From Book to Screen: 9 Essential Keys to Adaptation
Stories that have made the journey from book to screen have always been popular. But it feels more than ever they make for a increasingly popular sub genre. They even have their own category on Netflix.
Whilst it’s a tempting route to pursue for a screenwriter, the journey from book to screen can be a bumpy one.
- How do you make scenes that are inherently literary, cinematic?
- How do you condense an epic story into 90-120 pages?
- If you have to make omissions, how do you choose what to cut and what to keep?
These are just some of the questions that might plague a book to screen adaptation.
And we, as audiences, can all recognise when the book to screen journey hasn’t gone smoothly.
- Maybe this story was hard to adapt and the writer hasn’t thought hard enough about adaptation.
- Maybe crucial omissions have left out our favourite part of our favourite book.
You can’t legislate for taste. Especially when dealing with an adaptation of an already beloved story, whose followers will have passionate feelings either way.
What you can do, though, is try and make the journey from book to screen as smooth as possible.
We’re going to look at 9 steps you can take to do this, before looking at some case studies.
#1 Outline the Story
Outlining the story of any screenplay is crucial. But in condensing a story that might be explored over hundreds of pages, outlining is key.
This might seem like a daunting task. But try outlining the story as you read along. You might get a lot down on the page. But you can edit out arcs and subplots that feel less important when you’ve finished.
You could outline in a number of different ways in order to extract the most impactful parts of the story.
- Create a beat sheet. This will boil down the story to key plot movements.
- Outline the different character’s arcs separately.
- Separate your outline into paragraphs that reflect how the story breaks down. This will help indicate the structure of the story and therefore help you work out the structure of your film.
Once you have your outline, you might want to go over it multiple times. This will help filter out how you respond to the story.
- What are the key elements/characters/scenes/themes that stand out?
- What do you remember when you’ve finished reading?
Having an almost second nature understanding of the story will help you understand what the parts worth having at the forefront of your book to screen adaptation are.
#2 Find the Shape
When you have your outline, you can start to work out what the shape of your adaptation will be.
- Does the story have a natural three act structure? (Movie)
- Is it a story that unfolds in multiple parts? (Trilogy )
- Does the story world have unending possibilities? (TV Series)
Some stories are capsuled. These are perfect for a movie adaptation as they can take an audience in and out in 90-120 pages.
However, some books have a story and world so comprehensive that it would be almost impossible to condense into just two hours.
- These stories ebb and flow and need to be separated in order to fully exploit their potential impact (think The Lord of the Rings).
Some books have such a richly realised world that they provide possibilities for multiple story arcs. This is perfect for a TV series, where there is the potential to continually return to the same setting and characters.
In trying to identify the shape of your story, look for the following aspects:
- Where and how do story arcs peak?
- Is this story just about the protagonist? Or are there supporting characters that could carry their own arcs equally as well?
- Is there a causal flow to the story and how it addresses its themes? i.e does the story set up an argument, debate it and then conclude it?
- OR is the story more ambling in exploring its themes? Does it make a series of investigations and leave them feeling somewhat ambiguous?
Your adaptation could take any shape you like. However, make sure it is the right one for the story.
Audiences will be able to tell when a story isn’t suited to the format it’s being explored in. It will stick out and feel opportunistic.
#3 Find the Primary Conflict
Conflict is a key part of any drama. Therefore, in your book to screen adaptation it’s essential to find out what the conflict running through the story is.
- What is the conflict for the protagonist?
- Is that conflict convincing and is it convincingly overcome?
- Is there a satisfying thematic conflict?
Reducing a story down to a simple hook and conflict can be hard. It’s even harder when considering summing up a book that may be many hundreds of pages long.
- However, reduce the story’s main conflict down into a sentence or two and you will better understand the purpose and shape of your book to screen adaptation.
Remember the keys of creating a logline: The Protagonist, the goal and the antagonist force.
Then apply this to the book you are seeking to adapt. It will again help give you a clear vision of what the essential story is.
# 4 Externalise the Internal
Novels can be a great form for having characters express their inner thoughts and lives. This is an inherent quality that literary works have.
There is a connection with the audience established by a conversation with them. However, this is hard to emulate directly on screen.
This isn’t to say that character’s inner thoughts can’t be expressed on screen. But in your book to screen adaptation you need to find a way of making the internal feel external.
- How does what we see represent what the character is thinking?
- If there is voiceover or narration, how does what we see compliment it? (More on that shortly)
- What can you show the audience that within a book the narrator will tell them?
‘Show don’t tell’ is a key principle in screenwriting. But it is especially key when adapting a story that wasn’t meant for screen in the first place. Applying this principle throughout is a surefire way of turning novelistic trappings into cinematic ones.
You don’t have to erase the internal. Indeed, internal conflict is an important part of building characterization. But making the internal FEEL external is how you make the story one that fits comfortably on screen.
#5 Cut and Make it Your Own
It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to include everything from the book. You will need to make cuts.
However, cutting isn’t just important in condensing the story down. It’s also important in making the story your own. Find what you want the main arcs to be and cut the ones you think aren’t important.
- You are telling your version of the story as you see it.
- It’s therefore important that you make decisions that have a logic behind them.
- If you work out what the key beats of your version of the story are, you’ll be able to work out which scenes/arcs/characters are meaningful and which aren’t.
Be wary of second guessing what an audience will want left in or left out. Make strong, consistent decisions about what is important for your story and make strong decisions therefore about what to leave in and what to leave out.
#6 Be Aware of Context
What is the context of this story? How could you expand on it? Do you have your own insight into the setting and/or time period (either by research or personal experience)?
The context can be a defining feature of a story. Within a book it might be the background or at the forefront. Either way, you can put context at the forefront of your book to screen adaptation.
- What does the context say about the themes of the story?
- Is the context pertinent to the real world today?
- Has it been explored in cinema/TV previously?
The strength of literary works can be in their potential for depth. Where possible, find a way of making that depth tangible within your adaptation. A rich context can make for endless potential storylines as well as deep thematic resonance.
- How does the context look feel and/or sound?
- What are the unique specificities of the setting/time period?
- Can we identify the time period/setting just from how such context is realised?
- What do such specificities say about the story’s characters and themes?
These are questions to ask of your story’s context. Can you see how well these questions are answered in the below clip from Brooklyn?
#7 Find and Exploit the Visuals
It may seem obvious, but making a story visual is a key part of a book to screen journey. However, this doesn’t just mean literally turning the story into one we see rather than read.
You need to exploit the medium of screen and put visuals at the heart of the storytelling.
- Are there visual metaphors that express the themes?
- How does the way that the characters look express their personalties?
- Are you giving a camera enough to do?
Thinking about visuals is about more than just beautiful landscapes. It’s about how visual techniques do the storytelling in place of literary devices.
How can you condense a page of prose description into one image? How can you turn something a character says into something they see? These questions speak to the heart of adaptation.
#8 Make Voiceover Meaningful
To the previous point, if you are going to pluck a literary device from a book, such as voicover, then make sure it has purpose. This should ideally be a purpose other than one purely expositional.
- What is the voicover doing other than just telling the audience the story?
- Does the voicover reveal something about the story’s themes?
- Is there a discrepancy between what the voicover is telling us and what we are seeing?
Voiceover can be jarring when it feels like it is doing work that could otherwise be done visually.
- It needs to be working in tandem to the visual storytelling, adding to it.
- Otherwise, if the voiceover is merely narrating what we are seeing, it can feel repetitive.
As an example, in Submarine, the voicover explicitly works against what we are seeing.
- Oliver’s grandiose narration of his own life represents the fantasy that he lives in.
- What we see undermines Oliver’s sense of his own life, which is melodramatic and myopic.
- We are waiting for Oliver to catch up with us. In growing up, Oliver comes to see his life isn’t quite as cinematic as he thinks.
# 9 Look for Relevant Themes and Adapt
What are the themes that power this book that you have chosen to adapt? Some might be louder than others. However, bear in mind the life of your screenplay when you’ve finished it.
A relevant theme will help your screenplay stand out. Audiences want to see the world reflected back at them. So what does your story have to say about the world NOW?
This might not seem immediately obvious. The book you’re adapting might be set hundreds of years ago or in a fantasy world. However, always remember to be malleable.
- If set in a fantasy world, what relevance do the key themes have?
- And how can you exploit such themes? (Game of Thrones is set in Westeros but makes pertinent points about political power).
- If set in the past, how could you move the action forward to make the themes hit home?
For example, in Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s original setting of Ancient Rome is changed to Eastern Europe. Although it doesn’t do this explicitly, merely labelling the setting ‘A Place Calling Itself Rome’.
However, the intentions are clear.
- In taking Shakespeare’s themes of corrupting political power and war, the film makes itself contemporary by alluding to the Yugoslav Wars.
- This makes the story’s original themes relevant and powerful, by reminding us of recent tragedies.
Book to Screen Case Studies:
Below we’ll take a look at some of examples of book to screen adaptations.
This isn’t a list of ‘the best’ adaptations. Instead, we’ll take a look at examples that show both the pitfalls and rewards of adaptation.
This ambitious novel was always going to be hard to adapt. It spans six interconnected stories, that range from the distant past to the distant future in their setting.
- It shows how ambitious filmmakers can be in adapting stories.
- Whilst the movie perhaps didn’t and could never capture the scope and power of the book, it goes some way to capturing its essence.
The film has both admirers and detractors. It serves as a good example of a book to movie adaptation that could never match its source material.
However, for some it proves to be a taste of that source material, making them want more and giving a brief glimpse into its complex, wide-reaching themes.
The Lovely Bones
A hugely popular book, this film somewhat missed the mark. It’s a great example of how changing a story’s tone can fundamentally alter its appeal.
- A chilling atmosphere and poetic reflection on death in the novel was lost to a screen adaptation that prioritised the story’s criminal arc.
What made the book so popular and distinctive was lost. And what replaced it felt too generic to stand out.
Game of Thrones
The disappointing last two series of Game of Thrones prove just how important source material can be. When the series started to outpace its source material, it lost its grounding and its reputation.
- Those last two seasons, however, obscure that fact that Game of Thrones is overall a great book to screen adaptation.
- The rich story world and complex, fully rounded characters make storylines endlessly possible and engaging.
The potential spinoff series and fan appreciation of the Game of Thrones world proves how rich the source material is.
The series fully appreciated the strength and depth of that world and the characters within it. It was also imaginative enough to make adjustments, whilst remaining true to the core elements.
The movie version and book version are completely different from each other. However, both take the same set of basic ingredients and do their own thing with them. And people are fans of both.
The Shining is a great example of an uncompromising vision of a story. One that does its own thing so much it even alienated the original author.
The movie is a faithful adaptation of the book.
- However, it also embraces the cinematic form.
- This book to movie adaptation shows how to remain faithful whilst not being beholden to the literary origins.
Apocalypse Now is a great example of a book to screen journey that is quite hard to notice at first.
- Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness changed the setting, from 19th Century Congo to the Vietnam War.
- You’d be easily forgiven for not noticing that this movie is an adaptation.
In changing the setting but keeping the key characters and themes, Coppola sought to make a point about the madness of war and the effect of it on human psychology.
Apocalypse Now demonstrates the power in making an adaptation relevant. It was released only four years after the Vietnam War ended and struck a nerve in this respect.
The fact that the themes were taken from an eighty year old novel make them all the more powerful, showing their depressingly unending relevance.
There was much talk of how the novel was inherently un-filmable. However, the temptation of a movie adaptation of this well received book was too much.
Perhaps it was too rushed. Perhaps the ingenuity needed to adapt a complex literary story such as this wasn’t given.
Either way, the movie felt a waste of a compelling story.
Sex and the City
It’s a great example of how the inherent setup of the story and its setting, can be utilised over and over again.
The set up, of four women’s friendship and love lives in New York, is so well characterised in the book that multiple series of storylines feel possible.
The ease and charm of the basic premise, which is in even the very title, is what provides rich material for multiple series.
The Lord of the Rings
Perhaps the book to movie adaptation that rules them all. Peter Jackson orchestrated an adaptation that got almost everything right.
- Firstly, they split the book into three movies, thus giving enough time and scale for all the characters and storylines.
- The movie managed to be faithful to the books and its fans, whilst gaining millions of new fans in the cinema.
Furthermore, the movie didn’t come in to existence until the technology was there to make it. Thus the effects were at the forefront of the movie’s appeal, bringing the book’s vivid world to life.