Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Trials of Adapting a Book to Television

I am struck by how different the techniques of storytelling in words and on film are, an experience I recently had adapting "The Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy" into a PBS miniseries.

In a book, you have a lot of elbow room (even if your publisher wants to keep it fewer than 350 pages): You can range widely, follow a line of inquiry, paint a word picture and connect, so long as you remember the point you are trying to make.

Television offers many more tools; most significant are the images. You have color, you have voices, you can convey emotion much more directly. And you have music.

What you don't have is time. An hour of television might have 3,000 words of narration, which is the equivalent of fewer than 10 pages of a book.

So the primary task was to break the book down into pieces and put them together again as a film narrative. That meant we had to deconstruct the entire narrative and identify a handful of stories out of several hundred that could be reconnected in a film narrative. We went far afield in the filming: five continents, 20 countries, 170 interviews.

I wrote "The Commanding Heights" in 1998 with Joseph Stanislaw. In it we tried to explain why old-fashioned state control, along with communism and socialism, had ceded to free markets. It is an enormous story that covers changes in America and the upheavals that have shaken Russia, Latin America, India and other parts of the world.

The challenge was to transform the book into a big narrative history and not merely a succession of talking heads. The core production team tackled this a number of ways, beginning with the structure of the story. We knew that it had to be told in three two-hour segments.

The first would be about "the battle of ideas": how the world changed its mind about governments and markets.

This is primarily an American and British story, extending from the first age of globalization, which ended in 1914 with World War I, up to the fall in 1989 of the Berlin Wall.

Our second segment would illuminate "the agony of reform" in Russia, Poland, Latin America and India.

The last segment would focus on "the new rules of the game": the struggle over globalization.

It was a story still unfolding. The "new economy" of dot-coms, Nasdaq and cyber start-ups came and went while we were working on the show, and we ended up shelving the early plan to find a 28-year-old dot-com billionaire.

Then came Sept. 11. At that point, we were three-quarters through the production, which gave us several months to assimilate the changes: Optimism had been drained from the future, the world had gone from openness to vigilance and the passions of anti-globalization demonstrators around the world had cooled.

But structuring the series was only the beginning of our work. With the scale of our project, once you start filming, time and budgets limit your choices.

I was very conscious of how different it is to interview for television versus a book. In the way I try to do a book, the process is a discursive business. You want people to feel relaxed enough to remember memories, ideas they have only half thought through, to make connections they hadn't thought about before. And you want to draw out, when it is possible, that flash of emotion.

When I first talked to Larry Summers, treasury secretary in the last two years of the Clinton administration and now Harvard's president, he causally threw out a wonderful line about how he had gone from seeing free-market economist Milton Friedman as the "devil incarnate" to having "ungrudging respect" for the man.

You're far less likely to get that kind of relaxed admission when the interview subject is sitting in a conference room facing an interviewer, a camera person, a sound person, a couple of producers and all the technical paraphernalia, which requires constant readjustment.

When interviewing for television, you're looking for "sync" -- short sharp answers that help move the narrative along, also called sound bites. The questions must be tight and focused. And you must tell the interview subjects not to say "yes" and not to agree (or disagree) with you, because the interviewer is not on camera. You must remind them to begin sentences with nouns, not pronouns, because their comments will stand alone. You still, of course, are looking for the flash of emotion, which might be words but just as easily could be a sudden change of facial expression.

Writing the narrative for the documentary is different from book writing as well. Writing narration really is like writing captions. You can go for a certain irony and wit but not much more. Imagine getting John Maynard Keynes' great economic theory or the causes of the Asian financial crisis down to just a couple of sentences. But you have no choice.

In addition, we wanted a warm, friendly narrative voice that would be distinct from that disembodied, slightly somnolent voice you hear in so many documentaries. Yet, when all that can be said is, in fact, said and done, the narrator is a person of few words.

Making the series accessible and engaging meant sticking with the basic narrative rules -- clarity, sharpness, narrative force and suspense -- that, along with the images, make a documentary feel cinematic and play a critical role in pacing. It is an easy mistake to let your story get ahead of your drama. You must signal in a general way where you're headed to keep people from getting lost. But you don't want to give away the destination in advance.

The rule that I always invoke was laid out by the journalist Ida Tarbell at the beginning of the 20th century. As she set out to do the expose that would lead to the breakup of John D. Rockefeller's empire in 1911, she declared that she intended to do something "as picturesque and dramatic as I can" -- although always governed by the unrelenting imperative of being accurate.

I doubt that Tarbell had yet seen a motion picture when she wrote that. But the approach is worth following a century later, whether you're writing a book or working with pictures and making a film.

Daniel Yergin, co-author with Joseph Stanislaw of "The Commanding Heights" and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for "The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power," contributed this essay to the Los Angeles Times.