Novel Adaptations: 4 Challenges

Brimming with brawn, you’ve just bought the rights to a novel. John Doe’s fabulous, but little known title, Lawrence of Monrovia. Panic. “What was I thinking? How the devil am I going to adapt this? Can I convert a 1,400-page novel to a 110p. script?”

The answer to the problem of novel adaptations 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 find when adapting a novel to screenplay form.

After all, it is a skill that is worth having. Most of today’s movies found their origin in printed form. So learn adaptation!

1. Length

very big novel adaptationScreenplays rarely run longer than 120 pages. One page of a screenplay equals one minute of film. Therefore, a 120-page screenplay translates into a two-hour movie. Much longer than that and exhibitors lose a showing. So, fewer six-cent boxes of popcorn sold for $5.99 at the candy stand.

It took the author of your source material 1,400 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 standards?

And the answer to this question is no joke. “You can’t! Don’t even try!”

Instead, look to capture the essence and spirit of the story. To make novel adaptations work, determine the through-line. Next, find the major sub-plot of the story, and viciously cut everything else.

Look to capture the essence and spirit of the story.

By “through-line” I mean, WHO (hero) wants WHAT (goal), and WHO (villain) 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 fine technique for novel adaptations is to read the book, set it aside for a few weeks. Next, 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. What you remember best certainly meets that criterion.

One fine technique for novel adaptations 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.

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” accordingly.

2. Novel Adaptations’ Voice

Many novels are written in the first person. The temptation to adapt such, using tons of voiceovers, should be resisted.

Limited voiceovers can be effective when properly done. That said, 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 novel adaptations.

“Show, don’t tell!” applies more than ever
when writing an adaptation.

3. “Long-Thinking”

native_american_indian_historic_artwork_hd-wallpaper-1360045Some 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. Tis surrender would surely bring about the end of his marriage!”

If novel adaptations were adapted literally, 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. Voiceovers are rarely the best solution.

Figure out a way to express the character’s dilemma
or internal world through action in the external world.

Sometimes essential plot information is presented in the novel only in a character’s thought or in the character’s internal world. One solution is to give this character a sounding board. Create 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. Instead, cloak 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.

4. 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. They rely for the most part on style and character to create an effect. Some prose writers are great at what they do. Their artful command of the language alone is enough to maintain reader interest. Such is never the case in novel adaptations for the screen.

There’s no ‘There’, there.

Successfully performing “no-story-there” novel adaptations to screenplay 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 here, launch a screen story.

In fact, if for any reason a novel adaptation doesn’t lend itself to screenplay form, consider moving toward a “based upon” approach, rather than attempting a direct novel adaptation.

Jim Kalergis, a native of Lowell, Massachusetts, now lives in Los Angeles, California where he makes his living as a screenwriter specializing in novel adaptations and rewrite/polish work.

Lynne Pembroke has worked in the industry for over twenty years. She got her start as an assistant to an Emmy award winning animation writer, as well as for the Director of Creative Affairs, assisting in finding staff writers for television shows, as well as reading, analyzing and editing teleplays, screenplays, and novel adaptations.

3 thoughts on “Novel Adaptations: 4 Challenges”

  1. This is very interesting and important stuff.

    I’ve come to a conclusion which this article seems to support. It’s an impossible and even pointless task to try make a film of a book. They are quite different storytelling media.

    It seems to me like trying to make a salad out of a roast dinner. You end up wiping the gravy from the roast beef, adding some lettuce and then throwing out most of the veg.

    But to make a film of a story about which somebody wrote a book, sang a song, painted a picture or told around a campfire? Now that seems very much more reasonable to me.

    You say “look to capture the essence and spirit of the story” and I can’t agree enough. The underlying story is what attracts us to make the film, regardless of the medium chosen by the original teller.

    There is a retired civil engineer who I know. He’s now in his 80s but still plays jazz piano every Sunday at a very posh hotel near where he lives. He’s really very good and writes most of his own songs.

    Talking to him about his music is fascinating. He develops a melody for a song and then draws it in music notation onto a canvas. Then he paints an evocative picture that includes the score. He shows it to the other band members. They know instantly what he means. I think that he has much to teach me about storytelling.


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