Adapting the Novel

51vHLcJAD8L._SS500_  I've adapted a few novels for the screen over  the years, and it's always a difficult task. You've got to capture what made the book great, but you've also got  to change a lot of things in order to make it work as a screenplay. 

I always watch movie adaptations with a close eye, hoping to learn from the ones that work and even those that don't. Speaking of learning, I thought I'd pose the question about how to go about adapting a novel for the screen to Richard Walter, who was my professor at UCLA and who has written Essentials of Screenwriting, a fantastic new book that incorporates and expands on his earlier classic, Screenwriting.  His response wasn't quite what I expected….

My own screenwriting teacher, USC’s late and legendary Irwin R. Blacker, used to ask his classes the following: “When adapting a novel for the screen, what do you owe the original material?”

He demanded a one-word answer.

The answer: Nothing.

What every writer owes–and it is all that he owes–is the best movie he can write. To whom does he owe that movie?

To the audience.

My first bit of advice to writers contemplating adapting a novel to the screen: Don’t do it.

Instead, write an original screenplay.

I’ve opined in my books and lectures and elsewhere that in my view the most depressing aspect of Hollywood is its refusal in recent years to produce original screenplays. Everything seems to be a remake, a sequel, a prequel, or an adaptation from a novel, a board game, a video game, a comic book, even a toy from Hasbro or Mattel.

When writers ask me about adapting novels, I ask them why they want to do that. Wouldn’t they prefer to create characters and stories of their own invention rather than use another writer’s? Inevitably they tell me that they were hugely, vastly touched by the particular novel, that they found it transporting and transforming.

Consider, however, that if it has so profound an effect upon readers, perhaps that’s its ideal form. Write it as a movie and it’s almost guaranteed to be disappointing.

It’s revealing to consider that many among the finest adaptations have come not from great books but from mediocre ones. The Graduate has to be among my favorite films. How many people have read the Charles Webb novel upon which it is based? Others may disagree, but it is not highly regarded as a piece of timeless literature.

Consider also Kramer Versus Kramer. It’s another brilliant film from a less-than-brilliant novel. How many people have read the Avery Corman novel? Those who have testify that it does not hold a candle to the film.

If a book is really, truly great, then that’s what it wants to be: a book.

Extraordinarily worthy books tend to make lousy movies. Catch 22 or Angela’s Ashes are only two examples.
There is another important reason for writers to avoid writing adaptations: copyright. Why speculate on a script when you do not own the underlying rights?

Some writers option the rights to books they’re adapting, but options eventually expire, don’t they? A studio, impressed with the notion of a particular adaptation, can simply wait out the option period, and then move in and take it over, eliminating the spec writer and bringing in the current hot writer de jour.

Writers can do what nobody else in the business can do: write. From nothing they can create something: a screenplay. Actors can’t do it. Directors can’t do it. Producers can’t do it. Writers alone can do it, and it’s all that they should do.

Notwithstanding any of the above, if you’re nevertheless writing an adaptation, perhaps on assignment for a producer or studio or network, the key is to remember what Professor Blacker preached all those years ago. Your debt is not to the original material but to the audience watching (and paying for) the movie. Remember that you can’t really ruin a novel. If you adapt one into a trashy, useless script, the book still remains unchanged; the letters do not rearrange themselves on the page.

Adaptors should feel free to delete scenes and entire chapters from the book; they should feel equally free to create wholly new material, even invent new characters, if in doing so they create a finer script. They should try at most to capture merely the spirit of the book, if that, and avoid becoming a slave to the facts and data contained in the original pages.

I've been in both positions…I have been assigned books to adapt by a studio or network and I have optioned books myself and written spec adaptations. So far, both scenarios have worked out very well for me (though Richard Walter's cautions about the pitfalls of optioning books yourself are very true and valid concerns). 

When I take on an adaptation, I basically follow the advice that Richard just shared…I make whatever changes are necessary to stay true to what worked for me in the book but to make it play as a movie. That often means stripping out subplots, compressing events (the classic example is Six Days of the Condor becoming the move Three Days of the Condor), removing characters or "merging" them into a new one (one example: James L. Brooks took three boyfriends in the book Terms of Endearment and made them into one wholly new one, played by Jack Nicholson), adding new characters (or sparing those who died in the books), and changing the third act (as Scott Frank did with Get Shorty). 

As an author myself, I also feel a need to make the author happy, which is not something I should really be thinking  about in the adaptation process. Most likely,  you are bound to piss them off with your changes. So far, though, I've been lucky. All the living authors whose work I've adapted have been very pleased with the results…in many cases, they've told me they wish they could go back and make the same changes in their books, which is enormously flattering. 

6 thoughts on “Adapting the Novel”

  1. July 1st is Canada Day :). Happy 4th of July!
    Your prof seems to have had his sensibility formed in the era where “the book is always better than the movie.” That was true at the time, but I think movie-makers and script-writers now can go beyond the “book experience.”
    It seemed to begin, for me, with “An Officer and a Gentleman.” The movie produced an emotional impact that books cannot produce–they produce another kind of emotional impact. With AOAAG, movies seemed to find themselves.
    Granted, some adaptation disappoint. One was the TV movie version of “The Shell Seekers”, starring Angela Landsbury–the book was simply much better.
    But then there was the BBC version of Dickens’s novel, “Our Mutual Friend,” which was first class and much, much better than Dickens’s book! The book was too much of a satire.
    But then there are the movies that vastly exceed the novels. H.G. Well’s, “The War of the Worlds,” is thin, short and gets boring. But in the hands of a Spielberg, and acted by a Tom Cruise, the movie is so far beyond the book it’s incredible. And take “Jurassic Park.” I like author Michael Crieghton, but the book is techno-fluff while the movie and its sequels are incredible experiences, far beyond what the book produces.
    And who doesn’t love the movies based on Tolkien?
    Your prof is a smart, insightful guy, no question, and I want to buy and read his book. But movies, now, I would argue, and TV shows like “Sex and the City,” are able to explore areas novels cannot, and to provide experiences that are utterly fantastic.
    Even the TV adaptation of “Anna Kerenina” was as compelling as the classic novel.

  2. Let’s reverse this. I have a novelist friend who conceives of his stories by making them movies in his mind’s eye. When he writes a book scene, he is depicting his mental movie scene. I don’t think it works well. Books go places movies can’t go, into private thoughts, into sensory realms beyond sight and sound, into abstractions and visions and logic. Imposing movie protocol on a novel gravely limits the novel. Movies are exterior. Everything comes to the viewer through sight and sound and the actor’s skills. Novels can go anywhere.

  3. Thank you, Carl Gottlieb, for making Jaws the movie way better than Jaws the book.
    I read the book first. Meh. (Sorry, Mr. Benchley, I wasn’t your target audience then.)
    The movie? I watched it on tape for the first time at a friend’s house a couple years after release, then insisted on watching it 4 times in a row until he shut down the party. Every time I went for a visit I’d slot that movie into my pal’s Betamax. Between that script and the direction I wanted to be a writer/director.
    Oh, hey, I’m halfway there!
    Actually, this writer stuff is fun. Someone else can direct now.
    As for WotWorlds, my heart belongs to the 1938 radio show scripted by 22-year old future legend, Howard Koch.

  4. This explains why most movies made from books are disappointments. One that was true to the novel was The Maltese Falcon, and it worked just fine.
    What? War of the Worlds a good movie? Not what I heard. Give me the Gene Barry version over the Smirking Dwarf version any day.

  5. Cap’n Bob said: “This explains why most movies made from books are disappointments.”
    The Lord of the Rings movies were not disappointments. The Harry Potter movies are not disappointments. The Eclipse movies are not disappointments. The trend has changed. Most movies made from books nowaday, I would argue, are not only not disappointments, they are soaring past what the books can deliver. Ironman was not a disappointment, it was a smash success, as was Ironman 2.
    Cap’n Bob said: “What? War of the Worlds a good movie? Not what I heard.”
    The Speilberg/Cruise movie was fabulous and far beyong the H.G. Wells book. But, um, you’d have to see the movie and read the book, I guess, to know that, Cap’n.
    Have you read, “Alice in Wonderland”? It’s mostly a play on words between the characters. The Johnny Depp/Tim Burton movie didn’t disappoint anybody. It took the story to unimagined heights. That’s CGI. Movie adaptations can now do what novels cannot in terms of the experiences they provide.

  6. I hardly go to the movies anymore because most everything seems to be a remake and not always born of a great story but some merchandising hook. One of the most effective adaptations was A Beautiful Mind. The book and film were very different, almost frustratingly so, but ultimately they both drove home the same thematic points. I wish there were more movies base off original screenplays. Your audience wants them too!


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