Tips for adapting a book into a screenplay

Adapting a novel for the screen is an extremely challenging undertaking, but considering the following tips may make it easier for you.

Don’t try to be too faithful to the book – doing this will drive you crazy. Certain things work in a novel format which will simply not translate to screen. A script needs a clear cause-and-effect plot sequence that will keep the pace moving, and you need to keep this in your head throughout the process. You may need to combine or delete whole plotlines, and you will also have to be imaginative in how you show the internal journey of a character.

Know the work; your faithfulness to the real heart of the story will depend on your knowledge of it. The first time you read it, just let it wash over you and try to experience it as a casual reader. This is a good way to get a sense of the tone your film will take. The second time, be more analytical and look at it through a filmmaker’s eyes. This will involve picturing characters, scenes, and settings.

Be willing to let go of characters. If they are not serving the plot and the momentum of the story, or the film’s real message, get rid of them. You’d be surprised how much the creativity of cinema is about economics. You may also want to edit the personality of certain characters to reinforce a central theme or motif.

Ensure that the novel you are working on will give you ample fodder for visual material. Certainly many successful films have been made from books that aren’t obviously visual, but if you decide to do this you really are setting yourself a huge challenge. A novel charting a single character’s internal journey is probably not the wisest choice.

Be prepared to face some pretty harsh criticism, whether it’s from fans, from the producers and the studio, or the author.  The industry is rife with harrowing tales of authors who have absolutely hated what a screenwriter and studio did to their work. Some famous examples include PL Travers (author of Mary Poppins), Steven King (author of The Shining), Roald Dahl, who hated the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory film, Anthony Burgess (author of A Clockwork Orange), and Winston Groom (who wrote Forrest Gump) – just to name a few!

Most importantly, though, be passionate. If you are passionate about the story you are telling, chances are you will do the best job you can.