Screenplay vs. Novel


Have you ever had this experience?  You read a novel that you end up loving so much you can’t stop talking about it with anyone who’ll listen, whether or not they’ve read the same novel.  Then Hollywood makes a movie of that novel you loved.  You go to the movie with some trepidation.  After all, you’ve already enjoyed the movie in your mind that reading the novel created, right?  While the movie stands on its own and is enjoyable, it’s just not the same as the book, and you bemoan everything they left out of the movie.  Sound familiar?

Page from a screenplay

Page from a screenplay

A movie screenplay is a much, much different form of storytelling than a novel.  Film is a visual medium, not a cerebral one.  As a result, it simply cannot include everything that was in the novel.  For example, everything in a film must be external to be seen or heard; therefore, a character’s inner thoughts and emotions must be excluded — they are not external until the character either reveals them in speech or in action.  In film, there are only two senses: sight and hearing.  The other three senses are not in film unless a character reacts with them in some way or says, “Oh, that stinks!”  My favorite example of this is in the movie Speed, the action thriller set on an L.A. city bus that has a bomb in it.  Jack (Keanu Reeves) goes underneath the bus (while it’s on a freeway going above 50 mph) to do something (I don’t remember) and in the process he punctures the gas line that leaks all over him.  When he’s back on the bus and talking with the passenger (Sandra Bullock) driving the bus, she hits him, feels his shirt is wet, then smells her hand.  She identifies the gas smell and asks why he’s covered with it.  And that’s how you include other senses in movies.

A novel can be any length from 200 to 1000 pages long.  A screenplay is 90 to 120 pages.  Why?  Each page represents one minute of screen time and a budget for that screen time.  In movies, time really is money, and it can be thousands of dollars per script page.  A screenwriter, when writing a screen adaptation of a novel, must read the novel and deconstruct it before he writes the screenplay.  Why?  He needs to ask himself a series of questions: Who is the protagonist?  What does she want?  What will she do to get it?  What are the obstacles/conflicts thwarting her?  Finally, does she get what she wants?  Next, the screenwriter identifies the story structure and its essential plot points.  An outline of the story can sometimes be helpful here.  During this process, the screenwriter cuts subplots, secondary characters, secondary action, and anything else in the novel not absolutely essential to the protagonist’s story.  Now the screenwriter is ready to write the screenplay.

That’s the reason so much of a novel is left out of its movie adaptation.  While I know of some readers who tend to skip the description in a novel, that description ends up being extremely important as a reference for set designers, production designers, and directors.  Description gives the story a strong sense of place, a tone, and important physical details that can influence how a movie is lit and shot.  The same is true of character description, especially clothes for the costume designer, hair for the hair and make-up department and special effects designers for special make-up on the movie.  So, you may not think much of the movie made it on screen, but you’d be wrong.  Most of the time, it’ll all be there in the visual format, the way the screenwriter mapped it out in his screenplay blueprint.

Some novels lend themselves to film adaptation more easily than others, of course.  John le Carre’s novels, for example, are extremely difficult because he writes totally interior stories that must be made exterior by the screenwriter.   I remember seeing The Constant Gardner movie before I read the novel, and being astounded as a I read the novel how well the screenwriter had captured it.  Authors have more reason to complain about Hollywood’s treatment of their novels than readers do — authors watch what they created destroyed and re-created for a different medium.

Screenplay adaptations are a challenge to write.  The next time you go to a movie based on a novel you loved, remember that each minute of screen time is expensive to produce.  The movie stands on its own as a visual re-telling of the story….

If you’re interested in reading movie screenplays, check out The Internet Movie Script Database.

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3 responses to “Screenplay vs. Novel

  1. Pingback: 7 Tips for the Beginning Screenwriter | Seventeen 20

  2. Pingback: Novel vs. Screenplay « cutting on the action

  3. Pingback: Happy Anniversary! | Anatomy of Perceval

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