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Updated: Dec 23, 2019

It’s not only difficult. It’s almost impossible. It’s a meat grinder every single time. Either the novel gets ground, I get ground, The author of the novel gets ground or we all do. The reasons are many;

A few years ago A production company contacted me because they were considering to option a novel and they wanted my advice on its adaptability. They send me a copy of the novel but before I had a chance to read it, the author called me up and asked me what I thought. I told him that since I had yet to read his work, I could not comment on the specifics but I could, however, tell him this much: “If you´ve written a great novel, I can´t help you. But if it turns out that you´ve churned out a dime-store novel, I can help you.”

He was, of course, dumbfounded and perhaps offended and so I kindly explained to him that I was actually paying him a compliment. You see, great novels use language to tell their story. Screenplays use language too, but the language itself is irrelevant. Such is not the case with great literature. In great novels, the language by which the story is told is in itself as important than the story. That is why Dickens could open his novel “A tale of two cities” like this:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way”

You try to adapt that sentence and you will see that nothing happens in it. It’s just description. But what description it is !!! - It is poetic, it is thoughtful, It has personality, and it sums up things that are more important than just story; It describes a state of mind.

How would anyone translate that into a media that works almost entirely by showing action, by showing what happens, how people act, what they do. - Not, how it is described. Many novels work by a principle that is almost just the opposite. In Dickens opening, nothing happens. It pure poetry, similes, metaphors, internal dialogue - all the things that movies do extremely badly.

In Short, Movies and novels are two completely different media.

Having worked on numerous adaptations, I can hardly think of two more different media. Adapting a novel into a screenplay is, of course, possible but to do it, you have to understand the differences between the two media and learn how to translate those differences into the film media.

It’s not even like translating one language into another. It is more like translating a symphony into a novel.

For instance, could you imagine an action movie like ‘Avengers” as a stage play - all set in one room? It would be possible but not very good. It is the same with novels and movies. You see, Novels tells their story in a completely different way than a movie. Things that work in a novel, might never work in a movie and vise versa.

But to answer your question in more detail, let me list a few of the differences:

1. Novels, very often play out inside a character's mind through a first-person perspective.

This is very different from how movies work. In a movie, you don’t have access to what the character thinks. In screenplays, we expose and illustrate what characters feel through their actions - what they do.

So imagine what we would have to do each time it is important for us to know what a character thinks; we will have to translate that into what he does. We will have to make up the actions that he performs. And this creates a second problem: Actions have consequences. Whenever a character acts, his actions will have consequences. Those consequences, then, create new actions - which is what plot is (actions nd reaction)

For those reasons, you can´t just have the character perform actions just to show us what he feels. Because these actions create a plot and soon you will find yourself in a situation where a whole new plot line emerges.

2. Novels use language, poetry, rhythm, and rhyme, metaphors and similes to describe the settings and situations.

Movies are a visual art form. In practical terms that means that a screenplay has to tell its story in images, not words because the audience does not have access to those descriptions.

How, for instance, would you translate this excellent description in Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot: “Phyllida’s hair was where her power resided. It was expensively set into a smooth dome, like a band-shell for the presentation of that long-running act, her face.”

If you break it down you’ll find that there are metaphors; Her hair resembles her power.

You will also find a couple of similies: Her hairdo is compared to an expensive dome, a band-shell, and even a “long-running act”

All these metaphors and similes are highly subjective. Movies, on the other hand, is highly objective. In a movie someones, hair is just their hair. It has no meaning beyond that. You don’t look at Laureen Bacall hair in “The Big Sleep* and conclude that it resembles anything else but her hair.

How do you translate that into a movie when everyone's opinion and taste about hair is different?

3. Novels are divided into chapters and use a variety of different ways to structure their plots.

Screenplays, on the other hand, draws upon a dramatic tradition and not a literary tradition. For that reason, screenplays are always structured in acts, and usually three, whereas novels rarely have no at all because they are not structured as Arch plots and even rarer; structured as dramas.

Novels are, in that sense, closer to Poetry than drama. Their stories, If they have one, can be structured in many ways or in no way.

Most movies are structured in three acts with two distinct turning points. With many novels, That is rarely the case. To transform one into the other, you would then have to invent new turning points, which in essence is to create a new story line


4. NOVELS sometimes have multiple storylines, some have no storyline.

Take a novel like ‘Hour of the Star’ by Clarice Lispector. It is a beautifully written novel, for sure. But what is it about? Well, in the words of one critic, it is “about The protagonist, Macabéa, is extremely poor, abused by her boyfriend, and ignored by everyone else, but she maintains a positive outlook on life” There you have it. That is the entire story from beginning to end. A great novel, for sure, but if you were to adapt into a movie; what would happen in it? what would the plot be? what are the actions of the character? were are the turning points? the crisis, the climax, the suspense?

5. Novels sometimes run into 3–400 pages or 80000 words.

Contrary to that, the average screenplay is 120 pages long, double spaced. If you count the number of words, you would reach something in the vicinity of 15.000. In short, you would have to cut a novel by more than two thirds to adapt it into a screenplay. Characters have to be cut, subplots have to be cut - a lot of things have to be cut. And when you are forced to cut that much, you risk losing the integrity or intention of the novel, or both.

Adapting a novel is not just about translating the language of prose into the language of drama (which in itself is hard enough)Adapting a novel is more akin to translating a recipe for chicken salad into a ballet. In order to do it, you not only have to cut the novel and condense the rest. You also have to dramatize it; create actions for the characters and in doing so; create a new plot or plots. You have to eliminate characters and sometimes invent new ones - characters that are an amalgamation of the ones, lost. You have to identify the story, even if there is none and you have to restructure the whole thing.

In Short, when adapting a novel, adaptation is far from enough. Whenever I have been asked to do it, we have always found that it becomes an absolute necessity to re-invent the story, as though it was a new story altogether.

Oddly enough, all this is done to preserve the original author’s intentions as best as we can in a new media.

If you have any screenwriting questions, that require a professional answer, click on the free signup button on top of this blog page to receive free lessons, newsletters and shoot me a mail with your questions.

Happy writing !!!


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