adaptation

8 Essential Book-To-Screen Adaptations Every Screenwriter Should Watch

When in screenwriting school, you’ll likely at some point discuss the process of adapting fiction for the screen, which we’ve talked about at length in this space. This time, we’re going to look at some of cinema’s best examples of big screen fiction adaptations.

There are, of course, more incredible book-to-screen adaptations than we could possible hope to list here, so for the sake of brevity we’ve excluded the blockbuster franchises we all know and love—namely, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. We’ve also excluded adaptations from the works of Philip K. Dick and Steven King, which could fill lists all on their own!

So, without further ado…

8 Essential Book-To-Screen Adaptations Every Screenwriter Should Watch

No Country For Old Men (2007)

Book: Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name (2005)
RT Film Score: 86%

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One of two entries on this list based on a Cormac McCarthy novel (See The Road) and the first of two hat-tips to The Coen Brothers (True Grit), No Country For Old Men is a powerhouse in terms of both the performances therein and the moody, grim vibe spun carefully throughout. A modern day Western par excellence.

Life of Pi (2012)

Book: Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2001)
RT Film Score: 87%

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After languishing for a decade in development hell, Ang Lee finally did justice to the superb Booker Prize-winning book of the same name (and we can’t imagine anyone else who could have done quite the same job.) If you get the opportunity to watch it in 3D, do so. As well as being a great example of a book—not least one that was widely considered ‘unfilmable’—but it’s also a better example of the third dimension used to great effect.

The 39 Steps (1935)

Book: The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)
RT Film Score: 98%

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While only loosely based on the source material, The 39 Steps is not only one of the finest thrillers ever made but also helped cement a lot of ‘Hitchcockian’ elements which would come to define the director’s career and put him on the world stage. Numerous further adaptations have followed over the decades, including a hit Broadway play.

Matilda (1996)

Book: Matilda by Roald Dahl (1988)
RT Film Score: 90%

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There are a number of Roald Dahl adaptations we could have included here (the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for one) but Matilda was the surprising hit that is worthy of a special mention. For everyone wondering what happened to the adorable child star Mara Wilson (who also did an amazing job in Mrs. Doubtfire and Miracle on 34th Street), she quit acting shortly after Matilda and is now focusing on writing fiction herself…and thus, the circle is closed.

Forrest Gump (1994)

Book: Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump (1986)
RT Film Score: 72%

Forrest Gump

So great was the success of the Forrest Gump movie that it has almost eclipsed the fact that its origins lay in literature. Forrest Gump is a uniquely charming cinematic gem and one of the best movies of the 1990s. To say this endures as one of Tom Hanks’ finest performance in a filmography as impressive as his is a high accolade indeed.

The Road (2009)

Book: The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
RT Film Score: 75%

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In amongst a slew of post-apocolyptic movies released around the same time, The Road snuck in on limited release but ended up becoming an essential watch. Stripping back the usual high-budget flair of the genre, this Cormac McCarthy adaptation concerns itself solely with how the unspecified ‘event’ has ravaged the emotions of the two protagonists. The result is a very grim and highly charged movie, which doesn’t pull its punches.

True Grit (1969 & 2010)

Book: True Grit by Charles Portis (1968)
RT Film Score: Original 90%, Remake 96%

True grit adaptations

A superb book that went on to produce not just one, but two excellent slices of Western cinema. Both the original (which earned John Wayne his only Academy Award) and the 2010 Coen Brothers’ remake featuring a great performance by Jeff Bridges are well worth watching, regardless of whether or not you think you like Westerns.

Babe (1995)

Book: Dick King-Smith’s The Sheep-Pig (1985)
RT Film Score: 97%

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A cutesy family movie with talking animals and an oversaturated color palette? On paper, it should have been absolutely atrocious, but thanks to its pitch-perfect handling and the amount of heart poured into it from every department working on that movie, it ended up being an unadulterated delight…

… the sequel, not so much.

Got any personal favorite book-to-screen adaptations that we haven’t mentioned here? There’s certainly many more that we could have covered here—drop your suggestion down in the comments below!

 

Adapting Short Stories for Film: Screenplay Do’s And Don’ts

Short stories, by their very nature, can be excellent sources of concise and punchy narratives and as a result lend themselves very well for the big screen treatment. There’s a strong precedent for short story adaption so far, with the following feature movies having had their origins in short literature:

Total Recall (Started out as the Philip K. Dick short We Can Remember it For You Wholesale)

A Scanner Darkly (Also Philip K. Dick)

Minority Report (Ditto)

The Shawshank Redemption (Based on a Stephen King novella)

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (From the Truman Capote novella of the same name)

Memento (Adapted by Christopher Nolan from his brother Johnathan’s short story Memento Mori)

Eyes Wide Shut (Loosely adapted by Kubrick from the 1926 novella Traumnovelle)

2001: A Space Odyssey (Another Kubrick feature adapted from Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sentinal)

Apocalypse Now (Based on the 1899 Joseph Conrad novella Heart of Darkness)

And the list goes on, with more genre defining titles that we could realistically list here which got their start as a short story or novella. The question is, how do you get yourself on the list of greats and adapt a shorty story into a great film?

Adapting Short Stories for Film: The Do’s and Don’ts

adapting short stories into screenplays

Playing it Loose

One of the major banes of a filmmaker adapting a novel—or series of novels—into a screenplay is striking the right balance between squeezing it all into the run time but not falling foul of charges from the book’s fans of being ‘unfaithful to the source material.’

You’re a little luckier when it comes to adapting short stories as for whatever reason, the need to be a literalist doesn’t seem to apply so feel free to rework things at your leisure to find the best fit for the screen. If all else fails, substitute the phrase “adapted from…” to “inspired by…” and you’ll be golden!

Honing in on What Matters

This is more common with longer works, but even short stories it’s important to trim the fat and focus on what really matters. And as with any screenplay, it all boils down to three main ingredients: character motive, conflict and resolution.

How you distill these ingredients from the short story and repackage it for film is up to you as a screenwriter, but you should strive to put these key features at the forefront of your screenplay. And speaking of packaging:

Translating Pace

Pacing, of course, plays a big role in the enjoyability of both books and film. Preserving and translating the pacing of a short story in particular requires a little extra attention to get it right as you expand it into a 180 minute feature film.

Occasionally, you’ll have to revamp things entirely as you may sometimes find a short story that is exceptional in every way except the pacing, but you’ll have the opportunity to do your job as a screenwriter and rectify this during the adaption process.

Usage Rights

Clearing the rights for a production and optioning the source material for adaption is usually down to the producer rather than the screenwriter, but if you’re one in the same person, it really pays to make sure you’ve not shirked your responsibilities in this regard (and can cause serious issues later on if you neglect this duty.)

How to go about optioning book rights is deserving of its own dedicated post altogether but if this is something you’d really rather skip, consider adapting works that are already in the public domain.

Of course, it doesn’t particularly matter if the screenplay isn’t intended to leave your hard drive or go any further than a workshop at screenwriting school, and this brings us onto:

Even If The Film Never Surfaces…

…use it as practice.

Without any hesitation whatsoever, you can grab a short story and instantly start playing around. It’s a great way of not only putting your skills to the test but also pushing them to new heights—especially if you intentionally set yourself a challenge by picking a short story that’s really not suitable for silver screen adaptation!

short story adaptation

Got any tips of your own for adapting short stories to screenplays? Any particular favorite examples of the process being done well? You know where to head—we’ll see you in the comments below!