How to Adapt a Book for the Big Screen
Some of today's best films started out as novels, short stories, or even non-fiction books. Hollywood is hungry for cinematic stories, and not just screenplays. We asked two of ScreenCrafts's Cinematic Book Competition judges — screenwriters, Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis — how they approach book and short story adaptations and how they find cinematic stories in all kinds of writing.
This writing duo has penned CBS Films’ Five Feet Apart, The Curse of La Llorna aka "The Children", the new Dirty Dancing film for Lionsgate, along with the upcoming Nightbooks for Netflix with Sam Raimi. Mikki also wrote the YA novel All This Time, which just debuted on the New York Times’ Bestseller List at #4.
Learn what writers, producers, agents, and executives are looking for in a cinematic book or short story! And if you're ready, enter the ScreenCraft Cinematic Book Competition here.
How did you two meet and start screenwriting together?
Tobias Iaconis: Well, I don’t particularly enjoy writing, but movies were the thing that clicked with me. I met Joe Bratcher and Judy Farrell while taking screenwriting courses at UCLA. In college, I began to understand how films were made and that writers were involved in crafting the film. I thought that might be my way into making movies. Joe and Judy were teachers at the UCLA extension and they invited me to join a writing group that they hosted out of their home.
I would recommend every writer do that. We would table read our scripts, give constructive feedback, and “bitch and moan” about the industry. I was in that group for a number of years when Mikki rolled in from Georgia.
Mikki Daughtry: A friend said, “Just go to this writers’ group." So I went and met Joe and Judy and Tobias was in there. And I came in with my practice script, and I wrote my first pages as a part of the class. It was a character piece just for practice. And Tobias was writing and he was writing a lot of action and commercial films. And I like commercial films!
I think we were drawn to each other’s work because there is a deep character study in everything that I do.
How do you collaborate on adaptations?
MD: So I was adapting a book and we had just chatted in the group. It was a sci-fi horror novel that was an ensemble but they wanted him to pull up one of the characters and center the story around her. And I had written this little character thing and I thought, alright now I’m gonna have some fun and write a horror movie. It was called Fight or Flight. It was Most Dangerous Game-meets-Bourne Identity.
It was a fun story and so commercial. And Tobias came up to me outside at the break and said “Nobody in here writes like that. I’m working on this book…” and we struck up a deal. He wanted to rewrite my fight scenes in Fight or Flight and he wanted me to center his story around the female lead. After that, we started switching everything. Nothing has gotten written that we both haven’t taken a look at. As soon as we made being writing partners official we got in the finals at Austin, our reps signed us.
Is the Austin Film Festival the first contest you submitted to? Did you ever submit to any others?
MD: We were discovered at the Austin Film Festival. I was having a not a “dark night of the soul”, nothing that dramatic, but maybe a “twilight” of the soul. Questioning if I was any good. So Tobias took all of our scripts and submitted them to Austin and didn’t tell me. And then I’m just toiling away and he calls me and says, “I submitted everything to Austin, and we’re in the finals with two of our scripts.”
It was Elsewhere that became my YA novel that just debuted you at #4 on the New York Times’ Bestseller List, and the other was Godless. Those were both of our passion projects. We got our reps, David Boxerbaum and Adam Kolbrenner, and that's how it all started.
How did you guys land Five Feet Apart?
MD: Elsewhere made the Blacklist that year, and Justin Baldoni had an idea that he had gotten CBS Films really interested in the idea of two kids with cystic fibrosis who fall in love but can’t touch. And he was looking for writers and had gotten hold of our script and he called and he said, “I want you on this project”.
How did your screenplay become a book?
MD: We had written a screenplay, and it is unknown if it was CBS or Justin’s idea to reverse engineer the story into a novel, but CBS has ties to Simon and Schuster. And somebody said, “This would actually be a great YA novel”. They asked us to write the novel, but we didn’t have time.
TI: This idea happened while we were in pre-production.
MD: We’re making changes to the script as we’re casting, so we’re in the midst of those changes when they say, “Oh let’s make this a book.” Simon and Schuster took the different drafts of the screenplay and they hired a writer (Rachael Lippincott) to adapt it to a novel. So it was literally the exact opposite of how it usually goes where the book comes first. And all of the dialogue came straight out of the script and different drafts than the shooting script. But Rachael was able to put all of those scenes that were cut into the book.
How are you balancing writing working on these solo projects, in addition to working with Tobias?
MD: I don’t sleep. It’s weird. He and I really have a weird brainwave connection. We’ve been partners for so long that if I’m stressing at 3 am, the next morning he’ll say, “I couldn’t sleep last night, what was going on.” Even with my solo projects, he reads everything I write. He encourages, he supports. We’re always partners even when we’re not partners.
Do you two have a set process when you work on projects together?
MD: It depends on the story. I wrote the pitch for Five Feet Apart myself and then we practiced it, and he noted it, and we changed some things. And then we went and pitched it together. For Nightbooks we sat in a room together and figured it out together. He figured out most of the pitch on that one. We don’t have a set way to work. It’s frustrating for people to hear.
TI: It’s pure chaos. I will say as we’ve been partners for many years now, my strengths are bleeding into hers and her strengths are bleeding into mine. But it’s very situational depending on what the project demands and what our schedules allow. Sometimes it’s just a passion question. This one is something I feel passionate about and that one I feel lukewarm about so I take the lead on the one I’m more passionate about.
What kind of stories do you look for in Cinematic Book Competition submissions?
MD: I want to see someone who has a grasp of the language, who knows grammar. Not a bunch of “Oh, I feel shook.” That’s good for today, but in two years no one’s going to be saying that and your work’s going to be dated. So that’s a level of professionalism I would like to see.
Mikki and I are always looking for that magic in a story
TI: We are adapting a book for Netflix called Nightbooks that begins shooting next week. It’s a scary children’s tale, and I love how fun it was and how magical it is. And when I say magical, Nightbooks is literally about magic, but I also love magical romance stories. Magical adventure stories. That heightens the rules of the world.
They're just a little bit tweaked and a little bit broken. They introduce some sort of imaginative wondrous novel elements. It’s something Mikki did so well in Elsewhere and All This Time. And that’s what drew me to Nightbooks. I think Mikki and I are always looking for that magic in a story.
MD: I think what we love is this magical element. I love a story about the real world but I live in the real world I want something that’s just a little bit different. Even with Marvel movies — they’re not the real world. They look like it but they’re heightened.
What does “cinematic storytelling” mean to you?
MD: You need visuals, sequences that you can visualize. Look at Hunger Games. That was a first-person, totally internal story but it had enough going on, and it was well written so that you could envision everything that she was thinking, doing, feeling.
TI: Right, because film is a visual medium.
MD: You want the drama, love, and emotion to be there. But, without the visuals, a movie is just a play. We steer ourselves towards a little more fantastical. Even though Five Feet Apart was very real, it was skirting on those heightened, life or death emotions.
What can people look forward to seeing from you guys?
MD: All This Time will hopefully be a movie. The book came out this week and Lionsgate has already bought the rights to the movie, and we’ll be working on that script very soon. We also have the new Dirty Dancing film, Nightbooks, and All This Time.
Any final thoughts or words of encouragement for writers?
MD: I always say: Be Kind. As you’re working your way up. Don’t buy your own hype. There will always be someone better and someone always to tell you you’re not as good as you think you are. Be prepared for that and listen to it, and take notes. Be humble in a room when someone’s giving you notes. Even if you think it’s a bad note, someone is seeing a hole in your story and you need to listen.
TI: I would echo what Mikki said about kindness. We had a mutual friend who gave Justin Baldoni our Blacklist script Elsewhere. He didn’t have to do that. And because he passed along that script to Justin Baldoni, Five Feet Apart happened.
MD: Don’t be afraid to help someone else. We absolutely want to pay it forward, but we’re not easy. When we take on something it is basically like putting our names on it too because it’s our reputation, so we have to be careful about that. But it goes back to my nitpicky thing about grammar, be good at your job and people will take you seriously. So I try always to be good at my job.
Submit your short story, novella, or book to the Cinematic Book Competition and take the next step in your screenwriting — or novelist — career.