How To's | Screenwriting

Adapting a Novel or Non-Fiction Work to Film

1 Dec , 2008  

Written by Kate Fitzgerald | Posted by:

In the first of a two-part series on adaptation, Kate Fitzgerald offers advice on how to shape a screenplay based on a book. Next month she'll describe how to secure the rights.

You’ve found a great story. You’ve optioned the rights, (which we will explore in Part II of this article next month), and now you’re wondering how to transform a 350 page novel, or non-fiction story, into a 120 page screenplay. You stare blankly at the screen on your laptop. What comes next?

The task now is to find the visual story hiding among all those words. To do that, you must first fix in your mind the difference between a film story and a written story. Film comes at us with sound and color and movement. We discover the story as the images go by. We are swept up in an intense, two-hour experience, enhanced by the theater’s cloak of darkness. A novel, by contrast, plays out entirely in our mind, where our inner eyes transform the words into mental pictures. Our sense of discovery, those little ‘ah ha’ moments, may be less intense with the written word, but it’s still satisfying, and often in a more personal way. And where a novel can go on for page after page inside the hero’s head, a film must show continuous action that moves the story forward. There can be no meandering digressions in a film like there is in a novel. Films and novels are, simply put, not the same thing.

All film stories are about a sympathetic hero who wants something, and who must overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to get it. Kitty, in The Painted Veil, wants to marry for love, and not social convenience as dictated by society. In Erin Brockovich, Erin wants to win the lawsuit against utility giant PG&E. The hero must elicit our emotions with her determination and courage. Her goal must be worthy, so we can understand why she is willing to go up against the obstacles that stand in her way. Along this path, the hero must undergo personal change. We must see a maturing of the character flaw that got her in this situation in the first place. This is important because our satisfaction comes in learning, by the hero’s example, how to solve the thorny problems of life. Did I mention the ticking clock? On top of everything else, your hero’s up against a deadline that’s coming at her like a buzz saw.

A novel, or work of non-fiction, does not have to follow these rules. It can introduce the hero with a bit of action on page one, and then it can spend the next 30 pages inside the hero’s head. How do you film that? You can’t. But you can find the visual story hiding within the novel’s structure. Novels do have three acts, an inciting incident, plot-points, confrontations with the antagonist, and all the whistles and bells of film structure. They just do it within our minds, and not in front of our eyes.

Where’s a good place to start your deconstruction? Begin by taking a look at a few successful adaptations. In the writing classes I teach, I use The Painted Veil, by Ron Nyswaner (2006), as an example, because it is a masterful adaptation. Watch this film, starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts. Then read the novella by Somerset Maugham. Seeing the film first will reinforce the story as seen through Nyswaner’s eyes. In this way, the visual impact of the film will stay with you during the reading. The contrast between what Nyswaner kept, and what he left out, will jump out at you.

Next, make a list of those things that jump out at you. Study the list. Think about the scenes and dialogue Nyswaner kept, and why. Now, look at the time and place. What was going on then? The Painted Veil is set in the 1920s and focuses on the damage done by the strict social mores that regulated marriage back then. Infidelity is an accident waiting to happen in that milieu, and Maugham opens with it.

Nyswaner begins with the lead characters and enlarges the relationship between them. For a film story, you must have two strong leading characters, and at least two strong supporting characters. In the novella, Maugham puts Kitty’s husband, Walter Fane, on stage only as he needs him to advance Kitty’s story. When Kitty and Walter are in China, in the midst of the cholera epidemic, we don’t get to see Walter slaving away to save the villagers. We only see him in this setting when he’s dying.

But Nyswaner changes all of that. He brings on the cholera. He shows the villagers lying on cots, some dying, others writhing in pain. He shows Walter entering the hospital ward for the first time, and gagging at the smell. And yet, Walter plunges on in. How powerful is that for defining character and engaging our sympathy? Nyswaner opens up the story further by adding the redemptive elements of love and forgiveness to Kitty’s infidelity. He then has Kitty and Walter come to terms with who they really are, and then has them fall passionately in love. And he has them do it right in the middle of this wretched cholera epidemic, set inside a strange land that’s roiling in political turmoil. Now that’s a movie.

Study The Painted Veil as an example to follow. Compare the film’s narrative arc with the structure in the novella. When examined this way, the sharp contrast between what works in the film, and what works in the novel, soon becomes apparent. This will help you to begin to think in a cinematic way, and you will start to see film possibilities in every story you read.

If the book you’ve optioned is a bestseller, try to remain as true to the idea of the original story as possible, in order to satisfy the readers. Presumably, the book’s fans will be the first ticket buyers crowding the box office on opening day, as witness those long lines of Twilight groupies. Remaining true to the work while crafting a good film story can be a challenge. But many bestsellers like Twilight already have a structure that is more suitable to adaptation because more and more novelists, like Stephenie Meyer, visualize their scenes in vivid detail before they write the first word.

Kate Rockland, a writer, whose first novel, Falling is Like This, (due Winter 2009), is about a young woman in New York City named Harper, who moves out on her boyfriend just days after moving in, told me in an email exchange, “When I was writing I was very aware of a specific visual aesthetic I was trying to create in the reader’s mind. The coffee shop in the East Village where Harper meets Nick was a place I sat and drank ten million cups of brew while I was writing, so I was a character in my own scene, I suppose. Also, to be able to write Harper’s trip to Coney Island, I took the B train there and walked around for a whole day. Doing so helped me write sounds, smells, etc. All things important if the book becomes a movie.”

And how would it feel for Rockland to see her novel up on the big screen? “I literally feel like it would be as painful as catching your parents in the sack,” Rockland said. “Gut-wrenching embarrassment. It’s one thing for my readers to read my book and know my version of a love affair. It’s another to see it visually! At the same time, I’d feel honored and proud and bowled over if someone makes a film out of this little book I love so dearly. Look, if a novelist complains they don’t like the movie version of their book, they’re being big babies, if you ask me.”

When adapting a biography, follow the same arc as you would with a fictional story. But because you are dealing with a story about a larger-than-life personality, which probably follows it’s subject from cradle to grave, you must reduce the scope of the work. The key, in this instance, is to find the most logical place to start a film story. Usually that will be right at the point when the person’s life changed 180 degrees. What put him on his path? What brought him to his moment in the sun?

Susannah Grant’s script for Erin Brockovich is a great example of keeping the focus on the hero and her goal. Grant narrowed the story to just what we need to know about Erin before she sets off to win the lawsuit. When Grant’s script opens, we know Erin needs a job, that she is smart, she has young children, she is divorced, and she’s broke. But we never find out about her parents, or where she went to school, or even about her ex-husbands. We don’t need to know any of that to understand who Erin is, and why she’s willing to make personal sacrifices in order to help the residents of Hinckley.

Cheryl Eagan-Donovan, a filmmaker, and founder of Controversy Films in Boston, had to reign in an entire life story in Nothing is Truer than Truth, her soon to be released documentary based on scholar Mark Anderson’s book, Shakespeare by Another Name: the life of Edward de Vere.

Anderson’s book covers de Vere’s life from cradle to grave. While de Vere’s life story is fascinating because it has all the elements of good drama, including the loss of both parents when he was a child, it’s too much for a two-hour film.

In getting at the truth of whether or not de Vere was the real Shakespeare, Eagan-Donovan decided to begin her screenplay with what it means to be a writer. Which, when you think about it, is the most logical place to start. After all, if Edward de Vere and Shakespeare are the same man, something had to shape his aesthetic and inform his craft. “I started when Edward arrives in Venice,” Eagan-Donovan said. “It was the New York City of its day. It was the center of the art and literary and music worlds.” It was here, Eagan-Donovan believes, “Where life experience, imitation of the masters, and relentless revision came together to create genius,” in de Vere. Opening with the young Edward arriving in Venice is not only a logical choice, it’s also a visually dynamic one.

Whether your source material is a work of fiction or non-fiction, begin by looking for the visual story hidden within the words. Think cinematically. Remember, all film stories are about a sympathetic hero who wants something, and to achieve it, he must overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to get it. Think about the needs of the characters. Enlarge the relationship between the lead characters. Add supporting characters to add tension and depth to your narrative. Remember, a written work will have a readership that expects to recognize the story you put up on the screen. But don’t be afraid to add or subtract from it to make it more visually satisfying. If you meet the demands of the medium, you’ll succeed brilliantly.