Adapting One’s Precious: Why most new novelists should personally avoid adapting (or thinking about) the inevitable screenplay

It’s always funny to me how often, when speaking with new novelists, that they are already planning the movie version of their “epic”… sometimes even before they finish the book.

We are a very film-focused society and it is hard to escape the world of movies, especially for someone excited for the world to embrace their first major story. What can I say? We writers are nerds and we want everyone to love us and think of us as popular. Movies are the “cool table” in the lunchroom; novels are the table near the library.

Oh, you are different? You never imagined a certain actor playing one of your characters? Reading one of your lines?

Yes, the dream of adaptation can be like a drug for a writer and, like a drug, dangerous; since it can effect how you write your novel. The fact is each of the storytelling mediums are different with different pros and cons, and if you allow yourself to think too much about, for example, movies while writing a book it can limit the possibility of the book.

How are the storytelling mediums different? Well, let me explain:

Novel

Humor is probably the most effected since visual humor is almost impossible, also pacing can be an issue since descriptions can slow down a story’s movement. However, novels are also the most freeing to the author, allowing for a complete analysis of a character, plot, etc.

You are only limited by your imagination and you are (as the writer) not just the author, but also the director and all of the actors.

There is really nothing between you and the reader. That is, in my power-hungry opinion, awesome.

Theater

Theater is limited by space and time; however it makes up for it in spades because of an audience’s attention. See, we, as human beings, are trained to give a “live” person attention. Try walking away from someone who is saying something boring to you without a word. Impossible, isn’t it?

So while a book can be put down and a movie can be turned off, we’ll sit in a theater and listen to a person out of respect. For example, this is the only medium that successfully allows for a “one-person” show; THAT is the power of a “live” presence in front of us.

Movies

Honestly, this is probably the most limiting of all of the storytelling mediums.

Since the audience knows it is not real, you need to earn their attention for every second a frame flashes on the screen. So there needs to be always action/movement. People don’t just sit (and if they do, they must be doing something while sitting- like writing, leaning forward, moving their hands, or eating).

Also, since film has to keep moving forward, dialogue is limited. This is not the place for long speeches, so your characters will talk differently than they would in book or theater… or, let’s be honest, real life. Movies aren’t like reality. We don’t walk into a room make a few jokes or statements and leave after a minute; but they do that all the time in movies.

Then there is the time constraints; one hour and a half to maybe three (But this is rare; chances are you are not writing Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings).

Also, since the audience knows it is not real, they don’t trust it. While in theater, for example, a car crash can happen off stage; in a movie, if the film-going audience doesn’t see it happen they will question if it really happened at all. Maybe it is trick! A scam to collect money! Maybe the “crash” was really a murder covered up!

That’s not all! Then there is the visual limitation, your eye can only really focus on one action/character at a time (everything else is blurry in the back), so a story must be more focused. This is not the place for numerous plots.

Yet, with all of these negatives, movies have an emotional strength that is unmeasured. They will make you lean forward in your seats, cry, gasp, and laugh out loud. Yes, film can do this easily, since movies help us escape easier into that realm of the imagination, because they give the audience so “much” visual kool-aid to help the mind go there. A book can take time to free the mind and imagination; a movie can do it in a minute.

So, for all of those readers who ever wondered, “Why couldn’t they just film the book? Why did they have to change it?” Well, you just read the answer to all of those questions above. You are welcome.

The Sacrifices

That is not to say a person’s novel might not be adapted for the screen, but to make that leap to another medium takes a bit of strength that many writers can find overwhelming and painful.

Filmmakers usually hate working with the original author. Why? Because the “screenplay writer” can’t always disassociate himself/herself from the “author.” It is not easy, especially if you just got done reading reviews of your “epic” or giving readings to loving readers. An author’s ego might, right from the start of the process, have issues with changes. (“But everyone just told me they loved it!”).

To properly make the transition, the story has to be deconstructed, and re-put back together for the other mediums (using as much of the strengths of that medium as possible), and many times for an author that is like someone hurting their child.  It takes a cold strength to be able to do it to one’s own creation, and many writers don’t frankly have it. They argue, they debate each change and edit.

(“You want to change my ending?” “You want to cut that important scene? It’s the most importance scene in the book?” “But I love that character! She is what inspired the book in the first place, why are we cutting her?!”)

And since dialogue in film can be very different from reality and novels, you can expect all of your beautiful speeches to disappear like a poof of smoke. An important discussion might be nothing more than a few sentence narration or conversation. Think about your book, and rewriting every line of dialogue. You might have to do just that in a screenplay! (Exhausting idea, isn’t it?)

John Irving is one of the few novelists I can think of in recent history that was able to successfully undertake this “recreation” with one of his books. He actually won an Academy Award for his screenplay The Cider House Rules, and he rightfully deserved it. He took a very long novel that spans decades and created a screenplay that only covered a few years. Characters and plots were abandoned for a more period piece around an orphanage. Personally, I liked the book, but I love the film.  Now, there were decades in between him writing the book and the script, so maybe that helped the “pain” of the cuts, but the product is extraordinary. So for a new writer, I recommend reading the novel version; then watching the movie. Could you really do that to your own work? Do you have that strength?

The great irony of all of this is that an author really has a better chance of making money off his story via the novel than the sold screenplay. When you hear those weekend box office numbers on Monday morning, the screenplay writer is not typically doing a happy dance someplace. They got their check months and (possibly) years before when they sold the rights or handed in that final draft. Yet, if your book is selling well in bookstores, an author can see a return each quarter.

Whatever the case, a writer should embrace the medium that they are telling their story in, and make the best story they can. And, to be honest, if you have an easier time seeing your story as a movie than a novel… why not save yourself (and your story and characters and dialogue) the trouble of a surgery and just write it as a screenplay first instead?

If you liked reading my article, why not check out some of my books? I had two novels published in the last few years, My Problem With Doors and Megan. You can find them via my amazon.com author page here. Thanks for reading!

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One response

  1. Pingback: Writing About Writing About Writing About Writing « The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard

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