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The Little Screen

The Tribulations and Satisfactions of Adapting 'The Commanding Heights' to Television

April 14, 2002|DANIEL YERGIN | Daniel Yergin is the co-author with Joseph Stanislaw of "The Commanding Heights." He received the Pulitzer Prize for "The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power." The third part of "The Commanding Heights" airs this Wednesday on PBS.

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 mini-series. In a book, you have a lot of elbow room (even if your publisher is saying to keep it less 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. (When my previous book, "The Prize," a history of oil and geopolitics, became a successful eight-part PBS series in 1993, one of its producers remarked that "Chariots of Fire," which she had helped produce, was hardly the same film without the music.)

What you don't have is time. An hour of television might have 3,000 words of narration, which is the equivalent of less 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, which had a simultaneous chronological and geographic framework, 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-fashion state control, along with communism and socialism, had ceded to free markets. It is an enormous story that tells how and why the world changed its mind toward market economies. It takes in changes in America and the upheavals that have shaken Russia, Latin America, India and other parts of the world. It is a challenge at the very least to convey to a television audience a story as complicated and worldwide as this. Here was the history of the 20th and the first years of the 21st century seen through the prism of ideological conflict. The turmoil around the world, the battles and misunderstandings about globalization gave the project an urgency. These issues touch upon our lives, often in ways that we don't immediately recognize.

Television has no shortage of channels these days, but it does have, some would say, a shortage of places where ideas can be presented and explained in a narrative form. So our first obstacle was to surmount the wall of skepticism. Many broadcasters couldn't see how it would work, but finally, WGBH in Boston figured we could do it.

The challenge was to transform the book so that it would end up being a big narrative history and not merely a succession of talking heads. The core production team--Bill Cran, Sue Lean Thompson, Greg Barker, Mike Sullivan and myself--tackled this a number of ways, beginning with the structure of the story itself. 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, right 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 that was unfolding as we proceeded. 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 that 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 out of 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. The final segment was the most perplexing as it was more open-ended, and we were simultaneously updating the book for a new edition. There was constant debate right up until the moment the film was locked about what was in and what was out.

I was very conscious of how different it is to interview for television than for a book. For a book, at least the way I try to do it, the process is a discursive business and intentionally so. You want people to feel relaxed enough to bring up the memories they have forgotten, the 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.

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