The Horrors of Adapting a Novel into a Screenplay | Screenwriting Staffing

As the Founder of Screenwriting Staffing, we frequently come across leads that are seeking to hire a screenwriter to “adapt a novel”. So I wanted to write a short blog about my own personal experience and some (hopefully) helpful pointers.

Back in March of ’12, I locked literary representation as a screenwriter. Of course, it took hundreds and hundreds of query letters before reaching this milestone. When sending out my query letter, I pitched my feature-length script (previously optioned) “Color Bind”. When my agent read it, she said, “You know, you should consider adapting this into a novel, it would make a great book.” As a “screenwriter”, and not a “novelist”, this was the last thing I wanted to hear. Why? A screenplay is not designed to be read. It is designed to be a movie, with moving images. So, my first thought, this screenplay is written too much like a novel. Why would any producer want to take this into production? The script NEVER made it to production.

OK – so you have the rights to a book, or you would like to write a screenplay off a book. Now what? Well, it’s a hard process, and it takes a certain type of patience and skill.

I was contracted two years ago for the first time to adapt a book into a screenplay. How was the experience? Horrible! Why? Because I jumped into the project without the knowledge and experience it takes to adapt a novel into a screenplay.

After this catastrophic experience, I followed these simple but thorough rules, and I have since completed 3 adaptations for clients.

– A screenplay isn’t a novel, and that is something to rejoice about! Novels are tough. They require more time, editing, and, in some cases, creativity. So… go to the store and buy TWO copies of the book you are adapting. One to read and one to rip! Rip? Yes! Every page that list a backstory, secondary characters, and long dialogue… tear it out! Look, you have a book that runs 300­-400 pages. Your screenplay will be 120 ­pages, MAX! Do the math. 

– Read a lot of screenplays that were once novels. Read successful ones and unsuccessful ones. See how other screenwriters approached the original author’s story, and what they did to turn it into a movie script. I own two book/screenplays: ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ and ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’. These are great because the first part of the book is the novel and the second part is the actual script. It’s a wonderful way to reference both quickly. Especially since both of these movies won Oscars. Most used bookstores, especially in Los Angeles, will have a shelf full of these types of books!

– While most novels are written in first person, stay away from voice-­overs! It’s very tempting, I know. And sometimes it’s appropriate to add voice-­overs, but don’t use it because it seems easier! Remember, movie watchers go to the movie to watch a movie, images that move… not a bunch of text that scroll across the screen like the opening of a “Star Wars” film.
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– Just like your novel, your screenplay needs to have a beginning, middle, and end. But that doesn’t mean that the story­line should mirror the novel. In the book ‘Jurassic Park’, the story ends with the military bombing the entire island, with many of the main cast dead! Spielberg, whether you like him or not, has the main cast leaving the island. He knows how to leave the audience wanting more.
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– Unless you are filthy rich, make sure you are compensated half up front before taking on a novel. Adapting a novel takes an enormous amount of time. It requires your full attention. You should not be juggling other gigs. At the very minimum, you want to make certain you can put food on your plate and a roof over your head during this long journey.

– by Jacob N. Stuart

Jacob N. Stuart is an international award-winning, produced, and represented screenwriter. He has over 10 scripts produced to screen, airing in OVER 7 different countries. He is the Founder of Screenwriting Staffing, an organization that puts screenwriters and screenplays in contact with industry professionals. As the CEO for ScreenwritingStaffing.com, he and his team have produced 125+ screenwriting success stories — ranging from scripts sales, options, and paid writing jobs. While Jacob’s primary focus is screenwriting and story development, he has worked on the sets of: Glee, Intervention, Homecoming, Toddlers & Tiaras, Gene Simmons Family Jewels, and Pitchin’ In.