Adapting To The Screen

Daniel Manus, an L.A.-based script consultant states that writing novels and writing screenplays require two very different skill sets and very few can do both very well. Adapting books into screenplays and vice-versa is a juggling act between serving a story and space.

Before you try to adapt your own book (or someone else’s) into a screenplay, you need to know the difference between the markets. First, online estimates say there are between 200,000 to 300,000 books published every year worldwide. And that’s not counting the hugely growing number of self-published e-books every year. The U.S. used to lead in that number, but since 2006, the U.K. has actually been the biggest publishers of books, especially fiction.

In contrast, there are only about 200-300 movies released every year, and much fewer scripts actually sold (and FAR fewer sold for real money). So, just using those numbers, it is about ONE THOUSAND times more difficult to sell a screenplay than get a book published. And quite frankly, it’s probably even harder than that.

The book market is widespread and has many niches. There are hundreds of publishers and each have a different type of project they’d like to publish. There are only 7 studios and they all want exactly the same thing.

Most books just aren’t adaptable – or rather – they SHOULDN’T be adapted. Most people’s true stories AREN’T cinematically interesting or commercial. You have to be realistic about your material and realize if that biography about the man who created the soybean you wrote – is really commercial or visual or cinematic enough to be worthy of an adaptation. It isn’t.

There are huge differences between books and screenplays.

– Novels can be 200-500 pages. Screenplays are 85-125 pages (more recently around 110 pages).

– Therefore, novels can give a much more detailed, intricate description and explanation about stories, settings and characters and really explore – in words – what the characters are thinking, imagining, pondering, remembering, feeling, etc. With screenplays, everything has to be on screen. There’s no writing about what the character is feeling or thinking – you have to show it through visuals, behavior, actions and in dialogue.

– Novels can explore the back stories and histories of your character and take 20 pages to do so. In a screenplay, your back story has to be woven into the current story or show in a flashback that’s less than 4 pages.

– Novels can jump time periods easily and don’t always have to be linear or structured. With screenplays, there should be a clear three-act structure and there needs to be a really good reason for a screenplay to be told non-linearly.

– The most important and interesting part of many novels is the descriptions. The most important part of screenplays is the dialogue.

– Novels can explore tons of characters. Screenplays need to focus on just a few.

– With novels, you get a book jacket (or a mini-synopsis on the back) that will tell you immediately if this is a book you want to read. With screenplays this isn’t the case, so it’s the first 10 pages or so that have to grab you or else people won’t read further. The first page of a book is important – but the first page of a screenplay could be everything.

Now that you know some of the differences, how do you actually start the adaptation process? First, whether it’s a fictional crime drama, a non-fiction biography, or a person’s true story – and whether you wrote the book or not – you need to make a list of the following:

– The 5-8 main characters of the story including the protagonist and antagonist, what their respective back stories are and why/how they come together. And what 3 things about them are the most important for an audience to know.

– The major core conflict of the piece or story and why/how this occurs.

– The most visual and key scenes in the book that connect to how that conflict plays out.

– Your FAVORITE lines of dialogue that drives the plot, is vital to the story or character development and that really shine.

– The major overarching theme of the book.

Be aware that you will probably have to cut many supporting characters, subplots that don’t connect to your main storyline, and almost all of the description. Instead of 2-3 pages of character description, you only get 2-3 lines. Many times 2 or 3 different characters in a novel will be combined into ONE character in a screenplay. And what happens on the first page of the book may not be how you need to open the film. Try to nail the same tone that the original material had – as that is part of what built its fan base and that tone needs to translate on film.

But the real key to adapting a book to film or adapting someone’s true story – is having FOCUS and knowing how and when to take poetic license. If you are adapting a true story, it becomes even trickier, but you need to know that changing the time line of the original story is OK. Your primary job isn’t to be loyal to a book or to another writer or even to the main character – it’s to be loyal to the core story and yourself.

You can’t show a whole lifetime on screen (except maybe in “Benjamin Button”), so you need to choose the most important, interesting, conflict-filled, character building part of the book or the person’s life – and focus on that to create a tight story. Or alternatively, if you’re adapting a small personal story, you may need to expand it to fill the screen. All those Nicholas Sparks novels are incredibly small and usually depressing, but the screenplays introduce more conflict and raise the stakes a bit.

Though not based on a book, let’s examine “The Fighter,” which is based on a true story. The screenwriters looked at all the material they had – all the characters, all the true things that happened, the time range of the real story – and then wrote what worked. The Amy Adams character (Charlene) wasn’t even in Mickey’s life at the time he won those fights. Many characters were combined and the time period was totally fudged so that the story became more cinematic and engaging, but it kept the essence of the characters involved, the story and the emotion of it all. And that’s exactly what your job is when adapting a book or a person’s true life story.

Much like in life, learning to adapt is often a difficult process but can be one of the keys to success. Keep writing!


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