ADAPTATION: The 5 Key Elements to a Successful Adaptation

Fiction writers must realize that much of what makes a novel great is by definition eliminated from the movie: writing style; interior thoughts of the characters; narration. Small elements of these might survive an adaptation in the form of dialogue or voice over narration, but these will never be the elements that sell a screenplay or draw an audience.

So that leaves three primary reasons why a novel or short story adaptation becomes a blockbuster: it’s based on a huge bestseller (Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Lovely Bones); it has a major star or director attached (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Moneyball); or it contains the key elements of a successful movie story. These are:

  1. An empathetic HERO – a protagonist (male, female or android) with whom we identify from the very beginning of the story.
  2. A clear, visible OUTER MOTIVATION that hero is desperate to achieve by the end of the story. Whether it’s to stop a killer, win a competition, rob a bank or win the love of her destiny, this goal must create a finish line that the hero is struggling to cross from the end of the first act (the 25% mark) until the climax of the film. This is NOT some inner feeling or state of being (success, acceptance, self worth), but rather a goal that creates a clear, consistent image for anyone who hears it.
  3. Monumental, seemingly insurmountable CONFLICT. If the hero’s goal doesn’t seem impossible, and doesn’t force the hero to put everything on the line, the story won’t elicit sufficient emotion to get people to line up or tune in to see the movie.
  4. SIMPLICITY. Movie stories can easily be expressed in a single sentence. Long, convoluted, multi character stories are almost impossible to advertise.
  5. FAMILIARITY. Audiences prefer genre films that follow a consistent set of rules and promise a predictable emotional experience. The individual details of the plot and characters should be original, but movies that are hard to categorize are also hard to sell.

If you are a fiction writer, and the story concept for your novel meets all these criteria, and if you want to develop a second career as a screenwriter, then you may want to adapt your novel yourself.

But if your adaptation will be a one-time-only endeavor, or if you’re doing it to retain the integrity of your story, then don’t try adapting your own work. Screenwriting is a difficult craft that involves a whole new learning curve and a lot of practice. Screenwriters generally get a lot less respect in Hollywood than novelists do in the world of publishing. And no matter how much you want to protect your story, you can’t. Sooner or later you will be rewritten, and whoever purchased the film rights will always have the final say.

So if you’re really not that committed to screenwriting, then option the film rights to your novel, count all your money, and move on to what excites you – writing your next novel.