Novels are terrific, but there’s something about the silver screen that transforms great ideas into pure theatrical magic. And many incredible films exist because a screenwriter was inspired to adapt a story from another medium. Today, we’ll look at how you can tackle this process yourself. But finding your inspiration is only the first step. Here are some crucial tips to keep in mind as you adapt your screenplay.
First, understand that the adapted screenplay is an artform, with many great examples to look to for inspiration and insights on craftsmanship.
Beloved films like “The Shining,” “Fight Club,” “Harry Potter” and “The Hunger Games” all started out as books before a talented screenwriter turned them into adapted screenplays. Also, think “Twilight.”
And books aren’t the only inspiration for adapted screenplays — don’t forget plays, short stories, poems, and more! There is a long and successful history of adapting all kinds of literature into screenplays…
Plays inspired many film classics: “12 Angry Men,” based on the play of the same name; “Pretty Woman,” based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion”; and “West Side Story,” based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
But literature doesn’t have to be long to inspire a film. “Story of Your Life,” a science fiction short by Ted Chiang, was recently adapted into the Golden Globe and Oscar-nominated film “Arrival.” And the Oscar-nominated 1939 classic “Gunga Din” was based on a poem of the same name by Rudyard Kipling.
Sources for adapted screenplay material don’t have to end with books, plays, and poems. Need we mention all the films successfully adapted from comic books?
Follow The Story
Your first step is to learn the source material inside-out, identify the main characters, and trace out their story lines. Passion for the story is the most important driver behind adapting a novel into a screenplay. You can make a list of key characters, crucial scenes, and major themes, but don’t get bogged down in the minutiae. Remember: your goal is to tell this story as a film, and you’re looking for ways to drive the action forward.
This is your brainstorming phase. Draw charts or diagrams. Storyboard. Write lists. Do whatever it is that helps you connect the dots in your own brain as you begin to shift your mind from interacting with this story as consumer, to becoming the storyteller. Your job at this phase is to organize your source material and begin to identify the shape your story will take on screen.
Adaptation Means Change
Sometimes you have to shed subplots or minor characters in order to keep the story rolling along. Or, use your imagination to fill in gaps. After all, you’re adapting one story form into another, and it has to fit into the structure of a 120-page screenplay. Think of The Harry Potter series, and how screenwriters had to carefully curate which characters and subplots could participate in the the story of a two-hour time film.
This can be a hard judgment call, so how will you know when to change something? A good rule of thumb is that if it doesn’t drive the story forward, you’ll have to change it.
Jane Anderson, scriptwriter for HBO’s Olive Kitteridge, explained how screenwriters know when to twist a plot or kill off a character: “Once you know your theme and who you’re meant to follow, then it becomes very clear [what to cut or eliminate]. You have to decide, as a dramatist—how do I want to tell this story?”
Show Don’t Tell
It’s ever-so-tempting to translate those beautifully written sentences into voice-overs, but you must resist the urge! Remember that your audience wants to see the story and not hear it; they can hear the story on tape in Grandpa’s 1986 Chevy truck or download it on iTunes to listen at the gym. As a screenwriter, you know that you’re speaking a visual vocabulary. If you must use voice-overs to tell your story, limit it to the best lines in the book.
Once you have these tips in mind, choose your favorite novel or short and story and feel free to begin
adapting it for the big screen! What are your favorite adapted screenplays? Let us know in the comments below!
Learn more about the craft of filmmaking at NYFA’s Screenwriting School.