ADAPTATION: Movies Aren’t Novels

Many fiction writers, at one point or another, consider adapting their own work into film. Because both novelists and screenwriters use characters to tell fictional stories, and since both wish to reach the widest possible audience with their work, it may seem logical to assume the transition is a natural one. But before you begin such a difficult and often disappointing endeavor, stop to consider the wide gulf that separates these two forms of fiction.

The next time you’re in a book store, look over the section marked “Cinema” and you’ll see that almost every successful motion picture based on an original screenplay has been “novelized,” but only a small percentage of successful novels have been adapted into film.

This situation exists because screenwriters must conform to very narrowly defined rules and parameters, while novelists have much greater latitude in the ways they can tell their stories. Novels may follow the structure that movies do, so the film to fiction transition is fairly straightforward. But movies must conform to a number of rules that novels don’t have to, so the adaptation process becomes very difficult, and the result is often a film that pleases neither the audience nor those who loved the original work.

Before you can adapt a novel into screenplay form, you must accept the fact that, no matter how much you love the original work, you must eliminate all those elements that do not conform to the rules of screenwriting. This can be painfully hard, but the process is essential to creating a movie that will reach a mass audience.

The principles I outline below hold true for at least nine out of ten movies coming out of Hollywood. And while you will undoubtedly think of exceptions, film adaptations that depart from these guidelines usually fail at the box office (THE LOVELY BONES), are made outside the Hollywood system (PRECIOUS), or are made by well-established writers, directors and/or stars who are given a good deal of freedom to push the boundaries of film structure (JULIE AND JULIA). (And by the way, these rules are essential to consider before adapting a TRUE story to film as well.)

  1. Commerciality is the major concern of film financiers. Though publishers are obviously in business to turn a profit as well, there are hundreds of publishing houses turning out thousands of titles a year, while only about 150 movies a year are produced by the major studios, with an average production and distribution budget in excess of $100 million a picture. Such a huge cost creates a demand for movies that will reach the widest possible audience.
  1. Movies must conform to a budget. When the Mongol hordes come sweeping over the mountains in your novel, all you’ve added is excitement. When the same thing happens in your screenplay, you’ve added $13,000,000 to the budget of the film.
  1. Genre is critical. While novels can portray characters in just about any time or place, there is a strong prejudice in Hollywood that favors action movies, thrillers and comedies over musicals, period pieces, Westerns and dramas.
  1. Movies have a prescribed length. While novels can range from the almost-a-novelette size of Animal Farm to the epic sprawl of War and Peace, most movies last between ninety minutes and two hours, and their corresponding screenplays between 105 and 119 pages.
  1. Movies portray a condensed period of time. Most Hollywood movies take place over a period of hours, days or weeks – rarely months or years. The epic saga may work fine in fiction, where a reader can return to a book as often as necessary, but when an audience is there for a single sitting, they don’t want to watch characters grow old together.
  1. The hero of a screenplay must pursue a single, visible goal with a clearly implied endpoint. When an audience sits in a movie theater, they want to root for the main character of the film to accomplish some compelling desire. Whether it’s stopping the killer, escaping the volcano, winning the big game or capturing the heart of the hero’s true love, we must SEE this pursuit, and we must be able to imagine what success will look like on the screen.

The reason most Hollywood movies are easy to describe in a single sentence is because the plots are defined by the hero’s specific desire: “Fargo is about a pregnant policewoman from a small town in Minnesota who wants to catch a group of killers.” As we watch this film, we may not know if the hero will succeed, but we can imagine what success will look like.

Novels can involve a series of characters (Hawaii), can focus primarily on inner motivation and character arc (Ordinary People), or can present heroes who meander though a whole series of events, desires and conflicts (The Shipping News, The Kite Runner, etc.). But in a screenplay, the reader must know what specific finish line the hero is hoping to cross.

  1. The conflicts a movie hero faces must also be visible. While the hero of a screenplay may also grapple with inner conflicts and flaws, the primary obstacles she faces must come from other characters or forces of nature that prevent her from achieving what she wants.
  1. Screenplays may only reveal what the audience will hear and see on the screen. Manuscripts can include illustrations, footnotes, maps, fancy fonts and chapter headings. They can offer asides from the author, reveal the characters’ thoughts and feelings, and give the reader any historical or background information the author considers helpful or interesting. None of these things can be included in a script, unless it is revealed through action or dialogue.
  1.  Movies follow a strict structure. Novels sometimes sprawl, meander and jump back and forth in time, but screenplays must conform to a rigid formula for plotting the story.

Among the many structural principles and devices a screenplay must employ are these basic rules: the hero must be introduced by page ten, where he will encounter some new opportunity; the hero must begin pursuing the specific desire that defines the story concept at the 25% mark; some major setback must be experienced at the three-quarter point, and the climax must clearly resolve the hero’s desire in the last ten minutes of the film.

10. When it comes to writing style, a screenwriter’s goal must be to create a movie in the reader’s mind that is as fast, easy and enjoyable to read as possible. So the qualities of style in the best literary fiction – an extensive vocabulary, rich, textured description, and the unique use of the language – should be AVOIDED when writing a script. This is why great literary masterpieces or highly acclaimed best sellers often tank at the box office, while lesser known genre novels like PSYCHO can become classic films.

Finally, when you write a screenplay, your work is not your own. The publishing world still seems to offer some respect to the writer’s original vision. But if you’re a screenwriter, sooner or later your creation will be changed, sometimes mercilessly, as other artists attempt to transform it into film.


I know this last item isn’t about a difference in the writing itself. I just want you to be prepared for what awaits you if you decide to take the plunge into adaptation.