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Five tips for writing an adaptation

Advice from Douglas Dougan on how to make the leap from printed page to the big screen

Genre: Film
Age group: Adults
Audience: Writers

Last updated: 21 May 2021

The screen industry is in an adaptation frenzy. Over half of all films and television productions started their story life in another form, whether that's short stories, novels, graphic novels, video games, biographies or magazine articles. Critical hits such as The Big Short, Brooklyn, Carol, The Martian, Room, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything all came from the printed page.

Any screenwriter going into it thinking it will be easy, however, could get a shock. Yes, the story and characters are already there, but that isn’t enough. The job of adapting from one source to a screenplay is as hard - perhaps harder - than coming up with something entirely new. Here are five things to keep in mind for any writer thinking of adapting from the page to the screen.

The magic three

Film is unique in its demand for all three vital ingredients: a clear central character, a character goal and obstacles. This is what gives your film story focus and direction. The protagonist wants something specific, and it is this desire that propels the action. Obstacles are what they encounter along the way, keeping them from reaching their goal as quickly or as painlessly as they would like.

"A good rule is to find the ten key moments that make up the story."

Finding these elements in the source work should be any screenwriter’s first job, and that isn’t always easy. A magazine article, for instance, can have great obstacles (also known as conflict) but no clearly defined protagonist and no real desire or goal. Some novels are pretty vague when it comes to plot; many are more like an internal study of a person. Your story can have a well-drawn protagonist, but their quest might be too internalised, or so slow in building that it would be impossible to try to fit it into two hours.

The 2012 film Argo, for instance, was inspired by an article in Wired magazine but screenwriter Chris Terrio had to plot it to become Tony Mendez’s plan to get the hostages out. The film version of Silver Linings Playbook focuses the story to be all about Pat Solitano trying to win his wife back. When screenwriter Tony Kushner adapted the biography of Abraham Lincoln, he distilled the president’s life down to Lincoln’s particular desire to pass the 13th Amendment.

This is your story now and you have to find those three vital elements – or invent them if they aren’t there.

Find the deep structure

Deep structure is the essential drama and journeys of the central characters: what motivates them and what events are crucial to understanding their dramatic problems. It is inevitable that some of these events are not in the source material but took place in the backstory of the characters, or are merely alluded to within the text.

A good rule is to find the ten key moments that make up the story. When I am adapting, I often try re-telling the story back to myself after I have read the source and trust my subconscious to remember the bits that matter. Also, pay attention to how the author ends chapters. These are important turning points.

Show, don’t tell

Think about your favourite films. What immediately springs to mind? Most likely you’ll conjure up an image or a scene. If you do remember a line of dialogue, you probably won’t think of it in terms of words on a page; you’ll remember the way the words were spoken by the actor.

We think in images because film is a visual art form. Fiction, on the other hand, uses words to tell a story, describe character and build ideas. In a book, a narrator guides us along, helping us make connections and find meaning. They can tell us what is happening inside a character’s head.

Film has to be immediate, giving the watching viewer exactly what they need to know. This is probably the biggest challenge when adapting from the page to the screenplay. So as you go through your source material, grab on to anything that feels like an image. And where there are none, keep asking yourself: how could I externalise the internal story here as character or action?

"The length of a film is dictated by the capacity of the human bladder."

Cut cut cut!

Alfred Hitchcock once famously said that the length of a film is dictated by the capacity of the human bladder. So if you are doing a film adaptation, you are going to have to find ways of getting the story to fit in to the average 100 minutes. This usually means you have to cut. And the minute you start hacking out chunks of the source story, the whole narrative changes. So you have to be ruthless and decide what is absolutely essential from the source work to keep the film moving. Anything else is superfluous.

The exceptions to this rule are if you are writing for television, where you can take more time. Andrew Davies had a luxurious six hours to adapt War and Peace for the BBC recently. Even then, he had to scythe out various plotlines to keep it focused on the characters he thought were important.

For this reason, short stories and novellas are often less painful adaptations.

That’s a book, this is a film

How many times have we heard people come out of a film or TV screening saying: 'It wasn’t as good as the book'? As a screenwriter you have to accept that neither is right or wrong. One is not better than the other, they are just different because they have to be. Your job as a screenwriter is to use all the craft skills of scriptwriting to write the best screen version of the story.

That means action, plotting, visual images, scene construction, subtext, intercutting, emotion. These are the things that resonate with viewers. So take the book (or biography or article or whatever) as the starting point, then aim to write your own film version of the material.