ADAPTING A BOOK TO A SCREENPLAY
How to adapt a book into a screenplay?
Often in the film and television industry, new content tends to be based on the adaptation of popular source material. For instance, recent streaming site shows such as The Boys, Stargirl, and The Umbrella Academy have been adapted from comic books. TV dramas including His Dark Materials, The Luminaries, and Normal People, to name a few, are taken from books and book series.
With adaptation, the stories can be perfect replications or based upon - that is, significant details changed to support the medium. You don't even need to take the source material verbatim or retell it page-to-screen.
Look at the BBC's popular Sherlock series, which features a modern retelling of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes novels - these are based on the beloved characters, whilst bringing the stories, concepts, and ideas to a new generation in relatable, grounded-in-the-21st-Century ways.
Likewise, HBO's recent Watchmen series continues from the source material - the iconic 80s graphic novel - and gives us a brand new story rather than directly change the medium from page-to-screen as Zack Snyder's 2009 adaptation did.
INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS
What is intellectual property?
The idea behind the commonality and success of adaptation in the industry, is because IP - that is, Intellectual Property - sells.
IP will make a profit and will draw in an audience because it has an audience already and has already proven itself as a success. For a lot of new writers in the industry, advice often given is to find yourself some IP and adapt it effectively to make it a surefire hit.
INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS IN BOOKS
What is intellectual property in a book?
There is a small caveat with adapting literary works. IP, as the creation of someone else, belongs to them - as does the rights, the characters, stories, and worlds - unless they are within the public domain.
The stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, etc. are within the public domain their authors have been deceased for over seventy years (one hundred in some cases) and are outwith copyright.
BEFORE YOU ADAPT
What do I need to do before adapting a book?
Before you decide to adapt a novel or a short story into a screenplay, do your research and see if the source material is within the public domain. If you fancy modernising The Wind in the Willows to a gritty urban locale, go for it - however, trying to write and produce a retelling or spin-off of Harry Potter or Twilight will cause you issues.
OBTAINING THE RIGTHS
How to obtain the rights of a book?
To obtain the rights to IP which is not in the public domain, you would have to contact the rights holders and ask for permission, usually having to pay for the privilege of using their creation.
Why not team up with a writer you know personally and adapt their work? Attend networking evenings, workshops, etcetera and try and find yourself someone to partner with and help them bring their stories to screen.
Otherwise, a lot of classic novels and short stories have had no feature film or television adaptations. If you have an interesting idea on how to adapt or bring these novels to life, I recommend having a go - even if just to practice your screenwriting skills.
ADAPTING FROM SOURCE MATERIAL
How to adapt from source material?
Novels are massive, and short stories often won't contain enough content for you to work with. Once you've found your public domain source material, decide carefully whether your adaptation would suit being a feature-length or a TV series.
A post-apocalyptic adaptation of Twelfth Night may make either a great feature-length or a series, but you may struggle to stretch an Edgar Allen Poe tale into six hour-long television episodes. Not impossible, but weigh up your options and gauge what would be most effective.
FROM BOOK TO SCRIPT
Analyse your text...
Next, look at your source material closely. Read it cover-to-cover as many times as you feel comfortable, each time noting the most important sections -
What is exposition? What is a key turning point? Where and when are the characters introduced? Whereabouts and what is the climax?
... And so on - analyse all of the beats you would need for writing any other screenplay.
Be careful with your timing within your script and remember that roughly a page of script is a minute of screentime. The average novel is around two-hundred and fifty pages - mostly of description, exposition, and dialogue. What can I remove? Which characters can I condense to streamline the story? I'm not going to condense Holmes and Watson, but the many police officers who help them along the way? Can I combine them without unravelling the story?
FROM BOOK TO SCREENPLAY
Do I include a narration?
Next: the words. Are you planning on quoting directly from your source material? This might be effective for dialogue - lifting or paraphrasing key character dialogue may work to impress or familiarise a potential audience - but should I use the prose of the novel or short as narration?
If you read our blog about Voice-Over's we show that narration could be effective and ineffective if not treated correctly. Try and show the words of the source material on-screen.
Bring the world to life without telling the audience what they're looking at, unless your source material has a particularly present narrative feel or if the narration is crucial to the story i.e. Fear in Loathing in Las Vegas, The Book Thief.
BY THE BOOK ADAPTION
"Kill your darlings!" - Stephen King
Once you've settled on the important narrative of the source material you are including in your adaptation, your characters, and your framing, you're faced with one last question: how close of an adaptation will it be? Do you want to modernise Shakespeare? Change the genre of Dickens so it's set in space? Retell Pride and Prejudice to include zombies? (It's already been done, but the point stands.)
Some of the most successful adaptations of books have been near undetectable - 2010's teen comedy Easy A is a loose adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 social commentary, The Scarlet Letter.
Kill your darlings, don't get attached to your best piece of writing or prose. Sometimes the writer has to be ruthless when cutting their narrative. It's certainly true that not everything that works in your book will work on screen.
QUESTIONS TO ASK
Before adapting your book to screenplay...
So, what will your adaptation be, and what makes it worth sharing? What makes it new or engaging or worth telling? Why now? What does it mean to you, and what would it mean to a modern audience? How can you make it work visually?
With attentive research, study of your text, and a keen eye for bringing a story to life, you'll be able to successfully take something loved and established and make it your own.
Eden Luke McIntyre is a Scottish writer, editor, and script consultant. His qualifications include a Master’s Degree in TV Fiction Writing and Bachelor of Arts with Honours Degrees in Film & Media Studies and English Studies, specialising in Scriptwriting, Creative Writing, and Researching the Media. Besides consulting on scripts, Eden writes content for radio, stage, and online, and was appointed as a BBC Writers Room Scottish Voice in early 2020.