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Writing an Adapted Screenplay

I have never written a script, but I’m planning on starting to write my first.  I thought it would be best if I started off adapting a novel into a screenplay.  What advice do you have?

- Lights Film School Student

Hi,

I’m going to try my hardest to try to convince you against setting out on a adaptation for your first screenplay.  Here’s why:

1. Adaptations are hard: Especially if this is your first attempt at a screenplay.  Adaptations only work when the writer is very comfortable with the form of screenwriting, since you are bringing in a huge amount of story (novels are typically dense, hundreds of pages, with a lot of the action happening internally) while a screenplay needs to be tight, succinct, and possessing a lot of visual, physical action.

2. Adaptations can be a waste of time: Depending on where you are in the world, or what market that you a writing for, it is possible that without owning the literary rights to the novel you won’t be able to sell/produce your screenplay.  If you decide to do the adaptation, make sure you own the rights to adapt the novel.  Get it in writing.  The one caveat to this is if the book is so old that its copyrights have expired and it’s now part of the public domain.

3. Adaptations aren’t good teachers: By this I mean that, as you get your feet wet in the craft of screenwriting, it is best to experiment with your own story rather than source material, because you’ll be personally invested in the story and every mistake, false-start, and revision in the writing process will be a learning experience.

Long story short: Save adaptations until you have a few scripts under your belt.  In reality, your first script probably won’t sell or be produced.  Treat it as practice.  You learn by feeling your way through the dark, so that your second, or third, or fourth screenplay is much better and stands a chance in the fickle world of filmmaking.

Okay, so if you’re still reading this, you’re unconvinced.  You’re confident, I respect that.

So if you choose to embark on the long path of adaptation, here are a few tips to get started:

•    As a writer adapting a story, you aren’t chained to the source material.  By this I mean that you are free to take the story and make it your own.  If you say that the character doesn’t really encounter many adventures in the story, make up some.  Take a minor character in the book and make him/her a love interest, or an antagonist, or something that will increase the stakes of your story.

•    The protagonist/narrator of any novel is going to be dense – too dense for screen.  Your task as a screenwriter is to condense this character down into a strong, but emotionally-efficient  protagonist.  When reading the novel, latch onto his personality (or your concept of his personality) and map it out on paper.  From that map, work on constructing a strong leading character with just enought detail to fill in your story but not as much detail as the novel.

•    Voice-over is okay in moderation (contrary to popular belief).  Voice-over is a good way to frame (or bookend) your story (start with using it, end with using it).  Use it sparingly, but also don’t be afraid of it.  In your first draft, write as much voice-over as you’d like, but when you go into revision-mode, ask yourself, “is this necessary?”  If you are even a little hesitant, cut it out.

Just keep in mind that a novel is 200-300 pages of dense introspection and a screenplay is 90-120 pages of visual action. You will need to cut a lot of information in the process.  I highly recommend reading some novels and then the screenplays which were written as adaptations.  Everything is Illuminated, The Kite Runner, The Shining (basically any Stephen King), Atonement, etc…

I hope that helps.  Good luck on whatever path you choose and happy writing!

– Phil


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