Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes.
–John le Carre
I’m the lead trial attorney for a five-attorney firm which exclusively represents children with disabilities and their families. That means when the time comes for the rubber to meet the road I’m the one that analyzes how well a case will present. Often I find myself delivering news that is not well received. People mistake my analysis of the evidence and the law and how they will play out before a judge as a commentary on the facts as they have lived them and know them to be. The reality is the two have little to do with each other. That is hard to digest for a parent who knows a school district has harmed or neglected their child. They can feel justifiably angry, frustrated, and re-victimized, this time by the person delivering news they don’t want to hear. Even if they were wronged their chance of success at a hearing remains slight, or the remedies they seek are unavailable.
The best analogy I have found is when a great book gets “adapted” for a movie. You know you just cringed a little, admit it. We’ve all had some cherished read savaged to make it play on the big screen. Vital characters and scenes completely cut. The wrong people live, the wrong people die (GOT fan anyone), critical plot vehicles are lost. And, don’t even get me started on casting, costumes, set design, music, dialogue, and more. Books and movies are two different things. Steven King said “Books and movies are like apples and oranges. They’re both fruit. But taste completely different.” There are things you can do in a book, that just can’t be duplicated in a movie. There are time limitations that make virtually every movie adaptation also an abridgment. There are budgetary and marketing concerns that influence casting, location, effects, music, etc…. A good movie might tell the story, a great book pulls you into the story, immersing you in its world. For many similar reasons a real-life “story” that plays out over 2-3 or more years involving many people, documents, meetings, and conversations is going to “adapt” poorly to a 4-6 day hearing. In the worst cases, the result ends up bearing almost no resemblance to the truth. Why you might ask?
Think about it. Trial attorneys have tools that are so much more limited than those available to filmmakers (and we already have agreed their adaptations suffer). By the legal rules, attorneys must build their cases with a handful of evidentiary vehicles: personal testimony, expert testimony, documentary evidence, and demonstrative evidence. That evidence must be brought out during the limited time available for the hearing or trial. Hearings are costly for all involved and each day adds dramatically to the cost. Hearing days are short. Typically, the best you can expect to present in a full day of trial in six hours of testimony. Each witness adds to the length and complexity of the case. Each witness brings outside baggage. Their character, background, history, training, and experience all become fodder for examination and argument. Evidence that is not available in an admissible form never comes before the judge or jury. Those emails not saved, meetings not recorded, pictures not taken, hunches, feelings, impressions, and conclusions are out, period. Then there’s the opposition.
Directors may grumble when other thwart their ability to bring their “vision” to the screen. They should try having to turn over the film from each day to their enemy so they can try to re-edit the clips to tell an entirely different story. That’s the reality of hearings. Every witness is subject to challenge. Every piece of evidence subject to interpretation. Now, before this sounds like a complaint, that’s part of what I love about hearings, and what I loved about trials. They are live, full-contact, in the moment, semi-civilized gladiator battles. An adrenalin spiking mental, emotional, and physical challenge. But, please don’t think that just because it is fun for me, it will be fun for you. At hearing you have given over complete control over your fate to a stranger. You will have to sit and listen to lies that can’t be disproven. You will have your character attacked, motivations misrepresented, and actions questioned. It is an extremely stressful, emotional, and exhausting process with no guarantee in the outcome.
I’m telling you this, not to discourage you from wanting to take a matter to hearing. In fact, precisely the opposite. I want you to understand the challenges of the hearing process so you can make your “story” adaptation friendly. You have control over many of these issues, and informed choices can make all the difference. If you keep organized records, audio or video record at every available option, document conversations and calls with written (email is fine) responses you will have significantly increased your odds of success. Be aware of the messaging in your communications and interactions, don’t get caught yelling, cursing, accusing, or abusing because your character and credibility are one of the most critical factors that may influence your verdict. Similarly, don’t let false messaging by your school district stand unchallenged or uncorrected. Think of documenting things in powerful ways that will compellingly tell your story. Saying your child can do something will never compare to a picture or video of them doing it. A teacher’s sworn testimony that a child has met a goal goes up in smoke when confronted by an actual work sample showing a much lower level of mastery (so does the witness’s credibility). There is no CGI or Photoshop to fill in missing evidence or airbrush out an ugly blemish. Memorialize your drama with your child’s District consistently and effectively, so when the time comes, you’ll be ready for your close-up.