What are the best ways to write great movie adaptations of novels, short stories, graphic novels, or any other existing intellectual property? Here we offer some simple but foolproof ways that screenwriters can crack the code of writing excellent adaptations without losing the soul of the source material or writing un-cinematic screenplays.
1. Don’t Adapt What You Don’t Have the Rights To
The obvious first step in adapting books or short stories into screenplays is first acquiring the rights to be able to do so.
It’s a common mistake by novice screenwriters. Some feel that they can take the liberty of adapting intellectual property (IP) that they’ve found and then try to sell the script with the thought that the studios will buy the rights to the book for them — handling all of the legalities and whatnot. Big mistake.
If you’re going to adapt something, you need to either be hired by a studio or production company that own the rights to the material, or you have to secure the rights yourself. And that can be nearly impossible for an unknown writer unless you have lots of money or are dealing with a very small or local publishing company or self-published author.
But that doesn't mean you're never going to have the chance to utilize these cracked codes to writing great movie adaptations. You can certainly approach authors and publishers to inquire about the adaptation rights. If it's a best-selling book, it's going to be difficult, sure.
But if it's a book that has yet to achieve that type of status, you may have a shot at inking a cheap deal — usually with the contractual caveat that if the script generates interest from studios and major production companies, they'll be taken care of before any script sale is made.
Regardless, you can’t adapt something you don’t have the rights to. It’s a waste of your time and the time of anyone that you take the script to.
Now, let's assume you've done your due diligence. You've either attained the adaptation rights to a book or you're a bit further down your screenwriting career path and have been hired to adapt a novel that a studio or production company owns the adaptation rights to.
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2. Find the Cinematic Elements of the Story
This is the most vital step to any great adaptation.
Adapting a book into a screenplay isn't just about taking paragraph after paragraph, character after character, and chapter after chapter and translating them into screenplay format. That's precisely what leads to bad adaptations. Not to mention the fact that you'll find yourself with a 400 page screenplay, far beyond the limits of a two-hour-plus film.
You need to find the cinematic elements of the book's story.
Read through the book, short story, or novel and discover what stories, characters, and moments are most adaptable for the screen. Not everything within a literary narrative is cinematic.
Short stories are often the easiest to adapt because there's simply less story and characters to go through.
Read ScreenCraft's 5 Reasons Short Stories Are Easier to Adapt Than Novels!
But when you're dealing with novels that range from three hundred to a thousand pages or more, you're going to have to mine through that manuscript and find what elements play best within a cinematic narrative.
Example: If a moment within a book takes place entirely within the mind of a character — complete with inner dialogue and other unfilmable elements — it may be best to skip that part of the story or find a way that you can visually represent that plot point.
Get your own copy of the book, read through it, and then either make notes on the margins, circle moments that are cinematic, or highlight moments and chapters that best represent the core of the story and the characters with visual and cinematic flavor.
3. Find the Core Beats of the Story and Characters
You can’t include everything. You only have two hours (90–120 pages) to tell the story. And you have to do so in a way that people who haven't read the book can understand and be engaged by the story and characters featured within the adaptation.
When you focus on the broad strokes of everything, you’ll find it much easier to condense the story and characters.
Go through the book and determine what the core of the story is. Find the themes in play and narrow them down as much as you can.
Then search for each of the main characters' best and defining moments. The literary narrative allows for small details of character background and overall characterization. However, screenplays don't have time for that.
For a perfect example, compare the books of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings with the Peter Jackson film adaptations. So much was left out, but Jackson and his writing partners managed to find the core beats of the story and the characters — enough that most fans of the novels were left satisfied that a proper adaptation had been administered.
4. Merge or Delete Secondary Characters
You can't fit everything and everyone in there for most adaptations.
Books give readers the chance to stay with characters longer. Movies don't offer that freedom because of the limited time frame. Twenty characters for the expansive novel of Stephen King's The Stand isn't too much to ask readers to follow. But twenty characters in a single-film feature version of the story would be far too many for the average film-goer.
Either make an amalgam of a few into one or delete them from the story outright. Only include the characters that are 100% necessary to the core story and character beats.
You can attach particular characteristics to a single character within an adaptation that represent multiple characters found within the source material.
You can also merge storylines, character traits, and plot points of multiple characters into one cinematic character within the script.
Turn twenty literary characters into ten cinematic characters. Turn ten into five. Do whatever is necessary to make the story and the characterizations more accessible to the cinematic audience.
5. Write an Original Script Version of the Source Material
Remember, this isn’t a cinematic version of the book. This is a feature screenplay based on the book. There’s a difference.
The cinematic and literary mediums are two vastly different entities. Consumers experience each of these types of stories differently.
The weakest defense for a bad adaptation is, "Well, the book explains all of those plotholes. You just have to read the book."
No! The movie version is just that — a movie. It has to exist on its own merits. You can't rely on the audience to have read the book — or to read it after the movie. That's not what writing a great adaptation is about.
You need to write a screenplay that relies only on itself to tell a story. You use the source material as a launching pad to give you the core story beats and characterizations. Everything else must be written for the cinematic experience of a two-hour (give or take) movie.
Get the rights before you adapt it. Read through the whole book and highlight the cinematic elements of the stories and characters. Find the core of the story and the characters and work from there. Merge or delete secondary characters to fit the restraints of the cinematic medium. And focus on writing a stand-alone screenplay that uses the source material as inspiration.
That's how you crack the code of writing great movie adaptations!
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures. He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies