The Book The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact and Fiction into Film Systematizes the Basics of Film Adaptations
Linda Seger‘s books are well known among script lovers, particularly, Making a Good Script Great and Creating Unforgettable Characters, the two of his many books that stand out.
I will reproduce here a few essential aspects of the book, which has the very long title The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact And Fiction Into Film. How to Transform Novels, Plays, and True-Life Stories into Screenplays. For the rest of it, and they are many other keys to the book, please go to the source.
A few general concepts:
85 per cent of all Academy Award-winning Best Pictures are adaptations. • 45 per cent of all television movies-of-the-week are adaptations, yet 70 per cent of all Emmy Award winners come from these films. • 83 per cent of all miniseries are adaptations, but 95 per cent of Emmy Award winners are drawn from these films.
A best-selling book might be read by a million readers, or perhaps four to eight million if it’s one of the biggest sellers. A successful Broadway play might be seen by one to eight million people, but if only five million people go to see a film, it will be considered a failure. If only ten million people watch a television series, it will be cancelled.
They are essentially different mediums that resist each other as often as they cooperate.
Adapting Implies Change
Condense or Expand Material
Condensing often includes losing subplots, combining or cutting characters, leaving out several of the many themes that might be contained in a long novel, and finding within the material the beginning, middle, and end of a dramatic storyline. These choices can be frustrating, since writers sometimes need to give up scenes and characters.
LOOK FOR THE IMPLIED SCENE. Sometimes a book contains so many scenes that all you need to do is pick and choose the ones to carry the story cinematically. At other times, scenes need to be created. You can always make them up, just as you would in an original screenplay. But books and plays are always implying scenes that are not shown. Since these scenes are naturally part of a story, they are clues you can use in your writing.
Sometimes scenes are implied when a character briefly mentions a friend, or some incident from childhood, or simply says she or he had a bad day at work. All of these mentions can be made into scenes.
The Adaptation is a New Original
WHAT IS USABLE? Adapting a story is somewhat like finding the delphiniums in a garden that includes one hundred different flowers. It means choosing what’s important within material that might be very rich with complexities and a certain amount of chaos. Choices need to be made. Among all the themes, which is the one I want to explore? Among all the characters, who do I consider the most important? Among the myriad plots and subplots, which ones are dramatically worth pursuing? Adaptation demands choice. This means that much material that you love may be let
Events might have to be refocused. Characters who carried a great deal of weight in the book might be deemphasized. If an important plotline doesn’t serve the dramatic movement of the story, it could be dropped. With all these changes resonances may be lost, but the focus of the storyline may be strengthened. A theme may be lost in order to make other themes clearer and more accessible. Making changes takes a certain amount of courage from the writer, but if writers are unwilling to make some changes in the source material, the transition from literature to drama won’t happen.
What a Novel is Not
The fact is that a novel basically is not
a chronological experience, where someone else determines our pacing, but a reflective experience. Rarely do we read a novel in one sitting. In fact, part of the joy of reading is going back to the book. The reading, putting it down, thinking about it, sometimes reading a page twice is part of the pleasure. It is a reveling in the language as much as reveling in the story.
Film is much faster. It builds up its details through images. The camera can look at a three-dimensional object and, in a matter of seconds, get across details that would take pages in the novel. Film can give us story information, character information, ideas and images and style all in the same moment. When we read a novel, we can see only what the narrator shows us at that particular moment. If the narrator puts the focus on action in those pages, then we follow the action. If the narrator talks about feelings, then we focus on the feelings. We can receive only one piece of information at a time. A novel can only give us this information sequentially.
Film is Dimensional
But film is dimensional. A good scene in a film advances the action, reveals character, explores the theme, and builds an image. In a novel, one scene or an entire chapter may concentrate on only one of those areas.
As we read a novel, someone is taking us by the hand and leading us through the story. This narrator is sometimes a character (if the novel is in the first person) or the storyteller (usually the writer’s alter ego), who explains to us the meaning of the events.
In a novel, the narrator stands between us and the story to help us understand and interpret events. When we watch a film, we are an objective observer of the actions. What we see is what we get. Even if characters tell us their feelings through a voice-over in a film, we may not believe them. Without the narrator to guide us, we may not know whether characters are lying or not.
Generally in a novel
(…) The narrator is omniscient. If the narrator of A Room with a View tells us that Lucy is really in love with George, we believe him. After all, he knows her better than we do, probably even better than Lucy knows herself.
Any attempt to translate this interior understanding into film usually meets with failure. Film doesn’t give us an interior look at a character. A novel does.
The narrator in the novel tells us about a subjective experience, but the film, through its visuals, shows us an objective experience.
Time in Novels
In a novel time is fluid. It moves back and forth among past, present, and future. A character in the present can give us information about the past.
In novels, this movement between the past and the present is fluid and not disruptive. The flashback is part of the movement of a story. In film, this kind of flashback to a backstory can stop the flow of a story. Film takes place in the present. It’s immediate. It’s now. It’s active. A novel may be reflective—emphasizing meaning, context, or response to an event—but a film puts the emphasis on the event itself.
Film works in the present and drives to the future. It’s less interested in what’s happened than in what’s going to happen next.
Since film is immediate, we observe the story without needing a narrator’s help to interpret or tell us what we’re seeing.
A film, like a novel, also presents a point of view, but to determine whose point of view the screenwriter asks different questions than the novelist.
The Film Script is About Simultaneously 1/ Advancing the Story and 2/ Revealing Character
A film shows
most scenes advancing the action. This movement keeps the audience involved as it anticipates what will happen next. A good film story also has dimensionality. While the story is moving you, it is also revealing characters and developing themes.
Goal-oriented storylines are the easiest to adapt because you can usually find the beginning, middle, and end of the storyline by asking three questions: “What does the character want?” (when he or she gets it, that’s the end of the story); “What does the character do to achieve the goal?” (middle of the story); and “When does the ‘want’ begin?” (the beginning of the story).
Look for a Journey
Once you know the structure of the plots and subplots, and have identified the story arcs, begin looking for scene sequences within the story.
Scene sequences give the maximum momentum to a story. Momentum means that each scene implies the next one—one leads to another. Each scene advances the action. Each scene goes somewhere.
For example, when you construct your screenplay, you’ll usually have some A story scenes (plotline) interrupted by subplot scenes from the B, C, and D storylines.
The scene sequence will have a beginning, a middle, and end, a rising dramatic line, and a certain amount of tension implied within this dramatic line.
Generally, scene sequences are usually about three to seven pages of script.
BUILDING UP THE CLIMAX
the climax of the story. If it’s a dramatic climax, use it. But you may need to change a climax in a story to make it work. The climax in a novel or play does not need to have the same dramatic buildup as in a film. Sometimes the adaptor has to reorder events or add to the actions in a book in order to create a dramatic build.
And Much More
Lots more in this book: stuff about theatre adaptations, real-life adaptations, short story adaptations… Particularly interesting is the section about Characters. Seger’s material makes sense and it’s clear and clarifying.
Two Examples of Book Moments that Do not Translate Well to Film
Ted Tally obtained an Oscar for his adaptation of a best-seller, The Silence of the Lambs. The book clearly belongs to the “Goal-oriented storylines” group, as mentioned by Seger.
I selected two short fragments of the book that no script could ever grasp. No connection between them, just to show you the difference between a script and a novel (even a very visual one, like in this case). These two segments belong to the very last pages of the book, which is 369 pages long. Read them and think how you would turn these bits into movie material.
The Silence of the Lambs’ Excerpts:
1/ (Page 307) “Starling was having some trouble with herself. At that moment in the night when she knew she had to leave the Academy to hunt Buffalo Bill, a lot of extraneous noises had stopped. She felt a pure new silence in the center of her mind, and a calm there. In a different place, down the front of her, she felt in flashes that she was a truant and a fool. The petty annoyances of the morning hadn’t touched her—not the gymnasium stink of the airplane to Columbus, not the confusion and ineptitude at the rental-car counter. She’d snapped at the car clerk to make him move, but she hadn’t felt anything.”
2/ (Page 352) “She found Starling in the warm laundry room, dozing against the slow rump-rump of a washing machine in the smell of bleach and soap and fabric softener. Starling had the psychology background—Mapp’s was law—yet it was Mapp who knew that the washing machine’s rhythm was like a great heartbeat and the rush of its waters was what the unborn hear—our last memory of peace.”
This is literature, the value of the script is to find a way to get to a similar place through other means. A fascinating but not an easy task. Ted Tally made it. Why can’t you?
More on Screenwriting? Check Best Screenwriting Books: SAVE THE CAT, Save the Movie! Is Blake Snyder to Blame?, Screenwriting Tech, Best Screenwriting Books: Dmytryk’s ON SCREEN WRITING, Best Screenwriting Books: ESSENTIALS OF SCREENWRITING and For Screenwriters: Endings, amongst many other posts!
More on Film Structure? Check A History Of The Three-Act Structure, Best Screenwriting Books: ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE, Best Screenwriting Books: McKee’s STORY (1), Best Screenwriting Books: INTO THE WOODS and Best Screenwriting Books: Field’s SCREENPLAY, amongst many other posts!
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