When I was invited to pitch for the job of adapting ‘Hank Zipzer’ I hadn’t heard of the books but I had heard of author Henry Winkler. He was one of my childhood heroes and I’d spent many a happy hour in the playground as the Fonz, perfecting my thumbs up “Heyyyy”. After much deliberation I decided not to include that as the big finish to my pitch. My inner nine year old was very disappointed with me.
The stars of Hank Zipzer - Henry Winkler and Nick James
I started reading the books and immediately fell in love with the character of Hank. A funny, resourceful and resilient kid growing up in New York who refuses to let his learning difficulties hold him back. There are seventeen books in the series and Hank is inspired by Henry’s own experience of growing up with dyslexia. Like a lot of kids he wasn’t diagnosed until much later in life and at school was accused of being lazy and not trying hard enough. Henry and co-writer Lin Oliver’s stories chart Hank’s heroic attempts to overcome his difficulties and do the things the other kids are doing like get a part in the school play or be selected for a sports team or get higher than an ‘F’ on his homework.
I really connected to Hank and I realised it’s because at school I’d felt just like him in some subjects. I’d always been good at English but in Science and French I didn’t have a clue. The teachers were talking but I couldn’t understand what they were saying. It was like my brain stopped working. I suspect that each of us has a subject that’s our achilles heel where we just don’t get it. We all have learning difficulties to some degree and so we can all relate to Hank’s experience on some level. This wasn’t a series just for other kids with learning difficulties this was a series for everyone.
Henry Winkler, whose early life inspired the Hank Zipzer books, as Mr Rock in the series
When I was told I’d got the gig to write the pilot the first thing that went through my mind was - ‘don’t mess this up’. With every new project there’s a fear of failure, will this be the one where it all unravels and I find out I haven’t got what it takes? But above the usual self-doubt chatter there was a more persistent voice telling me not to mess it up because this was a show that really needed to be made. A show where kids can see it’s okay not to be perfect and if you fail at something don’t give up, the important thing is to keep trying. I decided to adopt this approach to the writing of the pilot. (I also decided it was probably time to cut back on my coffee intake.)
Most of the series I’ve written on have involved me generating my own stories. I have adapted books before and have learned it’s a very different discipline. My own stories are mine, they come from a spark within me and are usually rooted in a personal experience or something that’s happened to my family or friends (but please don’t tell them I’m stealing their lives). When I’m adapting someone else’s story I’m always aware that I am the keeper of the flame not the person who lit the candle. Yes it’s important to connect to the story and make it your own otherwise it’s impossible to lift the characters off the page. But I never forget that someone else created the world I’m working in.
Episode 1 - Classroom Catastrophe - Hank's model of Niagara Falls lands him in hot water
As the Hank Zipzer books are stand alone stories I was given a free choice as to which one to choose to adapt for the pilot. In the end I went for the first book in the series because it sets up Hank’s struggle with his learning difficulties, it has a great slapstick set-piece with a model of Niagara Falls and a wonderful commentary from Hank introducing the reader to his family and friends. Now all I had to do was cut and paste and I’d be done and dusted by tea-time. If only it was that easy…
The biggest challenge in adaptation is working out how to make a square peg fit in a round hole. The first thing I did was focus on the hole which in this case was a CBBC half hour. There are only so many story beats you can include in that time and you have to decide how they will be split up. Will there only be an ‘A’ story or will there be an A, B and 3 beat C story? I sat down with executive producer Anne Brogan at Kindle and we decided for the pilot to just tell one big ‘A’ story. We realised that if it went to series we’d probably have to include a B story because whoever was cast to play Hank would be too young to be in every scene. Child actors can only work a limited number of hours a day and so you need stories with adult actors (or other child actors) you can be filming in the other hours of the shooting day. We chose to only tell an ‘A’ story for the pilot because our goal was to introduce Hank and really get a handle on his world.
Nick James stars as Hank Zipzer
In the first pass on the storyline I kept close to the structure of the book trying to be as faithful as possible to Henry and Lin’s very funny story. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Unfortunately this is when the square peg refused to go through the round hole. What worked as a wonderful narrative in the book didn’t have the same effect when squeezed into half an hour of screenplay. There were two intertwined stories in the book that when you stripped down the beats started competing with each other and splitting focus. We decided to strip out one of the stories of Hank putting on a magic show with his friends and focus on his main story of building a model of Niagara Falls for his homework project. I was sad to lose the lovely comedy in the magic storyline but it was a good decision and a good lesson for me. If you try and keep everything you can end up drowning out the story.
In the books Hank draws you in and talks to you as if you’re one of his best friends. He’s frank, funny and never afraid to tell you exactly how he’s feeling, especially when he’s failing at school. I was keen to preserve this relationship with the audience and so opted for a number of techniques to try and make this work on screen. I used both voice over from Hank as well as moments when he addresses the camera directly to keep this personal link. Hank has a wild imagination and I kept this by switching to Hank’s POV and animating what he was imagining over the live action. To hammer home the feeling of Hank telling you his story I messed around with the chronology. He jumps in and out of scenes, flashes forwards and backwards and will even freeze the frame to stop and tell you something important. Being able to tell the story so strongly from Hank’s point of view and go wherever he wanted to take you was very liberating and a lot of fun to write.
Writer Joe Williams with Henry Winkler.
When the pilot went to Henry and Lin to read I held my breath - had I ruined their wonderful creation? When I finally got to meet Henry on the set at Halifax my inner nine year old was jumping for joy. He was so charming and welcoming it’s easy to see why everyone calls him the nicest man in showbusiness. I have to say I was relieved the project had gone so well, I don’t think I could have handled upsetting my childhood hero. I really wanted to get a photo together with our thumbs up saying “Heyyyy” but decided it would be way too uncool to ask. My inner nine year old was very disappointed with me.