Screenwriting : Adapting a Novel to Screenplay by Elisabeth Meier

Elisabeth Meier

Adapting a Novel to Screenplay

Hi, would like to hear your opinions, tips, advice, tricks and everything about adapting a novel of 600-700 pages to a screenplay of 90-120 pages. Where and how do you begin? I already did it and developed some tricks for myself, but would love to discuss and learn. Where should the novel be tightened, what to leave out, how to shorten it? Should the screenwriter reduce it to the minimum by focussing on dialogues and leave the rest to the director? What are your ideas, experiences and tricks? Thank you all in advance!

Katharina Suckale

Hi this is Katharina, I would chose the plots I feel the most passionate about, also where the most conflict potential is in, the highest stakes... I would decide on one theme, look from the spectators perspective what he / she would like to get to know and experience the most out of this story. The film market became very tough, so I would try to make it crisp and tight... But this is just my point of view... Good luck

Boomer Murrhee

I have some notes from earlier research which may be helpful. I would be happy to email them to you.

Elisabeth Meier

@Katharina Yes, that is what I would love to make it - crisp and tight and easier to watch than all these pages are to read. :) @Boomer - This is great, would love to read what you have. Thanks, you dear!

Elisabeth Meier

@Boomer - just sent you a PM

Laurie Ashbourne

To add to Katharina's reply. Choose one point of view, (if the novel is written in 1st person this should be easy) and pull from that point of view where they are at the beginning, middle and end and keep on course of that journey.

Elisabeth Meier

What about "killing" some characters by simply not mentioning them, because they are not as relevant as others? I mean, tighten the story could lead to that. Is it my creativity and the writer of the original has to accept it?

Katharina Suckale

In the adaptation I left out characters and certain subplots and also entire scenes and phases of the story, just everything to make the story tight. But these kind of adaptations often disappoint the spectator later who read the book...

Laurie Ashbourne

Katharina is right, while you don't have to remain entirely accurate to the source material if the character you want to kill was very prominent -- the fans of the source material will be disappointed. If the character doesn't do much to help or hinder your main character's story (or at least the POV, you choose to focus on) then, by all means leave them out. That said it sounds like you are adapting someone else's work, so much will depend on the deal you struck with that option.

K. Williams

This is what I just completed my MA in. Adapted my own work for a final project. Excellent!

John Garrett

You mention "killing" characters. If there are a large number of ancillary characters simply decide what their true function is. Some you may just "kill" and others you may combine what purpose they serve to move the plot or round out the story.

Elisabeth Meier

@ Laurie, yes, it is not my own novel. I think adapting my own stuff would be easier as I would know the story by heart and knew each weakness and strength in my own story.

Elisabeth Meier

@ K. - unfortunately it is not my own work, but a long novel which I first have to read and then analyze and find my own structure. So, I have over 600 pages to reduce to a 90-120 pages screenplay. @ John Thank you, this is a helpful advice. But it is also true that I may not kill out too much. If I would the result will be disappointing as Katherina mentioned it. To me 'The Horse Whisperer' is a nice film, but disappointing as they changed things too much in the ending. So how to find the middle way, what to put first... I think I will have to completely analyze the structure and work like a doctor with the elements - if I understand you all right. :)

K. Williams

What I did is literally reformat everything into a script format (in word). You'll cull most stuff in that sweep as well, but once you start, you'll get a feel for how it needs to be laid out. Then, I copy paste it into final draft. Just keep finessing the language tighter and tighter. Reduce the dialogue, make sure it's speakable, not literary. Keep doing that over and over. Let me know if you have any questions. I've done two adaptations, and one reverse adaptation (script to books).

Elisabeth Meier

Well, of course you have to reformat it, because you write a screenplay. I always write immediately in FD, because all other steps cost too much time. I wondered if someone adapted a novel in a more free way - without only reformatting the book. Kind of reading and analyzing it, but then writing the screenplay in a more free way - like putting the book aside and taking/writing the screenplay as a work of itself.

Katharina Suckale

Depending on the contract, I would find it a lovely approach to just get inspired by the book and then write freely, what you want to tell. This may not please the spectators who read the book, but you may find new spectators. Anyhow I don't go into movies, where I read the books. But I love to go to movies inspired by books, but I haven't read it. I think "Gone Girl" was based on a book, and the film was excellent. Good luck

LindaAnn Loschiavo

Elisabeth, I adapted a novel by Mae West ["Diamond Lil"] for the stage; it was performed in NYC from August-Nov 2013 on West 46th St. and it ran for 1 hr, 39 mins with a cast of 8. In contrast, Mae's staged version ran for 3 hrs with a cast of 34. Some of the problems with her novel: too many minor characters, meaningless sub-plots, and an atrocious 3rd act. Additionally, I wanted to keep the cast size as small as possible. METHOD: I always start with an outline and only choose a scene with conflict and/or dramatic tension. If you follow that pattern, you will eliminate many scenes that only exist for the descriptions. If you have read Hardy's "Far From the Madding Crowd," see the most recent screen version to analyze what the script cut from the Victorian novel. A few eliminated scenes should have been left in; ex: Bathsheba fires her lazy bailiff Mr. Pennyways. Thomas Hardy fans know that a character who becomes an enemy will resurface to harm the protagonist -- but the film makes a poor decision when it does not show the Pennyways-Sgt Troy revenge scene. I do think that, by watching this film --- seeing the economy of scenes for yourself -- it will fuel your own project.

Tshepo David

Summarize the novel, break it into a containable story, and start writing. Understand the theme behind the story, the characters, the plot, etc. If you could narrate that novel to somebody in your own words, then you'll be able to reduce it to 85 - 120 pages in writing. (Only take what you think it's important.)

Elisabeth Meier

Thank you, Katharina! And of course also many thanks to all others for taking the time and advising me. :)

Elisabeth Meier

@ Tshepo David - yep. Great idea! Thank you.

Allison Chaney

I started such a project last year (and need to eventually return to it) but attacked it in exactly the way @Tshepo David suggested. I wrote a "treatment" for the book but from just one of the character's POV's and then I just free wrote. A couple of new scenes appeared that told the story a bit more visually a little faster. Let me know how you do! Good luck!

Craig D Griffiths

I have never done it. But I heard from the writer of "Saving Mr Banks", that you pick a single story line and write that. Novels tend to be multi-threaded, which doesn't make for a good script.

Elisabeth Meier

@ Craig - exactly, especially when they are 600-700 pages long. They also have too many details and exact descriptions of characteristics and scenes to underline a character's personality etc. @ Allison - this way sounds almost kinda "easy". What if the novel writer then doesn't like it? In my case she will be the director and/or producer of the film, I think. Are there any things I should know and keep an eye on for negotiating terms?

Tshepo David

If the novel is not yours, it it is advisable for you to get in contact and agreement with the author before you start writing your screenplay. If you don't mind, you can add ten pages here and we can help breaking them into screenplay format.

Elisabeth Meier

The novel is not mine, but it is the author who asked me to adapt it to a screenplay. She (the author) also will be the director or/and producer, if I got it right.

Bill Doncaster

I adapted a 400 pg. novel to a 72 page stage play (The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins -- movie was made years ago). I combined about a dozen cops into one, scrapped sub-plots and internal "thinky" chapters, and focused entirely on what was said, done -- and it worked. (Sold out the mutha for a few weeks).

Elisabeth Meier

Sounds like a great idea, Bill. Thank you for sharing.

K. Williams

My bad, I thought you were asking us how we do it--for advice. I hadn't realized what you were after was an affirmation of what you already decided to do on the adaptation. Yes. You can do it that way. No need to ask permission form other writers.

Elisabeth Meier

@K. Williams - I don't know why you now misunderstand the question. You understood it right, I asked how you would do it not whether I may do it this or that way. I was just asking because I thought there might be more than one way and I never adapted such a long book of 600-700 pages. It was above that someone said I first should ask for the author's permission which was clear and which I have because it's the author who asked me if I would right the screenplay adaption of the novel.

Elisabeth Meier

@Steven - Thank you, but books usually don't help me. I prefer asking other writers how they do it to get a feeling for what I'm doing.

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