very clear in the book. Frodo, as he gets closer to destroying the ring, wants to put the ring on his finger.
There is an incredible draw to put the ring on his finger. He wants to put the ring on his finger even though he knows it draws the Dark Lord closer, even though he knows the ring makes him invisible.
And ultimately it takes an even bigger addict– Gollum, has to bite the ring off of Frodo’s finger for him to let go of it.
And then, it is really interesting when you read the series of three books, and you get to the middle of the third book and they have destroyed the ring and you are like, what is going to happen in the rest of this book? Isn’t it over?
But it isn’t over, because it isn’t a book about destroying the ring of Power; it is a book about letting go of an addiction and then having to go home to the real world.
And what ends up happening when Frodo goes home is he has to confront the fact that his neighbors suck, that people will hurt you, that mundane life is hard to take. In fact, Bilbo can’t take it. Bilbo ends up leaving Middle-earth, because the other thing that is happening is that all of the magical creatures are leaving Middle-earth.
And this is woven into the movie, but it is kind of lost and confusing we don’t really understand why. But in the book, the magical creatures are leaving Middle-earth because the age of magic is ending and the age of man is beginning.
Because the age of addiction is ending, the age of escape is ending, and the age of being a real human being with real human problems is beginning.
So this gets lost a little bit in the movie because they change the ring.
They change the ring because they have a technical problem: they have a problem that the ring makes you invisible, and invisible is really hard to shoot without it looking cheesy.
And so rather than turning Frodo into Casper The Friendly Ghost, they decide, “all right, well he can’t want to put the ring on because if he wants to put the ring on, then we are going to have to shoot him invisible, because there is no way to see him want to put the ring on if he doesn’t do it, not in a movie.”
So what ends up happening is, instead of having him want to put the ring on, they make the ring heavy. And Frodo is whining to Samwise– you probably remember this scene, “It so heavy…”
But you aren’t crying with them, you don’t really feel it, because that isn’t really what the movie is about. And by reversing it, they end up actually losing the theme– that theme of addiction that tied the novel together.
I don’t know that much about J.R. R. Tolkien’s life, but I would guess that either he had an addiction or there was someone profound in his life who struggled with an addiction. (Some have argued that he was writing about human-kind’s addiction to the commercial-industrial process).
But whatever the experience, you can see that The Lord of the Rings is actually an adaptation of that experience. Not what actually happened literally, but what happened emotionally—what it felt like.
Our job as screenwriters is actually quite simple; we use fiction in order to tell the truth.
Sometimes using fiction in order to tell the truth means creating a metaphor like “the ring,” creating a fantasy world like Middle-earth that can represent the internal world, the internal experience, the way you felt it—taking the thing that happened on the inside and externalizing it to the outside.
Other times, telling the truth means adapting a true life story, somebody else’s true life story.
But even that adaptation isn’t an adaptation of their story, because you will never know what it is like to be them.
You can step into them as best you can, but at the end of the day you can’t adapt their story. You can only adapt what their story meant to you.
You can only adapt your experience of that story: the way that experience bumped up against your life experience.
In this way every adaptation you do is a metaphor.
And the third way that we use fiction to tell the truth is that sometimes we are telling a true story based on our lives.
But if we simply tell the literal truth, we aren’t actually going to tell a true story.
In The Big Sick Kumail is doing a pretty good job of telling the literal truth about Pakistan during his terrible one man show. He is doing a pretty good job of telling the truth about Pakistan—but he is telling the literal truth, he isn’t telling the emotional truth. He isn’t telling the truth of what it feels like.
Similarly, Kumail struggles with the truth in his stand-up comedy.
If there are any comics in the audience you know that this is true– comedy isn’t about asking for laughs, comedy is about telling the truth the way that you see it in a way that allows you and your audience to laugh at yourself.
And in fact one of the most momentous moments in the film is Kumail’s breakdown as he tries to tell his joke about the toast—the joke that he never completes.
And although Kumail is punished harshly in the movie for telling the truth, just as sometimes we are punished for telling the truth– not everybody likes it when we tell the truth– ultimately it is telling the truth that ends up changing his life.
In order to tell the truth, the emotional truth, sometimes we have to change the literal truth.
And this is where adaptation becomes so challenging.
Because what bad producers do– I remember coming up in the industry as a producer and bad producers would always say the same stupid thing. They would always say, “The truth sucks. Uou’ve got to make it up.”
And this is pretty much the dumbest thing you could say as a producer. And I would watch those producers make terrible movies.
But the great producers, in my opinion, don’t turn around and say, “You can only show exactly what happened in the exact order that it occurred.”
Because doing that in a film also doesn’t allow you to tell the truth!
Films happen differently from life.
Films happen differently from life for a lot of reasons. First is that films happen quicker than life.
In life, you have a lifetime to experience life.
In the real world, Emily was in a coma for eight days, and Kumail had eight full days to connect with her parents and to come to his decision and to confront his own parents and to go through his big change. He had eight days to do it.
In a movie, he has got an hour and a half; he has got 100 pages to do it. So, in movies, things have to happen faster.
The second thing is, in real life, a lot of the decision making process happened inside of Kumail’s mind.
A lot of the emotions happened inside of Kumail’s mind.
The way the experience felt as they were experiencing it– a lot of that happened inside Kumail’s mind and inside Emily’s mind and inside Beth’s mind, and inside Terry’s mind, and inside Azmat’s mind and Sharmeen’s mind and Naveed’s mind– inside all of these characters’ minds.
In a movie, we cannot see what happens in the character’s mind. And because of that, we cannot see the truth of what it felt like, unless the writer has the courage to dramatize it, to translate that internal truth into an external truth that we can see.
Not to make it up, not to create bullshit, not to make it fake, but rather to create fictional scenes that allow the truth to progress at movie pace: to create fictional scenes that allow the internal feelings to get externalized into choices and actions that the characters make.
So, I want to talk a little bit about how The Big Sick the movie is different from The Big Sick in real life.
Luckily People Magazine did a nice article about this that covers some of the big differences.
The first is that, in real life, Kumail didn’t break up with Emily before she went into a coma!
And you can see that that is a major departure from the structure of the movie.
In the structure of The Big Sick, Kumail breaking up with Emily is vital. It allows us to understand not only his journey in realizing what he as to do, but also to understand her hesitance in getting back together with him after she wakes up.
But it is also vital for another reason: Kumail’s main problem is that he has trouble telling the truth. He wants to tell the truth, but he feels beholden to his parents and he is terrified that his parents are going to kick him out of the family. He is terrified that his parents aren’t going to love him anymore. And there is a part of him in real life that is wondering, am I actually going to be with this girl or am I eventually going to dump her just like all the rest and do what my parent want?
In real life, that conflict was internal to Kumail.
In real life it happened inside of his mind.
In real life he was wrestling with the feeling, but he wasn’t taking the full action based upon it.
If that happened in the movie, we would feel like, “This isn’t a movie! It’s just a story about a guy who was dating a girl and then she got sick, and then when she woke up he wanted to marry her.”
And we would never fully understand how scary that was for him.
Sure he could talk about it, I guess. He could emote about it.
But would that really capture the degree of the fear that he felt, if he never took action based on that fear?
Without that structural choice, The Big Sick would it simply feel like the story of another guy who’s got cold feet, but he is slowly realizing that this is a girl that he loves.
It is only because the character takes the full action that is already in his mind, it is only because the writer takes the internal feeling and makes it external, that we can understand the degree that Kumail struggles to tell the truth.
Because the truth is, we all struggle to tell the truth. But Kumail has a bigger problem, because he is so terrified of telling the truth, that a part of him is thinking he may have to break up with this girl rather than have to face his family.
So what Kumail, the writer, does is this– he breathes life into that part, and he allows the character in the movie to take the full action that was only thought in the real world.
And because of that choice, we, as the audience, are able to see the full character, not just the surface.
We are able to see the real extent of the problem, and we are able to understand the full trajectory of what it takes for these two people to come back together.
In the real world, the truth is that they were dating in secret for about eight months when Gordon ended up in the emergency room.
And the truth is that Kumail had met Emily’s parents, albeit only once.
And the truth is that he did tell his parents, who felt like they couldn’t be too angry at him while Emily was still in a coma.
In the real Kumail’s words “they were very concerned about Emily’s health. When she got better they were like, “Why did you do this to us?”
So, you can see the difference there: in the real world they got married two months later, the entire family came to the wedding and Kumail didn’t ever get kicked out of his family.
So, you can see that if he told the literal truth this isn’t a movie!
If he told the literal truth, this is just a story about two people who slowly get together and date for eight months and two months later marry– so they marry after 10 months– and they go through a period where she gets sick and then when she gets better he asks him to marry her.
If you take all the feelings out and you only see what happened in true life—this isn’t a movie.
But when you start to go inside and look at the real feelings– “what did it feel like?” And when you give yourself permission to dramatize– not exactly what happened but what, what happened felt like to you– whether it felt like lugging a ring of power into the lair of Dark Lord Sauron, or whether it felt like, “If I do this my family is going to disown me,”– whatever that feeling is, you must dramatize it.
You must allow your characters to do whatever fiction is necessary to tell the truth of what you felt.
To make the choices that you had in your mind, to allow the fears that you have in your mind to materialize so that we can see not what happened but what it felt like.
Not the plot but the structure. Not the literal, “just the facts” reality of the experience, but what made the experience matter.
One of the things that was so brave about this adaptation, especially for a romantic comedy, is that Kumail does get kicked out of his family in the film. His family does decide to start acting like he is dead.
The writer Kumail allows his worst terror to come on to the page.
And because the writer allows his worst terror to come onto the page, the characters get to go on a much more important journey. Because this allows for the wonderful scene where Kumail refuses to let his family disown him, where Kumail takes control of his own destiny in the movie, in a way that he never would have had to in life.
See, that decision happened in the real Kumail’s mind when he decided, “you know what, even if they try to disown me, I am still going to tell them, I am still going to do it, I am still going to marry this girl. And if they try to disown me, I just won’t let them.”
Maybe, possibly, likely, the real Kumail made that decision in his mind.
But we couldn’t see it if he hadn’t dramatized the emotional truth.
So what is really beautiful about this movie is that the worst fear does come true, the family does disown him, he does have to force his way back in.
And even at the end of the movie, there is a beautiful bittersweet moment– that last moment between Kumail and his parents, where even as they continue to hold fast to disowning him, they also show their love.
So this is the concept: no matter what happens in reality, no matter what you are adapting, a true story from someone else, a work of fiction, a book, a novel, a memoir, your own true story, there comes a time for all of us where we start to feel like our story isn’t enough, our plot isn’t good enough, we don’t have enough to say.
And all that means is that you are not looking closely enough, or that you are looking too rigidly at what actually happened and not deeply enough at what it felt like.
We also have to recognize that we are all afraid to put our lives out there.
In fact, the real Emily Gordon, the same person who, in the movie, encourages Kumail to tell the truth in his one man show, when she co-wrote this movie with him, was reluctant to share that much about her own life– was afraid about putting that much of her own story out there for the world to see.
But ultimately, both she and Kumail found the courage that I hope that you find as well in your writing.
The courage not only to tell her story and his story in the way that they experienced it, but also the courage to create the fiction within the script, not to tell a lie but to tell the truth—the fiction within, to bring the real story to the page.
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*Edited for length and clarity
I always feel that your insights into movies are brilliant. Thank you so much. I now want to get to the truth that I’ve been withholding in my fiction writing.