adaptations

From Book to Screen: Adapting Philip Roth’s ‘Indignation’

On Thursday, December 20, New York Film Academy (NYFA) hosted a guest lecture by producer, production attorney, and NYFA board member, Avy Eschenasy. Eschenasy is the principal of Eschenasy Consulting, which provides advisory services in connection with all business aspects of motion picture production, financing, and distribution.

Previously, Eschenasy was a senior executive at Focus Features from 2002 until 2013, where he was Executive Vice President of Strategic Planning, Business Affairs and Acquisitions. Eschenasy is known for producing Indignation (2016), Casting JonBenét (2017), and A Prayer Before Dawn (2017).

Avy Eschenasy

Eschenasy began the lecture by discussing how the book Indignation by Philip Roth, was optioned to be produced as a feature film. In order for a producer to option a book, they must pay the publisher an “option fee.”

“That fee entitles [producers] to exclusively have the opportunity to buy the rights [to produce the book as a film]” said Eschenasy, “for a limited time period, usually 12 to 18 months” if the producer can find a production company or movie studio that wants to produce the optioned book as a film.

If the producer can find a production company or movie studio that is interested in producing the book as a film, then they would pay the publisher an additional fee for the exclusive opportunity to produce the book as a film. That means that once Eschenasy purchased the rights to produce Roth’s Indignation, Roth’s publishing company was not allowed to sell the option or production rights to any other producers.

Avy Eschenasy

Eschenasy went on to discuss turning the book into a screenplay. In order to get a book adapted to a screenplay, the producer must negotiate with a screenwriter, usually a member of the Writers Guild of America (WGA).

In the contract with the screenwriter, the producer outlines fees paid for the first couple drafts of the script and many times will pay an additional fee if the film makes it all the way to production and distribution. The fees paid to a writer also depend on how they are credited: for example, a writer that has written a script alone would be paid more than a writer that co-wrote a script with one or more partners.

Once the script is finalized, it is time to focus on production. The producer needs to have a “package” ready to prepare for launching production, said Eschenasy. “The script, cast, the director, and the budget.”

Avy Eschenasy

The budget is put together by a line producer and then the producer must try to raise that amount of money to make the film; with independent films like Indignation, this money is typically raised with “pre-sales” to distributors. A “pre-sale” is a contract between the production team and distributors that outlines stipulations that the production team must follow in order to secure financing from the distributor; usually the distributor’s agreement is contingent upon the producer promising a script and a known actor. A way to save money during production is to shoot in a state or a country with tax credits for film and television productions; because of this and a few other reasons, Indignation was shot in New York.

For Indignation, a big part of the production “package” was the actor, Logan Lerman, best known for starring in The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012). Eschenasy needed a name like Lerman to get distributors interested, but he also needed to make Lerman and his representatives feel confident in Indignation as a production; producers get actors and their representatives to trust their productions with contracts. The contract outlines the shoot schedule, the actor’s “billing” (much like the writer’s “credit” discussed earlier), the fee paid to the actor (including bonuses if the actor wins awards for the role), and perks if applicable.

After all the negotiations and contracts were completed and all of the necessary funds were raised, Indignation went into production. Everything went well during the production phase and then it moved to post-production. Once the final cut of the film was finished, Indignation was entered in the Sundance Film Festival, where it was received very well by critics. Lionsgate Entertainment made an offer to distribute the film in the United States and Sony Pictures Entertainment made and offer to distribute the film to the majority of the international market. After all of their hard work, the Indignation production team got the film made, critically acclaimed, and distributed all over the world.

New York Film Academy would like to thank Avy Eschenasy for sharing his industry expertise and experiences getting Indignation produced with our students!

Anatomy of an Adapted Screenplay

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.

Great Adaptations

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.