Novel to Screenplay


Which is better: the novel or the movie?  This has been an ongoing hot topic of conversation during the last few weeks as a flock of movies based on novels wing into theaters.  I have friends with passionate opinions about this question.  I confess that I’ve never really had a strong opinion, even before I studied screenwriting.  I find that if a movie is really, really good, I usually walk out of the theater with the desire to go immediately to a bookstore and buy the novel, if I haven’t already read it.  While the opposite is not necessarily true for me, I have read a novel because someone I admire and respect is making the movie of it.  I finished Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain a week before I saw the Anthony Minghella movie in the theater.  I immediately wanted to read the screenplay….

Why are movies so different (usually) from the novels from which they’re adapted?  Film and books are two different mediums for telling a story.  Each has its craft.  Each has its limitations.  A book is an intimate experience, quiet, internal.  A movie is for crowds, loud and external.  And that is basically the difference between a novel and a screenplay.  For example, in screenwriting, only two senses exist for the viewer: sight and hearing, i.e. what a viewer can see and hear on the movie screen.  The other three can be suggested through sight and sound but cannot be reproduced for the viewer’s personal experience.  In a novel, all the senses can be evoked through the words that describe them and are processed internally by a reader.  In a novel it’s possible to read a character’s internal thoughts.  On screen, it’s impossible to know what a character is thinking unless he either says or acts his thoughts.

How does a novel become a screenplay?  I have struggled with this process with Perceval.  Here are the steps that I followed:

1.  Know the source material inside and out.  I knew my novel inside and out.  For a novel I would have read only once, I would read it as many times as it would take to know it as if I’d written it.

2.  Deconstruct the source material.  Who is the main character?  Who is his/her antagonist?  Who are the supporting players?  What is the novel’s structure?  How many subplots are there?  Which subplots are integral to the main plot?  I don’t worry about theme.  Theme will evolve out of the characters and their actions.

3.  Structure the screenplay.  The fun begins.  Based on the structure of the novel, I decided on a 3-act dramatic structure, the most common narrative structure.  Within that structure, I realized that Evan has a series of decisions that he must make in the second act, the conflict/obstacle act, and each one introduces a new “problem,” heightening the suspense or tension.  So act 2 is like a sequenced structure.  Character drives the structure and the action. 

4. Delineate the plot.  This step takes the plot points from the novel and winnows them to the absolute essential points to tell the story.  A novel can be any length, but a screenplay is 90–120 pages long, each page in correct script format equals one minute of screen time.  This is the step where the favorite minor characters disappear, the delightfully digressing subplots evaporate, and is often the cause of moviegoers’ complaints that the movie wasn’t anything like the book for them.  A screenplay is a distillation of the novel, adapted to meet the requirements of the medium of film.  The up side of this: description is generally kept to a minimum in a script.  “A picture is worth a thousand words.”  Film is a visual medium.  The screenwriter’s task is to provide a blueprint for the actors, costumers, prop masters, lighting and set designers, etc. and director to perform the story and preserve it on film.  The goal is to remain faithful in style, tone, and theme to the novel’s characters, setting and action. 

Up to this point, I have not written a word other than sketching an outline and making notes.  I’m a very visual person, so I also constructed a timeline for the screenplay so I could actually see the progression of plot points and action.  Once these four steps are done, it’s time to write “FADE IN:” at the top left margin of a new page.   My first drafts run long, generally, so I cut in subsequent drafts.  The first draft of Perceval was 143 pages.  I haven’t yet had a reason to return to work on it…..

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3 responses to “Novel to Screenplay

  1. interesting that your desire was to read the screenplay, not just the novel. I don’t think that’s ever occurred to me. Of course, I’m neither a writer nor a screen writer.

    I am also a visual sort of person. I am often the most impressed with movies by how much information can be provided without words. Sure, a picture is worth 1,000 words, but those aren’t necessarily good words. Rome (HBO mini-series) or Master and Commander exemplify this. Maybe Painted Veil (the movie, not Maugham’s novel).

    Cold Mountain was a good book. As you mentioned, the movie was also good, although it didn’t speak to me as much – an indication of a disconnect between the script writer and me, and not a reflection of the quality of the movie.

    Occasionally I’ll read a book that provokes such vivid images in my mind, that I wish I could put it on screen. Not as THE Director, but the Director of Photography. Shards of Honor, by Lois McMaster Bujold is one. I read reviews which often claim “okay … mediocre … later work definitely better”. While her later work is often better, Shards of Honor has an almost innocent simplicity – the simplicity of the plot allows it to hold such vivid images for me. I think it would make a great movie; it would also make one which is simple to keep very close to the novel. Unlike her later work, which being more complex would require more distillation.

    • Actually Cold Mountain the movie spoke even more powerfully to me. I hadn’t really liked Inman when I read the book. In the movie, I liked his character more than the woman. Go figure.

      I think it’s interesting how different the reaction to a movie based on a novel can be and vice versa, depending on the person and that person’s life experience. Movies are a powerful visual experience.

  2. ooops … this got missed …

    one of the greatest benefits of a novel is the enjoyment one gets from the author’s words describing an action or emotion, which can often be sharper and more specific. “He didn’t like dinner” isn’t quite the same as “His lips pulled back in distaste as the miasmic stench of the roast beef assaulted his palate.”

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