Adapting a book into a screenplay is a skill that every screenwriter should perfect, and which will come in handy. While Hollywood has an eye out for exceptional talent and mastery in screenwriting, there is a natural pull towards already established markets and fan bases. Profits need to be made at the end of the day, and no matter how exceptional your story is or how extraordinary your writing is, it always helps to have an already established fan base for the project. This is why it is an added advantage if, as a screenwriter, you can turn books into excellent adaptations for the screen. And for you authors out there, fear not because we can do exactly that– adapt your book into an excellent movie screenplay!
The process of adapting a book into a movie is already a tricky one, and even more so when the book is a lengthy one. It is practically impossible to incorporate every word or story arc in a 500-page plus book into a feature-length movie (not more than two hours). What this means is that it is your job as the screenwriter to identify the primary plot, the conflicts, and the resolution of the story, while cutting out everything else that does not drive this forward.
In most cases, even when the parts that are irrelevant to the main plot have been cut, the story remains overwhelmingly long and impossible to fit in a two-hour frame. This is where you have to become ruthless in shorting the plot while making sure not to lose the main focus of the story.
For most screenwriters, this process of cutting away parts of the narrative is a highly confusing one, especially when the book in question is a bestseller with an established fan base. Any line omitted in such cases would appear to water down the story and rile up the fan base. However, the truth remains that you have a limited time-frame to fit all the relevant narrative on screen, and the cut will be inevitable.
If at the end of the adaptation you have done an outstanding job, the fans and critics will end up satisfied with your job, and that in itself is even more rewarding for a screenwriter. I’m sure Peter Jackson, anywhere he is, will have the maximum satisfaction of having done a tremendous job with the adaptation of J.R.T Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy, The Lord of the Rings.
The process of adapting that long narrative into a feature-length movie can be a relatively straight forward one if the right approach is taken. You have to consider some factors and ask yourself some relevant questions if your final adaptation is going to be worth it. Remember, the key to any adaptation is sticking to the “major” theme of the narrative, even if some plots that drive that major theme ends up getting slightly altered.
Three factors and questions to consider when adapting lengthy books into feature-length movies are as follows:
What exactly is the book about? You need to read the full story to understand the central theme of the story. When you have understood this, you can easily pinpoint the plots that help in driving this theme. That way, cutting out the irrelevant plots becomes even easier, and you already have your job streamlined for you.
In the same way, if the plots tend to deviate from the central theme of the story, it is up to you to modify or add new ones to effectively pass the message of the book. If this is done correctly, a person who has read the book and seen your movie will be satisfied with your job as the end will justify the means.
Is the adaptation best suited for a series? For most books, the distinct plots and narratives are so integral to the whole story that any cut will jeopardize the authenticity of the final screenplay. This is where you have to ask yourself if the story is best told in sequels, split into a trilogy, or expanded into a series. TV shows like Orange is the New Black, MAS*H, etc., were all adapted from books.
While there might be other underlying reasons for adapting the movies mentioned above from books to series, they are still good examples of how a book can be turned into a screenplay of more than just two hours.
If the book you are adapting is not only lengthy but also has unique features and dynamic characters, then your best bet might be a trilogy or a series. There is no need forcing all that awesomeness into a one-off movie. (Think Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 1 and 2, The Hobbit movies, etc., which were all adapted from single books).
Is the book interesting enough to be made into a movie? This is a vital factor to consider. If the book you are adapting is mostly filled with extensive detailing of the protagonist’s thoughts, then you need to find a way do away with them as they cannot easily be represented on screen.
An excellent way to handle the situation would be to invent a foil character on whom the main character will vent his musings in the most concise manner possible. You can also convert an already existing minor character to take up this role in a smart and even exciting way that will give a new angle to the story.
If, on the other hand, the plot is not interesting enough to be made into a movie, then the job of cutting away all the uninteresting parts will be made much easier. However, you have to come up with new enthralling storylines and twists that will make for an absorbing movie while sticking to the central theme of the story. In extreme cases, the film can be turned into a “based on” story, instead of a direct adaptation. This is essential if the final story is so altered from the original narrative in the book.
Whether you are a seasoned screenwriter or just dabbling into the field of screenwriting, adapting a lengthy book into a movie can get tricky and cumbersome at times. However, it takes a cool head and a meticulous approach to spot the central theme, cut out the unnecessary parts, and add any omitted portions. Ultimately, the goal is to turn out a final draft that embodies the original idea of the story within a restricted time frame.
When done right, this can be one of the most fulfilling things you do as a screenwriter, and with practice, you will get the real hang of it.