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