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10 Questions To Ask Before Adapting A Book Into A Screenplay

By Marilyn Horowitz

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I have been interviewed recently to discuss my current novel, The Book Of Zev. One of the questions I am being asked since I am a teacher of screenwriting at New York University, a private writing coach, and have worked on several adaptations, is about what kind of book makes a good film? My answer is first, some kind of commercial success as in the case of the Twilight series or the thriller, Gone Girl because then the story comes with a ready made audience. Getting a film financed adequately, if at all, is so difficult that a pre-existing audience adds real momentum to the process.

Another frequent question asked is:  “What advice would you give to a screenwriter who wants to adapt a book? Below, I will attempt to provide some concrete suggestions:

If you are considering adapting a book, article or short story into a screenplay, first ask yourself these questions:

1.Does this book bring an audience with it such as The Lord Of The Rings series?

2.Does it have a “brand” such as Marvel Comics or Harry Potter?

3. Is it a “one-off” or a series?

4. Do you have the legal right to adapt the work and that your agreement gives you a realistic time frame to complete and sell the project? A lawyer is an essential part of any adaptation process unless it’s your own work, and even then you may need help.

5. If you are trying to adapt a true story that’s not in book form, it can get tricky and you will need to explore acquiring the ”Life Rights.” Make sure you use an entertainment lawyer, not a generalist – this is a very specialized skill.

There are several good online sites that can help you uncover the basics, and non-profit organizations that provide advice for free.
6.  Does the book have the “Right Stuff?” The basic story elements of a book suitable for an adaptation include:

A.    An unusual setting, historical event, or period in history.

B.     Memorable characters with unusual problems.

C.    A surprising story with a twist at the end.

7. Does it have the right structure? Fitting a book into a film structure is like taking a 35mm photo of a beautiful view – you only capture part of it.  The camera can only take a portion of the whole scene, and it is this limitation paradoxically that turns the actual view into something artistic.

8. Does this story lend itself to becoming a film? This doesn’t mean that the book must be chronologically organized, but rather that there is a clear story being told.

9. Is the book the right size? Keep in mind that a big stumbling block in adapting a book into a film is that there is not necessarily a natural fit although a story seems to be conducive.  Books tell bigger stories and can be organized in many different ways, whereas a film must fit into a specific linear structure and tell the whole story in a specific amount of real time.  Figuring out what elements stay and what must go is a major part of adapting something to film.

10.    Does the story have a good “frame”?  A frame is a storytelling device such as the opening of the film, Saving Private Ryan, where we see the very end of the story before flashing back to the beginning. Finding the right “frame” to put around the “picture” of the story can make an adaptation stronger. In another example, The Bridges Of Madison County, the “frame” was the children discovering the mother’s story after her death.

To recap: Answer these 10 questions and you will find that you can make a reasoned decision as to whether or not to tackle writing an adaptation.

Here’s to your successful writing.

About Marilyn Horowitz

Marilyn Horowitz is an award-winning New York University professor, author, producer, and Manhattan-based writing consultant, who works with successful novelists, produced screenwriters, and award-winning filmmakers. She has a passion for helping novices get started. Since 1998 she has taught thousands of aspiring screenwriters to complete a feature length screenplay using her method. She is also a judge for the Fulbright Scholarship Program for film and media students. In 2004 she received the coveted New York University Award for Teaching Excellence.

Professor Horowitz has created a revolutionary system that yields a new, more effective way of writing. She is the author of six books that help the writer learn her trademarked writing system, including editions for college, high school, and middle school. The college version is a required text at New York University and the University of California, Long Beach.

Professor Horowitz has written several feature-length screenplays. Her production credits include the feature films And Then Came Love (2007). Her new novel, The Book of Zev is available on Amazon.

Screenwriting Article by Marilyn Horowitz

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