These days it’s almost a given that a film will be based on a novel or book of non-fiction. While I also write original screenplays, I decided to adapt a novel I wrote into a screenplay for a film that I will also direct. The following thoughts on adaptation come from my personal experience of adapting the novel The Metal Girl into the film project “Metal Girl.”
From Novel to Screenplay to Film
Novels and films are such different species that it can feel unnatural to marry them. After the adaptation, the only thing they will share will be a story, the setting, and the characters. A novel is a completed art form. One author writes the book, and one reader reads the book one at a time. If it’s a successful book, many people, even millions of people will read that same book. While each reader will see the story through their own imagination and personal interpretation, the printed words will never change.
A screenplay is the blueprint for a film. Very few people will ever read the original screenplay. From the screenplay, the film will be created through the collaborative efforts of the director, cinematographer, actors, and all the creative professionals that contribute to the making of the movie.
The screenplay will evolve over the duration of the actual shooting of the film, with input and collaborations between the director and actors, and it will continue to evolve during the post-production process of the film—through the editing and finishing processes. The screenplay is a fluid and ever changing document.
I emphasize this to call attention to the fact that a screenplay is not a work of art. The film is the work. The screenplay is part of the work, a very significant part, but one that remains mostly invisible. The screenplay is the beginning of a process of the making of a film.
While this may seem an obvious point, it becomes a very important one when thinking about adapting a novel to the screen. To me the screenwriter, the novel I have in front of me is a piece of writing that I am now going to bend to the medium of film. The first thing to consider is adapting prose to dramatic writing and the limitations of the screenplay format.
From prose to screenplay format
To adapt the prose into a screenplay, I have to think about the story differently, as a series of scenes in three dimensions. Also, to accommodate the average length of a film–one hour and forty-five minutes–most working screenplays are between approximately 90 and 105 pages. The narrative of an average 300-500 page novel simply won’t fit. Something—a lot—has to go.
How does one tell a novel length story in a 105 page script?
Efficiently, using the language of film.
What actually happens in an adaptation is that the story of the book gets retold in the language of film. In essence, you will be writing the original story again, but this time, it’s going to be a movie. That’s how it felt when I adapted The Metal Girl. I was re-writing the novel, telling the same story in the same situations, but this time I was telling it using pictures, music, sound, and color. How would I tell that story, what would it look like, and how would those characters come to life on the screen?
Planning the adaptation: Structure
What elements of the story would stay and which could I cut out? Which characters, events, locations? What parts could I eliminate and what parts did I have to keep to portray the theme of the story and the main character’s journey?
What would change, and what would stay the same? This is not always evident at first. Through all the versions of the script, some events, situations, characters in the novel will be lost, but at the same time, other elements that were not in the original story might be added for dramatic effect. Further changes will occur over the course of the shooting and editing of the film.
The old adage of filmmaking is true: “There is the film you write, the film you shoot, and the film you edit”. A film is an evolving creative process, but that’s one of the things that for me makes filmmaking so exciting: you never really know what a film will be or look like until the end.
Beginning, Middle, End
The first consideration is the structure of the film story, which may have to differ from the structure of the novel. Deciding on the best timeline for the events of the story in the film is the first thing to adapt. In film one wants to build the narrative and keep the audience guessing. Surprise is an important element of screenwriting—the twists and turns of the plot—and one of the devices that holds the attention of the viewer.
A novel also has to move forward, but doesn’t have to build on emotion in the same way as a film. A film takes the audience on an emotional journey. The film must hold you in your seat in rapt attention for one sitting of 90 to 105 minutes. So the screenplay must be structured in such a way as to build towards a dramatic, emotional climax that is resolved by the end. The words on the page don’t need to do that. The book can be of interest and engaging but we can put it down and come back to it later.
For example, in The Metal Girl, one very important event in the development of the main character Charlotte happened in the early part of the novel. But in the screenplay “Metal Girl”, for dramatic purposes, I put off that moment, building up to that point later in the story. When the moment occurs in the film, the audience is ready for Charlotte’s emotional response, and it becomes a turning point for the development of her character and the arc of the story.
Characters—Subtracting and Adding
In the same way that the narrative structure may have to change, in the screenplay you may have to make changes with characters in the story, especially if there are a lot or there are many incidental characters. For the reasons of character development, the story arc, and the time constraints of a film, incidental characters need to be kept to a minimum. Some characters in the novel fell away because I didn’t need them as they weren’t a crucial part of the story. In the novel they may have added another color in the development of the main character or to the texture of the story, but in the film they were unnecessary extra details.
One reason that some new characters may appear in the script is to move the narrative forward, as the film will have a different story arc than the novel. Also, one might add characters and scenes that don’t appear in the novel in order to translate internal thoughts into dialogue. For example, the novel The Metal Girl is written in the first person. In fact, in the novel, the narrator doesn’t even have a name. Because the entire story is coming from her mind and also describes her feelings about situations that occur, I sometimes chose to create a character that didn’t exist in the book for her to interact with in order to turn her thoughts into dialogue and her internal emotional state into her responses to other people.
Keeping what works
In spite of what I said above, sometimes what is written in the novel works perfectly well on screen. After all the film is based on the novel and you want to keep as much of the flavor of the original story as possible. In “Metal Girl” some of the dialogue in the screenplay comes directly from the novel. Parts of the first person narrative in the book were used as voiceover in the screenplay. In the beginning of the film, we hear the main character Charlotte telling us about what we are seeing on screen as we watch the opening scenes unfold before she actually speaks in the film. Other scenes in the film were lifted directly as they were written in the novel. If it works, use it.
The process of making a film, from pre- to post-production, typically takes one to two years. During that time the story has been guided by the director, writer, and producer with the collaborative efforts of the cinematographer and the entire creative team. Shooting every day is magical: how things come together on camera, what the performances will be. Putting the film together in post production—the editing and finishing process—is the final adventure.
Filmmaking is an unpredictable controlled chaos of creativity. At the end of this exciting, creative, and arduous process, you will have a film. The adapted screenplay will not be a replica of the novel, but hopefully will become a film that is as special as the novel that inspired it.
Judy Sandra – Bio:
Judy Sandra is a director, writer, producer, and author. The screenplay “Metal Girl” is an adaptation of her coming-of-age novel The Metal Girl. Judy has received four best screenplay award nominations for “Metal Girl”, including being honored as one of the three screenwriting finalists at the 2016 Nottingham International Film Festival, Nottingham, UK.
In 2016, she made her directorial debut with the comedy/fantasy short film ”Angelito in Your Eye”. Judy has received six international film award nominations for the short from international awards festivals, including for Best Comedy Short Film, Best Genre Film, and Best Actor.
Judy Sandra – Writer, Director, Producer
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© Judy Sandra 2017