Screenwriting 101: The Adaptation

In the movie, “Adaptation,” Nick Cage plays a screenwriter that is having problems adapting a popular book into a screenplay. This is often a problem screenwriters have, but there are ways to make the process a little easier.

By Brock Cooper (doddleNEWS)

When writers find out they have to write a screenplay adaptation to an existing novel, it can be a frightening. It doesn’t matter if the original work is your own or someone else’s, because the thought of boiling down a full-length novel into a 120 page script is enough to give any writer hives.

I guess I was lucky because my first adaptation was my own short story, so I had it easy, but there are ways to take the fear out turning a novel into a screenplay.

Know Your Material

The first key step in writing an adaptation is a through understanding of the source material. You need to read the novel initially before you do anything with the screenplay. I like to read it once for my own knowledge and enjoyment and then read it again with a notebook and pen to write down my ideas as they happen. I also make notes in the book itself. When the times comes to write the screenplay, I keep the book by my side and refer back to it frequently.

Jot Down The Important Character And Plot Points

A book is filled with many characters and several plots and subplots. You need to write down the most important and entertaining characters and plot points to use in the screenplay. There will likely be one or two major plot points and you may not be able to go further than that. It’s perfectly OK to ignore entire plot points and characters, even if they are beloved by some, for the sake of flow and brevity.

Learn Your Format

Writing a book is very different than writing a screenplay. An author has no real limits on words and can spend whole page describing a scene and going off on tangents. Screenwriters don’t have that luxury. A screenwriter has a standard three-act format and has to be succinct with every word that is written. Therefore, a screenwriter may have to reorder certain events in the book to conform to the constraints of the screenplay format. This won’t make the purists, or likely the author, happy, but sometimes it has to be done. Don’t go changing things willy nilly though and try to keep the feel and spirit of the novel if not the actual plot. A perfect example of this is “How to Your Dragon.” The movie is nothing like the book, but it works.

Changing and Combining Characters

This is one that authors have a hard time accepting. Their characters are often more dear to them than the words on the page. They have a certain way of seeing them and explaining how they act, but when there are so many characters in a book, they can’t always make the final cut. Many times a plot point needs to be explained, but the characters don’t fit with the flow of the screenplay or earlier changes in the script. This sometimes requires two different characters to be combined or new characters written into the story.

Don’t Be Afraid To Do What You Need To Do

Your job isn’t to make the writer happy. It isn’t to keep the throngs of purists happy. It’s to create the best movie you can given the source material available. You know what you’re doing far better than an author, so don’t compromise the script because you’re afraid of making the author or the fans made. The author may have final say and veto the changes, but at least you’ll have the chance to present your case and you won’t end up with a mediocre movies and a lot of What Ifs.