While I also write original screenplays, I decided to adapt a novel I wrote into a screenplay for a film that I will also direct. The following thoughts on adaptation come from my personal experience of adapting the novel The Metal Girl into the film project “Metal Girl”.
From Novel to Screenplay
Novels and films are such different species that it can feel unnatural to marry them. After the adaptation, the only thing they will share will be a story, the setting, and the characters. A novel is a completed art form. One author writes the book, and one reader reads the book one at a time. If it’s a successful book, many people, even millions of people will read that same book. While each reader will see the story through their own imagination and personal interpretation, the printed words will never change.
Very few people will ever read the original screenplay. The screenplay will evolve with input from collaborations between the director and the creative team, from pre- to post-production. The screenplay is a fluid and ever evolving document.
Adapting a novel to a film is rather like renovating a house: you will have to destroy it from the inside before you re-build it into something beautiful again. Trust me—I’ve done both.
The challenge in adapting the novel for a film is how to stay true to the source as you proceed to bend it into the medium of film. The first thing to consider is adapting prose to dramatic writing and the limitations of the screenplay format
From Prose to Screenplay Format
To adapt the prose into a screenplay, you have to think about the story differently, as a series of scenes in three dimensions. Also, to accommodate the average length of a film–one hour and forty-five minutes–most working screenplays are between approximately 90 and 105 pages. The narrative of an average 300-500 page novel simply won’t fit. Something—a lot—has to go. How does one tell a novel length story in a 100 page script?
Efficiently, Using the Language of Film
When I adapted The Metal Girl, early on it became quite clear to me that I needed to step away from the novel as written and think about re-telling the same story, this time using pictures, music, sound, and color. How would I tell that story, what would it look like, and how would those characters come to life on the screen?
Planning the Adaptation: Structure
What elements of the story would stay and which could I cut out? Which characters, events, locations? What parts could I eliminate and what parts did I have to keep to portray the theme of the story and the main character’s story arc?
What would change, and what would stay the same? This is not always evident at first. Through all the versions of the script, some events, situations, characters in the novel will be lost, but at the same time, other elements that were not in the original story might be added for dramatic effect. Further changes will occur over the course production and editing of the film.
Beginning, Middle, End
The first consideration is the structure of the film story, which may have to differ from the structure of the novel. Deciding on the best timeline for the events of the story in the film is the first thing to adapt. Surprise is an important element of screenwriting, the twists and turns of the plot, which is one of the devices that holds the attention of the film viewer but one that isn’t always present in a book.
A novel also has to move forward, but doesn’t have to build on emotion in the same way as a film. A film takes the audience on an emotional ride. The film must hold you in your seat in rapt attention for one sitting of 90 to 105 minutes. So the screenplay must be structured in such a way as to build towards a dramatic, emotional climax that is resolved by the end. The words on the page don’t need to do that. The book can be of interest and engaging but we can put it down and come back to it later.
For example, in the novel The Metal Girl, one very important event in the development of the female protagonist’s character happened in the early part of the novel. But in the screenplay “Metal Girl”, for dramatic purposes, I put off that moment, building up to that point later in the story. When the moment occurs in the film, the audience is ready for her emotional response, and it becomes a turning point for the development of her character and the arc of the story.
Characters—Subtracting and Adding
In the same way that the narrative structure may have to change, in the screenplay you may have to make changes with characters in the novel, especially if there are a lot or there are many incidental characters. For the reasons of character development, the story arc, and the time constraints of a film, incidental characters need to be kept to a minimum. Some characters in the novel fell away because I didn’t need them as they weren’t a crucial part of the story. In the novel they may have added another color in the development of the main character or texture to the story, but in the film they were unnecessary extra and distracting details.
The lead character in the novel The Metal Girl has no name because she is the anonymous first person narrator who tells the story as a more mature woman looking back on her 25-year-old self. I wanted her to be a more universally relatable character and not live in a box of race or ethnicity. Also, the novel’s structure is in the vein of a mock-memoir. But obviously a nameless character was not going to work for a film, so she became Charlotte.
Another situation is that some new characters may appear in the script to move the narrative forward, as the film will have a different story arc than the novel. Another reason that one might add characters and scenes that don’t appear in the novel is to translate internal thoughts into dialogue. For example, The Metal Girl is written in the first person. Because the entire story is coming from the narrator’s mind, including her commentary on various situations, I sometimes chose to create characters that didn’t exist in the book for Charlotte to interact with in order to turn her thoughts into dialogue and her internal emotional state into her responses to other people.
Keeping what works
In spite of what I said above, sometimes what is written in the novel works perfectly well in the screenplay and on screen. After all the film is based on the novel, and you want to keep as much of the flavor of the original story as possible. In “Metal Girl” some of the dialogue in the screenplay comes directly from the novel. Parts of the books’ first person narrative were used as bits of voiceover, and some scenes and dialogue were lifted directly as they were written in the novel. If it works, use it.