Novel to Screenplay: The Challenges of Adaptation

ADAPTATION 101

Brimming with confidence, you've just signed the check purchasing the rights to adapt John Doe's fabulous, but little known novel, Lawrence of Monrovia, to screenplay form. Suddenly, panic sets in. "What was I thinking? How the devil am I going to convert this 400-page novel to a 110-page screenplay?"

The answer is: "The same way you transport six elephants in a Hyundai... three in the front seat and three in the back!"

Old and very bad jokes aside, how does one pour ten gallons of story into a one-gallon jug?

In this article, we'll take a look at this challenge and a few others that a writer may encounter when adapting a novel to screenplay form.

CHALLENGE NUMBER ONE - LENGTH

Screenplays rarely run longer than 120 pages. Figuring one page of a screenplay equals one minute of film, a 120-page screenplay translates into a two-hour motion picture. Much longer than that and exhibitors lose a showing, which translates to fewer six-cent boxes of popcorn sold for $5.99 at the refreshment stand. It took the author of your source material 400 pages to tell the story. How can you possibly tell the same story in 110 pages, the ideal length for a screenplay by today's industry standards?

And the answer to this question is no joke. "You can't! Don't even try!"

Instead, look to capture the essence and spirit of the story. Determine the through-line and major sub-plot of the story and viciously cut everything else.

By "through-line" I mean, WHO (protagonist) wants WHAT (goal), and WHO (antagonist) or WHAT (some other force) opposes him or her? It helps to pose the through-line as a question.

"Will Dorothy find her way back to Kansas despite the evil Wicked Witch of the West's efforts to stop her?"

The same needs to be done for the major sub-plot.

"Will Dorothy's allies achieve their goals despite the danger they face as a result of their alliance?"

One workable technique is to read the book, set it aside for a few weeks, and then see what you still remember of the story's through-line. After all, your goal is to excerpt the most memorable parts of the novel, and what you remember best certainly meets that criterion.

In most cases, everything off the through-line or not essential to the major sub-plot has to go. Develop your outline, treatment or "beat sheet" accordingly.

CHALLENGE NUMBER TWO - VOICE

Many novels are written in the first person. The temptation to adapt such, using tons of voiceovers, should be resisted. While limited voiceovers can be effective when properly done, remember that audiences pay the price of admission to watch a MOTION (things moving about) PICTURE (stuff you can SEE). If they wanted to HEAR a story they'd visit their Uncle Elmer who drones on for hour upon hour about the adventures of slogging through the snow, uphill, both ways, to get to and from school when he was a kid, or perhaps they'd buy a book on tape.

The old screenwriting adage, "Show, don't tell!" applies more than ever when writing an adaptation.

CHALLENGE NUMBER THREE - "LONG-THINKING"

Some tribes of American Indians had a word to describe those of their brethren who sat around thinking deep thoughts. Literally the word translated to, "THE DISEASE OF LONG-THINKING". Quite often, lead characters in novels suffer from this disease.

"Mike knew in his heart that Judith was no good. Yet she caused such a stirring in his loins, he could think of nothing else. He feared someday he would give in to this temptation named Judith, and his surrender would surely bring about the end of his marriage!"

If adapted directly, how on Earth would a director film the above? All we would SEE is Mike sitting there, "long-thinking". That is not very exciting to say the least. And as mentioned previously, voiceovers are rarely the best solution.

When essential plot information is presented only in a character's thought or in the character's internal world, one solution is to give this character a sounding board, another character, to which his thoughts can be voiced aloud. Either adapt an existing character from the novel or create a new one. Of course as always, you should avoid overly obvious exposition by cloaking such dialogue in conflict, or through some other technique. Even better, figure out a way to express the character's dilemma or internal world through action in the external world.

CHALLENGE NUMBER FOUR - WHAT STORY?

Mark Twain is quoted as saying about Oakland, California, "There's no there, there". Similarly, some novels, even successful ones, are very shy on story and rely for the most part on style and character to create an effect. Some prose writers are so good at what they do, that their artful command of the language alone is enough to maintain reader interest. Such is never the case in screenwriting.

Successfully adapting a "no-story-there" novel to screenplay form is a daunting task. One approach is to move away from direct adaptation toward, "story based upon". Use the brilliant background and characters created by the original author as a platform from which to launch a screen story. In fact, if for any reason a screenplay doesn't lend itself to screenplay form, consider moving toward a "based upon" approach, rather than attempting a direct adaptation.

Congratulations! You're now an expert on adapting novels to screenplay form! Well maybe not an expert, but hopefully you have a better understanding of how to approach the subject than you did ten minutes ago. And if the subject still seems too daunting, you can always get professional help as outlined on our web page http://www.coverscript.com/adaptation.html

Lynne Pembroke and Jim Kalergis
Coverscript.com
URL: http://www.coverscript.com

About the Authors:

Lynne Pembroke is a writer, poet, screenwriter and owner of Coverscript.com, with over 18 years of experience in screenwriting and screenplay analysis helping individual writers, screenwriting competitions, agents, studios, producers and script consulting companies. Services include screenplay, TV script and treatment analysis, ghostwriting, rewriting and adaptation of novel to screenplay. Jim Kalergis is a working screenwriter experienced in the art of adaptation. Visit http://www.coverscript.com for details.

In The News:

Opinion | Why I Write  The New York Times

Getting Past The Shoulds To Write

During the past few months I have received many questions... Read More

How to Outline your Book and Chapters with Mindmapping

Mindmapping is better than linear outlining because authors can use... Read More

Print-On-Demand: A Definition and a Comparison

The purpose of this article is to consider Print-On-Demand publishing... Read More

Writing Made Them Rich #5: Peter Mayle

Peter Mayle was born in England in 1939.His fascination with... Read More

How to Break In and Succeed as a Screenwriter

Screenwriting is a competitive trade. To distinguish yourself as a... Read More

71 Ways For A Writer To Make Money

There are so many ways for writers to make good... Read More

Frequently Asked Questions from Writers

1. What Is A Premise?A premise is the point you... Read More

Should I Keep Writing?

Writers are an insecure lot.It's easy to understand why. You... Read More

Write Your Story, Put It On A Website, Sell Millions of Copies

Although he has his own website, John Grisham probably does... Read More

To Outline Or Not To Outline

Ah, the age-old writer's debate--to outline or not to outline?Outlines... Read More

Make Your Readers Cry

You know, I really hate it when someone catches me... Read More

Learn to Talk on Paper: The Art of Effective Business Writing

Rudolf Flesch, a specialist in writing skills, ran classes... Read More

Boost Your Income With Trade Journals

Why would anyone want to write for trade journals? Aren't... Read More

Dont Forget That Manual!

No user manual? Surely you jest!It may seem comical, but... Read More

Be Concise

Concision. (Sounds like I made up another word.) It's the... Read More

Publish It Now! No Matter What It Is

Do you want to publish something? An article, a non-fiction... Read More

Why Should You Use Worksheets For Proofreading?

Proofreading worksheets are a great tool to help individuals open... Read More

How You Can Take Advantage of the Increasing Demand for Freelance Online Writers

The freelance writing market is a growing market to be... Read More

A Writers Personal Cheer Squad

We all need a cheer squad.We all need people to... Read More

Keep your Book Dream Alive

Is your book nearly finished, finished, published, or even in... Read More

How To Write Your Book Within A Week

Everyone has a book inside them, or so the saying... Read More

Do You Plot With Your Character In Mind?

Creative Writing Tips ?You are plotting the story. You write... Read More

6 Tricks To Squeeze Your Letters Onto One Page

Anyone who has read any of my articles on the... Read More

Top 10 Common English Goofs by Web Authors

In reviewing and browsing web sites over the years, I... Read More

The Heart of the Delay: Harnessing The Wisdom of Procrastination (AKA Writers Block)

I am sure that at in some era, at some... Read More