Balls of Steel: Advice on Adapting a Book to Film

Bookstores are a writer’s crack house. I walk down the aisles, dancing my fingers over the bindings, lips quivering, wanting a fix.

Sure, I get out my hand sanitizer after, but while I’m touching the spines, I imagine the characters and stories within those pages. Countless authors’ blood, sweat, and tears are ripe for the reading.

But what if these stories were to be on the big screen instead of within a binding?

Storytelling comes in many forms. Sometimes the story works best on the page, but other times, we read the prose, knowing it would make a killer movie. The question is do you have the guts and the tools to adapt it?

When I first read Douglas A. Blackmon’s New York Times Best Seller and Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, I knew it had cinematic elements I could bring to life. This was a movie I would want to see, and a challenge I desperately needed at that stage of my career.

Finding the book is half the battle, but getting the rights can sometimes mean war.

Contact the Author

Unlike space creatures, authors are surprisingly easy to make contact with. Often their email is on the book’s website. Other times, you have to search out the author’s agent. I’ve done both. Of course, speaking to the author directly is best.

Since most novelists dream of having their stories on the big screen, there’s no need to bite your nails off while dialing the phone. They’ll welcome the call. Just be polite, direct, share your expertise, and don’t act like a lunatic. The worst thing that could happen is they say the rights are already taken. As writers, we’re used to rejection. Roll with it.

But for me, I never like to say, “what if?” so it’s worth the risk to ask. Just take a gulp of courage and pick up the phone. If the rights are still available, pitch your heart out.

What if the author wants to be involved?

In my case, Doug still owned the rights to the book, and I had no money to buy them. We decided to share the risk and struck a deal of co-writing the adaptation – he pulled the rights off the market to give me a shot, and I agreed to a partnership instead of coughing up the money.

For us, it worked fabulously, but for a different team, it might not have. Mind you, we took almost six month’s time getting to know each other before reaching the decision to write as a team. Don’t take the courting phase lightly, but keep an open mind when negotiating and don’t automatically rule out the author’s input.

Some authors are gracious with changing their work to fit the screen, as was Doug. But typically, the author is not involved. The book is his, and the adaptation belongs to you. Your job is to tell the most engaging story you can in a visual way, and usually, the result will be markedly different from the book.

Who Are You Trying to Please?

When adapting a novel, we often feel pulled between pleasing the author, their loyal readers, the viewing audience, and ourselves. Get over that disease-to-please pronto. You simply can’t create a product that will make everyone happy, and that isn’t your job.

Your number one job is to tell an amazing story. Period.

The reality is, you will have to make cuts that might offend the readers as well as the author. But your task is to leave your mark. Michael Hauge once told me there’s no point in doing an adaptation if you tell exactly the same version of the story.

Storytelling is art. Tell the story, but make it fit the format of a film.

People often say the author has full control of his story in novel form, but that’s not entirely true. He can’t control the audience’s imagination. What an adaptation screenwriter does is bring that imagination to life. Even then, she has the help of the director, actors, director of photography, costume designer, etc. Let your imagination run wild! Free yourself from the confines of the novel.

But if the author’s original work is what speaks to you, by all means, the choice is up to you. That’s the whole point. You are in control in an adaptation.

Find the Story

Storylines that support a 400-page book cannot possibly fit into 110 pages of script. Get your chainsaw ready to start pruning.

Cutting happens in layers. First identify the theme and the protagonist’s outer motivation. If the subplots don’t support them, cut them, along with any minor characters that are distracting. Then layer the outer motivation with the hero’s inner motivation. Again, if a plot point has nothing to do with either, cut it.

However, finding the inner wounds of a character is much harder when adapting nonfiction. Normally, we have the hero’s fictional wounds and personality defined first, then we craft the character’s choices based on those facts. But in nonfiction, we know the actions the real-life characters took, but not necessarily their inner motivations.

That was the case in Slavery by Another Name. We had to examine the character’s actions and then decide what kind of person would make that choice. In a way, it’s backwards character development. This is where all my years of therapy came in handy. Just saying.

The process of finding the story requires multiple reads of the novel. You will break the book’s binding. But this is your research phase, and the most important. Good story is defined by the choices the writer makes. That’s even truer with adaptation.

Outline

Just as if the story were an original idea, an adaption needs to meet the expectations of the audience and the studio.

Map out the plot and character development, but keep in mind, you don’t need to follow the original order of the novel. If reordering events tells a more compelling story, then do it. Or perhaps you’ll decide to tell the story from a different character’s point of view.

Take Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, for example. While Susan Orlean wrote a compelling true story in The Orchid Thief, Kaufman put an entirely different twist on this tale and moved the audience in a way they would never have expected had they read the original book. Genius.

Dialogue and Descriptors

If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it. But sometimes the original dialogue may be too on-the-nose or the descriptors flowery and overabundant. Look at the author’s work and see what will hold up in script format.

“The debris of commerce is everywhere” is a line I pulled straight from Doug’s book. Almost every reader highlighted it, saying they loved it. I didn’t need to reinvent the wheel in that description, especially when using a talented author’s words as my foundation.

Ending

The ending of the book may not be the most satisfying ending for a film audience. I’ve certainly read some that leave me scratching my head. Now is your chance to fix it.

Did I hear some of you gasp?

Yes, you can change something as significant as the ending, but only if you have discovered a more cinematic and compelling one. Don’t just change it to piss on your territory. Honor the story.

Remember, the number one rule is to tell an amazing story.

Bottom-line, adaptation is a fine balance of crafting a new story from an original one, all while respecting the author, the reader, and the filmgoers. It’s one hell of a circus act, but a version of screenwriting I urge you to try.

In fact, try an adaptation just to add to your writing samples. Pick a classic that is public domain, with no need to garner an author’s permission, and then practice. This is your “Save the Cat!” moment. What will you do? What choices will you make to progress the story and make it your own?

Yes, I’m double-dog daring you to try it. After all, many managers and agents want screenwriters who know how to write adaptation. Be proactive and have one in your arsenal. The exercise isn’t necessarily to sell it, but to prove you can write one like a pro.

Adapting Slavery by Another Name and finding the film’s story within the book’s 70 years of history was a Herculean task. It only got harder when the book won a Pulitzer while we were writing the script. The bar was raised to a level I never dreamed. But now that I’ve done it, I have no fear of taking on even the toughest assignment. Dialing the phone to call Douglas A. Blackmon, former senior national correspondent of The Wall Street Journal, changed not only my career, but also my life.

Pick up a book, open the pages, and find the story. Every adaptation starts with the beat… and saving a little cat.

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19 thoughts on “Balls of Steel: Advice on Adapting a Book to Film

  1. Greg

    I enjoyed this article, thank you for posting it. With no real experience at screenwriting I optioned a book a few years ago. It’s a popular book about an actual historic figure, and I definitely didn’t stop to think about how truly difficult it would be. After two years of writing unsatisfactory drafts I pretty much gave up writing it. I think I was too close to the book to make the hard cuts, and the main character changed locations so much I really had no idea how to handle that. And the book, being about true events, has no plot to speak of. To make matters worse, readers who know the environment the events occurred in are fanatics about accuracy on the subject matter, and I worried so much about getting something wrong it essentially paralyzed me. Now I’ve graduated to trying to get a studio involved, no easy task in itself. Last Friday I finally had the chance to pitch the thing, and I expect I’ll hear yea or nay on Monday.

    Since taking that monster on, I’ve also become an indie director and my very first short film won an award last year. I’m a really good comedy and sci-fi writer, but a biopic is such a different animal.

  2. Nicholas P Clark

    This is a great article, I am a new author but I was approached to produce a film script, which I did but was not my best work, so through a friend found a script writer (who stole the story and tried to make it his own) but he did not know how we Scots don’t take this sort of thing lying down!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! the hospitable sister reckons he should be up and walking again by the end of the year!!!!!!!!!!!! LOL
    Anyway decided to try a short film teaser, and have now put a team together Cameraman Director, actors & crew, and hope to shoot a 5 min trailer for when I pitch to the suits, any advice would be most welcome.

  3. Screenwriters Anonymous

    Great information as always, Jeanne! And the comments are just as insightful … another reason why ScriptMag.com is bookmarked to my browser’s favorite bar.

    I agree with Karel’s recommendation: short story adaptation should be easier to secure. I imagine it gives the screenwriter a bit more wiggle room, too, when filling in the blocks that weave the story together into a 100-120 page masterpiece.

    I’ll have to add this to my “bucket list” …

  4. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Thanks for all the comments! Yes, a great attorney is essential when purchasing any rights. My situation with SBAN is very unique and one based on trust. I took many risks in committing to the project, and was fortunate the author was/is an honorable person.

    Karl, love that book and love the suggestion of short story adaptation…despite my hating the adaptation of ‘Benjamin Button’ 🙂

    Perry, yes, adapting SBAN was grueling. We adapted it at the same time a documentary of the book was begin written. In many ways, the doc freed us from having to teach a history lesson, and we could solely focus on telling a gripping story about our characters. That helped a great deal. By the way, the doc is available on pbs.org

  5. Marc

    Although it workrd out in your case, co-writing a screenplay with a book’s author sounds like a recipe for disaster.

    In addition, I wouldn’t buy rights without the help of an experienced attorney. A few years ago, I bought the rights to a novel from the Estate of a British author who died many years ago. Five months into the project, I learned that the book was in the public domain in the US, but not the UK, a fact that the literary executor of the estate was unaware of. This meant that I could have spent two years on the project, only to find out that someone made a TV movie of the book for distribution in the US. While this was unlikely to happen, I wasn’t protected, so I contacted the author’s Estate, who agreed to refund my payment.

  6. Karel Segers

    Novels are notoriously difficult to adapt. In the hands of inexperienced screenwriters, the result is almost always disaster.

    Short stories, however, are a lot more rewarding – and easier to secure the rights of.

    If you would ever consider going this path – and I recommend it over any novel any day – you must check out “ADAPTATIONS – FROM SHORT STORY TO BIG SCREEN” (http://tinyurl.com/br4mt9j)

    This is by far the best book I’ve ever read on adaptations. (I’ve read a few)

  7. Tiffany

    This was really great advice. I’ve wanted to adapt a book for years and actually have two in mind. Obtaining rights was one of my greatest worries. Both stories are well over 100 years old so I’m not sure if they’re public domain or if i need to do some digging to find out who has the rights, if anyone.

  8. Miguel Vargas-Caba

    Just to prove to myself that I could both write a movie AND adapt a book, I grabbed “The Sky is Falling”, a book about a USAF B-25 Mitchell bomber that crashed head on against the Empire State building in July 1945, and converted it to movie script. Once I got that under my belt, then I proceeded to convert my own Historical Fiction novel “BEAR – Flight to Liberty”, a Historical Fiction novel about Soviet Naval Aviation defectors, à la “The Hunt for Red October”, but in the air (“The Hunt for Red 67” has a nice ring to it) and started to convert it to movie script. Having already learned most of what it’s written in this article, I just grabbed my trusty pair of literary scissors, and cut to the chase until I got THE ESSENCE of my novel. I am not finished yet, but the results are encouraging. I KNOW this is going to be the blockbuster that is going to make that other “Hunt” movie pale in comparison 🙂

    1. Greg

      My project also relates to aviation (Battle of Britain specifically) and my experience has been that studios aren’t that interested. The recent cinematic disaster known as Red Tails didn’t help matters much. Studios look at that and say “See? That’s why we don’t like aviation themes.” Hard to argue with that, as most in the genre fair poorly, perhaps because we aviation enthusiasts represent a small percentage of the population. Personally, I still think The Great Waldo Pepper remains the greatest aviation film ever made.

  9. Perry Hall

    Jeanne,
    I took one look at “Slavery by another name” and knew I couldn’t adapt it. It is so big and such a sacred cow. My hat is off to you and how in the world did you do it without alienating much of the audience.
    Perry

  10. NoniB4

    I have the opposite problem of many; I wrote the books, they were published but after the initial contract expired, I opted not to renew the contract because I disliked the publisher’s marketing ploys. My very first attempt at adaptation was a long period piece that just could not be cut down to size; I tried a trilogy of screenplays. So they were…like…awful. But I learned a lot from the great notes the readers/judges (entered them in a contest with feedback from three judges). One day I may take out the notes for review and start all over again but I’m eyebrow deep in pre-production with my business partner on the first of a trilogy of films…entirely different stories set in this century. Hugh learning curve to switch from novels to screenplays but the key was thinking as a camera lens. Adaptation of my own novel was more difficult than adapting a famous mystery/romance author’s novel into a screenplay. Maybe because I knew my own characters better than hers and, well, I liked mine a lot more than hers. It’s hard to feel very bad about that.

  11. Jeff Cross

    Books are actually measured in word count rather than page length. And I agree that 110 pages of screenplay won’t support the average book, for in my own experience adapting two books I’ve written into scripts one that was 83,000+ words long came to 125 pages of screenplay, while another that was under 59,000 words came to 145 pages of screenplay–and both had stuff cut out of them.

  12. David Lloyd Austin

    I love adapting and have completed three, non-fictional historical novels and one contemporary non-fictional novel to screenplays. Whenever an author asks to co-write, I put them through a test. Take the first 3 – 5 pages of the novel and have him or her adapt to a screenplay as I do the same to compare. They quickly realize how both processes are very much different. At the same time, I have them read the script in progress. NOT to approve but to further their awareness. Some authors are amazed that I have created additional family members and or obstacles towards the FADE OUT.
    As for paying for rights: choose a novel that’s been on the shelf for a while. Most times you won’t pay. But, if the asking price is too high, find another novel.

  13. Tonja

    I’m in the process of adapting a book (the author actually asked ME… so lucky but it doesn’t take the pressure off! lol) so this article came just in time! Great foundations laid out here. Thanks, Jeanne!

  14. Donna Brodsky

    I, too, lust to adapt a good book. I’ve pitched my heart out several times and when it came down to money, I didn’t have enough. I still try. You never know. Someone may take pity on this poor screenwriter. I like the idea of asking the author to co-write. I am going back to my last effort and see if that will work. I love, love, love the story, so wish me luck!

    Donna

  15. Susan

    Good suggestion to go after something public domain. I couldn’t think of anything old enough that I knew and hadn’t been done to death. But then I remembered one I think is old enough. But how can you be sure its public domain? And how can you copyright your adaptation if it is public domain? Is your work completely unprotected if the story and characters match the original? I guess if you give the character specific traits and personality different you can copyright that. But are there specific measures you are supposed to take when you copyright something you did not fully create alone whether its public domain or somebody else owns a portion of it? Such as parodies. Do you need to get permission to protect your part?

  16. Michael

    Good advice, I may do that one day. It always seems I’m a day late and dollar short — literally — when I read a book, think it’d make a great movie, and discover some major studio already has the rights.

  17. Mart

    Thanks for all of the good suggestions on adapting a novel for the screen. Having gone down this uncharted road myself, I agreed with what you say. You’ve put so much into it as well. Hopefully it will help screenplay writers out.

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