DIY: Adapting a Story for the Big Screen
Ever put down a book and say, “That would make a good movie?” You’re not the first. As long as Hollywood has existed, the adaptation has served as a standby, from Thomas Edison all the way to Edward and Bella in Twilight. Whether you have written (or read) a short story, play, article, or even had an idea—it can be turned into a movie. Here’s how to make it a good one.
1. Find something you are passionate about. It’s true that most screenplays never get made into movies, and the ones that do spend years in development. Make sure the work you are adapting is something that genuinely interests you. Also, make sure it is yours to adapt. If it is not your work, ask the author for permission.
Screenwriter Alex Sabeti grew up with the fantasy novel Deryni Rising; he describes it as one of the first novels he read cover to cover. As his screenwriting career took off, Sabeti optioned the rights to the book, giving him the ability to write and sell a screenplay based on the story. In his words, “I had been an assistant to a producer and an agent…I always told them about this book, but no one was interested.” In the ensuing eighteen months, he wrote a stellar script and sold the screenplay to Columbia Pictures.
2. Tell the story visually. According to Sabeti, the thing about screenplays is “you have no internal monologue.” Consequently, you must “show visually what the character is thinking in the book.” Remember, films are strings of images—you can work with the deepest characters in the world, but if their emotions do not appear on screen, they will go unnoticed by the audience. Script consultant Lynne Pembroke writes, “If too much of the story is centered upon the inner workings of the characters, therefore making for un-filmable worlds, it may not work as a screen story.” Imagine each part of your screenplay flashing by on a big screen. Is it interesting enough to hold your attention?
3. Find the characters. Screenplays generally work when they are focused on a protagonist’s journey. Or in Sabeti’s words: “Any good movie needs a good character arc.” Step away from the story. Does it have a strong character? Can the audience identify with him or her? If the answer is yes, then you are already on your way to a great screenplay.
4. Structure the screenplay. Scripts traditionally follow a three-act structure (exposition, rising action, dénouement)—stories may not. Screenwriter and story consultant Richard Krevolin writes, “You give in to the form/structure of classic Hollywood three act storytelling and all else has to be released.” Often, the book’s action may have to be switched around to accommodate three acts. Sabeti moved a crucial scene from Deryni Rising to the third act because it heightened the story’s climax. Your responsibility is to the screenplay, not the novel. Adaptation means change. Sure, diehard fans may disagree, but if it makes a good movie, go for it.
Discover if your favorite adaption made The Daily Beast’s list of Best Films From Books.