Film Adaptation

The film adaptation came before the original screenplay. In many ways, when cinema was in its infancy, the thought of an original idea was repugnant. As television grew in popularity, the film studios realised that to keep business strong, they needed to attract people back to theatres with stories with which they were not familiar. Now, after many years, there is a balance, and almost half of the films released recently have been adaptations, from television, theatre or as will be focused upon here, the novel.

The adaptation of stories from one narrative form to another had always been thought impossible, but is a vital area of the arts.. All but one of Shakespeare's plays were based upon other literary sources. Macbeth and Othello became operas by Verdi and Tchaikovsky. Artists, notably the Pre-Raphaelites have drawn inspiration from literature and religion in their allegorical paintings and sculpture. All are accepted, and often presented as the pinnacle of their particular art form.

The film adaptation is unable to capture the experience gained from reading a novel. Although the screenwriter may remain faithful to the original work's intentions, for the adaptation to have its own value, it must have its own point of view. But as has been demonstrated time and again, a literal adaptation can often be dull and clumsy, badly paced and structure. The screenwriter should give the film its own coherent and persuasive narrative, with an approach that discards the issue of being true or untrue to the original.


With most works, this can be difficult. Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy have a great pedigree, the loss of which might lead to critical and box office suicide. Some, however, do need to divert from their source material to be worthwhile. When Harold Pinter considered The French Lieutenants Woman, his task was difficult. The story is of Victorian love, but the narrative, rooted within 20th century thinking, has references, footnotes and flashes to Marx, Darwin, and Freud. Many writers, from Dennis Potter to Richard Lester failed to make sense from the work. At one time it was to contrive an invisible (or even visible) narrator to explain the modern interventions. Pinter had an unusual but effective solution. Film critic, Jennifer Selway describes:-
'... (the) screen play gives flesh to this 20th century perspective with a parallel story; not only do Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons play the 19th century lovers, but they are also cast as a pair of adulterous sophisticates swotting up on Victorian social history between takes on the filming of 'The French Lieutenants Woman'.
This allows the differences between nineteenth century love and modern sex to be compared and contrasted, building upon what is expressed in the novel; the film is a metaphor as well as an adaptation.


There is a definite structure to the screenplay, built into an average of a hundred and twenty pages, broken into three ‘acts’ (these can often be seen as fades to black which appear at the end of a particularly dramatic sequence). Each page is almost a minute of screen time, and the average film is two hours long. Act I introduces the characters and their situation and takes thirty pages or minutes. The first ten minutes should gain the interest of the audience, since this is when the viewer decides whether they like or dislike the film. As David Lean, director explains:
'Imagine - as the lights go down, a member of the audience strikes up a match in order to light his cigarette. The task the film maker is to ensure that that cigarette remains unlit, because the spectator cannot lower his eyes from the screen.'
In adaptation terms, a good beginning might not present itself until some time into the novel. In Kramer versus Kramer, the writer begins with over forty pages of background information before there is a suitable beginning for the screenplay, as the married-with-child characters Ted and Joanna are separated. This helps to dramatise the situation, as it is the caring husband of the novel who cannot help as his confused wife becomes a workaholic with little time for his family, leading to an exploration of a new theme - which gender makes the better parent.

The basis of all drama is conflict. In Act I, the characters are given a goal or aspiration, and in Act II, the confrontation section, obstacles are created. In most novels, conflict exists, but there might not be enough for a strictly dramatic form like films. In 2010 by Arthur C. Clarke, the central investigation is the Monolith and its connection to Jupiter and the nature of the aliens who created it. In the film, the drama is heightened by developing the cold war to nuclear proportions, making the all-too-friendly Russians of the novel, more than a little hostile, bringing suspense.

Act III resolves the story, the work of the main character is ended and their success or failure is demonstrated - whether they live or die, perhaps. The ending is either 'up-beat', 'down-beat' or ambiguous. Star Wars is incredibly upbeat (until the rest of the series comes along) and All the President's Men is down beat. To create intensity the screen writer, William Goldman lost the second half of the book in his adaptation:
'Bernstein and Woodward had made one crucial mistake dealing with the knowledge of one of Nixon's aides. It was a goof that for a while, cost them momentum (in uncovering Watergate). I decided to end the story of their mistake, because the public already knew they had eventually been vindicated, and one mistake didn't stop them. The notion behind this was to go out with them down and let the audience supply their eventual triumph.'
Sometimes, there may be not be a clear structure. In his adaptation, Goldman found a novel without a structure - just a set of dramatised facts strung together. To create structure, he consulted with one of the authors, Bob Woodward and created a list of crucial events - not the most dramatic - 'just the essentials', that enabled as complete a story to be told. Then, no matter how much re-writing took place, the basic structure would still exist.


The difficulty of adapting someone else’s character to the screen is always underestimated. Thomas Craven reminds:
'I doubt if the most artistic and sympathetic reader ever visualises a character; he responds to that part of a created figure that is also himself. But he does not actually see his hero. For this reason, all illustrations are disappointing.'
Once the character is visualised, it loses some of its mystery, as well as some of the characteristics created by the reader's imagination. In order to re-create this mystery, the screenwriter must painstakingly turn them into a believable, three-dimensional representation of the character.

The audience must identify with one of the characters, before becoming involved in the story. If the character is famous and played by a bankable actor like Julia Roberts or Tom Hanks, then the script must transcend their star status to have credibility. In the adaptations of John Grisham's novels, The Firm, The Pelican Brief and The Client, little is done to lose the star's mystique - indeed the characters are re-written to build upon the star’s on screen persona. In Blade Runner, however, the adaptation is deft enough that Deckard could have been played by anyone from Christopher Walken to Robert de Nero.

The audience must not only identify with the protagonist, but will them along in their efforts. In the novel, Jurassic Park, the owner, John Hammond is more concerned with making money and the profitability of reviving long dead species, and so the reader is against him. In the film, the character is more sympathetic, as is demonstrated in a long scene between Hammond (Richard Attenborough) and Ellie Satler (Laura Dern), in which he describes his wonder at a flea circus, and his vision to re-create this wonder with dinosaurs. So the audience feels empathy because his dream is a failure.

Often, there is a belief that to stay faithful to a novel's character, all of their experiences should be included to in the film to give them weight. Well-written adaptations use any back story as though created in the development of an original screenplay and used only when it helps the story forward. An exception to this rule might be a classical adaptation, where much of the characterisation is based upon description and action rather than back story, so most action is left alone (since usually the whole of a character's life is included in the novel).

No matter how hard the screen writer works to create a believable character, when it comes to filming, it is finally up to the actor and director to give the person life. Too often, this responsibility is not treated with enough seriousness. After seeing a fictional character 'on-screen', further reading of a text is tainted, because despite any description included, the reader perceives the appearance and personality of the actor. 84 Charing Cross Road is little more than a collection of letters. There is hardly any description. In the film, Helen Hanff and Frank Doel are portrayed brilliantly by Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins. Now, as the story evolves in the book, Helene and Frank have an image in their mind’s eye, but it is the wrong one (although in a later work, Hanff does remark how convincing Bancroft is).


When a short story is considered for adaptation, it is usually as a spring board for the development of ideas, rather than straight adaptation - the essential task is closer to an original screenplay. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A space oddessy, based upon Arthur C. Clarke's The Sentinel develops the original nine page story into a two and a half hour epic. Kubrick keeps the basic story - the investigation of an alien probe on the moon in the opening minutes of the film, but adds a wealth of new material exploring the concept of man being a child in the eyes of the advanced race.

There is a wealth of material in a novel, seemingly simplifying the adaptation process. But now the writer has to address which sections should be left out or condense in order to transform hundreds of pages into a hundred and twenty. Dealing with character's (as is seen above) can help this cause, as much of a novel can be character development and explanation, but this still leaves the scenes which pull forward the story. Unnecessary background scenes are eliminated. The first quarter of the novel of The Godfather deals with the young Vito going to America and his early days in New York. These are very interesting, but in screenplay terms they do not drive the character or story forward - a scene with a member of his extended family in the film demonstrates that he is a man of experience to fear and respect.

Scenes which are considered essential to the story but over extended can instead be condensed or even merged. In The Pelican Brief, Derby Shaw rings the journalist, Gray Grantham on a number of occasions to get his attention. In the film, we view only two of these calls, and these are re-written to include important information and imply the existence of the other communications (this strategy is used frequently in adaptations, usually with the immortal line - 'Why do you keep calling me?'). This quickens the pace and avoids repetition, which can bore audiences.

It is also important to truncate scenes - the audience must begin a situation at the last possible moment, as William Goldman demonstrates in Marathon Man, when a teaching scene appears. It begins with 'Well, class ...' and the bell ringing, leading to another scene. As the screenwriter continues, when considering the editing of description:
'In a book, you might start with some dialogue, and then describe the room, and start with some dialogue, then describe your clothes, and more dialogue. The camera gets all that in an instant. Boom, and you're on.'
In Great Expectations, the Dickens prose gives a sense of a physically and socially constricting world. David Lean demonstrates this in his adaptation with some well-planned shots. Although some descriptions are replaced by a facial gesture or camera angle, the do not amply demonstrate the implications and feelings a novel can bring across when written and read at leisure.

Sometimes, however, books need little adaptation to work as screenplays. The most famous example of this is John Ford's work on The Maltese Falcon. He liked the feeling of the book and decided he could capture its integrity on film. As he left for a vacation, he gave the novel to a secretary, telling her to go through, breaking down the narrative into screenplay form, labelling each scene with the familiar 'interior or exterior' tags with a basic description of the action, using dialogue straight from the book. Somehow, studio chief Jack L. Warner read a copy. He loved it and told Ford to shoot it just as it was - leading to a film classic.


A screen adaptation, is a collaborative work, not only involving a screen writer, but a director, producer, artists and actors, and unless the writer directs, it is the director who has the decision on whether a screenplay is filmed or forgotten, whether a screen writer's vision is to be fulfilled. This leads to the politics of screen writing. In Hollywood, screen writers can be 'hired and fired' in an instant if the director is not happy with the way a story is developing. To paraphrase Harlan Ellison in an interview for the ‘Moving Pictures’ TV series:
‘Do I mind? That I put my mind and soul into a piece of art, which when it's finished is rejected by a studio? It's like a baby, only you go nine months and when it's delivered you get a ball pin hammer and bash in its skull. Do I mind? I love it...’
Although not a famous story, the development of Jurassic Park from novel to film illustrates these problems very well. Manuscripts of the novel had circulated Hollywood and become hot property. Crichton priced the rights at $1.5 million, but promised them to Steven Spielberg. The director duly made the purchase and offered Crichton another half million to write the screen play. The author was sick of the actual story by then, but wrote a draft anyway, which brought the novel to a budgetable size. But when he submitted the screenplay, it did not live up to expectations.

His draft went straight to the core of the work - the action sequences in the park, in a similar way to his previous film Westworld. Spielberg suggested that rather than going straight to the dinosaurs, there should be a closer approximation of what was in the book, in terms of character. So the pair set about a new draft, which was used to begin pre-production design, with story boards and illustrations begun and locations being scouted for. Crichton left the project, and a new writer who had been re-writing Spielberg’s Hook, Scotch Marmo was brought in to strengthen the characterisation.

Marmo, rather than attempting to re-write Crichton's draft, opted to begin afresh, with the novel as the base. She read the novel over and over, read Crichton's draft and viewed the storyboards. She also consulted with Crichton, even borrowing a copy of the book he had highlighted and annotated for his own work. As expected, Marmo leaned towards characterisation in opposition to Crichton’s belief that this would draw away from the essential marvel of the story. There was an unusually close collaboration with Spielberg - Marmo would write some, submit it and the director would offer suggestions. She finished the final draft in five months and gave it to the director. He rejected it.

Spielberg next tried David Koepp, who was told to try from scratch again. Koepp wasn't happy with re-writes and this put his mind to rest. He elected not to read the Crichton and Marmo scripts, but re-read the novel four or five times. He found it to be written much like a film, and his approach was to stay close to the characterisation, and create a structure based upon set pieces, which meant that whole section of the novel's action could be lost, without changing the story. This is the draft that became the film.

Although this procedure seems harsh, it is quite normal. When a popular novel is being adapted for the screen, it needs to be done well - especially when the studio has paid so much for the rights. The Crichton and Marmo scripts might have been accepted by other directors - Joe Dante and Tim Burton had also been interested, but each has a particular style which is expected from an audience and this needs to be reflected in the screenplay. Although it does not give the screen writer the freedom they would like, it does create successful films.

The End

There is still a stigma attached to the film adaptation. It is impossible to leave the cinemas without overhearing criticism about the content - 'Why was the ending changed?', 'I thought that they were quite faithful to the spirit of the novel...', or most likely 'It wasn't as good as the book!'. The novel is apparently 'sacrosanct', the film maker's job being to 'capture the spirit' of the novel', without distorting the detail or novelist's tone. It is as though film eradicates the imaginative involvement without offering a different if comparable involvement. What isn't understood, is that although the film is a different media to the novel, it is also a different form of creativity.

What a filmmaker can hope when adapting a novel is to be able to equalise the nature of the prose. This can only be done when it is accepted that film is a different medium to the novel, but can still offer as much power. Recent successes like Forrest Gump and Shindler's List demonstrates that films are as powerful an art form as the novel and can direct a message at a large audience just as effectively. At the root of any adaptation is a screen writer with a book, a word processor, a notepad and a vivid imagination, and the work their work is as important (if not more) than the original writer.

© 1996 Stuart Ian Burns

Coda:: As you can see I wrote the above some years ago, but I’m amazed how much actually continues to be the case. Some things to note:

For a while, John Grisham has stopped selling the rights to his novels to film studios. Apparently he was in a bookstore in an airport and overheard someone looking at his new novel and then telling her friend that she’d wait for the film to come out.

The second sequel to Jurassic Park wasn't an adaptation, but an original screenplay.

Only three of the top ten grossers of all time are adaptations.

LA Confidential proved that the art isn’t completely dead

Contact:: If you’ve found this essay useful, email and let me know.


Early days

FINLER, Joel W. The Hollywood Story. Pyramid Books:London, England. 1989.
Coffee table sized book which gives an excellent working knowledge of the Hollywood Film Industry, and the five biggest studios. Sections range from Award success, to history and financial endeavours. The scale of the work cannot be described here.

FOX, Julian. The Great Story Chase. In Films and Filming. March 1980. Vol26. No 6. Pages 14-21.
FOX, Julian. Through The Roof (The Great Picture Chase, Part Two). In Films and Filming April 1980. Vol 26. No 7. Pages 14-21.
Detailed account of the search for the stories in early film making, covering some of the first adaptations from classical literature. Offers useful information mainly from the silent era. The style is quite reverential, but not too off putting.

Huston, John. The Maltese Falcon: based upon the novel by Dasheill Hammett. Warner: Los Angeles, USA. 1941.
Good example of the layout of an early film script. Includes a character description as part of the screenplay for the casting director. Interesting also, because the secretary who wrote the script while Huston was away travelling isn’t credited.

The Technicalities

FIELD, Syd. Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting: A Step-by-Step Guide from concept to finished script. Expanded Edition. Dell Publishing: New York, USA. 1982.
VALE, Eugene. The Technique of Screenplay Writing. Redwood Press: Wiltshire, England. 1972.
PORTNOY, Kenneth. Screen Adaptation: A Scriptwriting Handbook. Focal Press: Stoneham, USA. 1991.
There is a progression in the depth of these works. The Field is a very good guide for beginners, offering simple but not patronising language, outlining the broad strokes. Those interested in screen writing as a career, or the more technical aspects should consult the Vale, who describes the process at an incredible depth, from ideas to the format of the screen play, to finding an agent. In the third book, Portnoy takes the detail even further and concentrates upon Screen adaptation. Although there is some description of the screenplay technique, it has been written as a textbook for film courses and so requires a certain amount of previous knowledge.

BRADY, John. The Craft of the Screenwriter: Interviews with Six Celebrated Screenwriters. Simon and Schuster: New York, USA. 1981.
Although some years old, this offers incredible insights into the screen writing industry, and how the film industry perceives the writer and their work. The interviews are from different sections of the industry, from art house, to film adaptations of stage musicals and novels.

SEGAR, Linda. Creating Unforgettable Characters. Henry Holt and Company: New York, USA.
No real focus on adaptations, but an excellent description of the creation of believable characters in scripts, with examples from many sources in film, theatre, television and the novel, from Cheers to when harry met sally...


McFARLANE, Brian. Words and Images: Australian Novels into Film. Heinemann Publisher’s Australia PTY Ltd: Victoria, Australia. 1983.
SINYARD, Neil. Filming Literature: The Art of the Screen Adaptation. Croom Helm Ltd.: Kent, England. 1986.
Focus on particular areas of the industry. The McFarlane has an intelligently written introduction, which argues for the capacity of film to be a different art form to the novel but still have the same weight. Sinyard is a good companion to the Portnoy, with descriptions of the entire process, including the work of the director and cinematographer. Essays included on adaptations of Shakespeare, Dickens, Joyce and the Bronte’s, as well as adaptations as criticism.

BARKER, Martin. First and Last Mohicans. In Sight and Sound. August 1993. Vol 3. No 8. Page 26.
Surveys the fascination with ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ and compares the many adaptations which have appeared in film, including the recent Michael Mann production with Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeline Stowe in the title roles.

HARMETZ, Aljean. The Making of ‘The Wizard of Oz’. Pavilion Books Ltd.: London, England. 1989.
A chapter dedicated to the adaptation of the original books to the original film - and the politics involved when the first contracted screenplay isn’t what the STUDIO might have hoped.

TAUBLIN, Amy. 1993. Out of the Ruins. In Sight and Sound. October 1993. Vol 3. No 10. Page 29.
Interview with the director and screen writer of the recent adaptation of ‘The Secret Garden’ .

The Business

GOLDMAN, William. Adventures in the Screen Trade. Futura: England. 1990.
GOLDMAN, William. Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade. Bloomsbury: England. 2000.
Industry standard. Should be read, even if the rest of this list is ignored. Goldman gives dramatic insights into the film industry and the treatment of screen writers, as well as a set-by-step guide to the adaptation of a short story and how it would be treated if different professionals were on the project. Magical. The new book looks at the creation of an original screenplay.

SQUIRE, Jason E. (ed.) The Movie Business Book. Columbus Books: Kent, England. 1986.
Includes essays about the licensing of books for film adaptation, the reverse process of the novelisation, as well as the merchandising possibilities...

The Creative Process

CRIGHTON, Michael. Jurassic Park. Arrow/Random House. London, England. 1991.
DUNCAN, Jody and Don SHAY. The Making of Jurassic Park. Boxtree: London, England. 1993.
CRIGHTON, Michael and DAVID Koepp. Jurassic Park: From the novel by Michael Crighton: Directed by Steven Spielberg. Hollywood Scripts: London, England. 1993.
It is quite useful to read the novel (worth reading anyway), then seeing what an early draft contains. The script included here has much more adult content with stronger philosophical debate about the cloning from DNA, but quite close in character to the finished version. The writing in the Duncan and Shay is more scholarly than the format might suggest, and gives a good description of the process which occurs when a director is searching for the right script. There are also reproductions of the storyboards based upon the final script.

BERNSTEIN, Carl and Bob Woodward. All the President’s Men. Secker and Warburb: London, England. 1974.
GOLDMAN, William. All the President’s Men: based upon the book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. Wildwood Enterprises Inc: Los Angeles. 1975.
The screenplay is a development of the book, rather than a straight adaptation, and so comparing the two in conjunction with the chapter in Goldman’s ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade’ suggests that there is as much if not more work involved in an adaptation, as opposed to an original screen play.

The Films

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN. Screenplay by William Goldman. Directed by Alan J. Pakula. Wildwood Enterprises for Warner Brothers Pictures. USA. 1976.
Incredibly tense thriller (considering the outcome is known), in which two reporters for the Washington Post uncover the Watergate affair. Woodward and Bernstein, well played by Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, are presented in a less self-congratulatory style than their novel, and are therefore more sympathetic. Wonderfully atmospheric cinematography which sets the two against huge buildings help to demonstrate the enormity of their task (an aerial view from inside a library being the most beautiful).

BLADE RUNNER: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT. Screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples, from ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ by Philip K. Dick. Directed by Ridley Scott. Blade Runner Partnership. USA. 1991.
Little can be added to the applause already given to this Science Fiction classic, recently released in the original cut. A good example of how screen writers and directors use the book as a source in adaptation - in the novel, there is greater emphasis on artificial wildlife, while in the film they become part of Scott’s nightmarish Los Angeles. Best seen in Widescreen.

84 CHARING CROSS ROAD. Screenplay by Hugh Whitemore, based upon the book by Helene Hanff. Directed by David Jones. Brooks Films for Columbia Pictures Corporation. USA. 1986.
Demonstrates how even the most abstract of novels can become a beautiful of films. Tells of the transatlantic friendship between an American writer and very English book shop worker, and contrasts the differences in the countries during the aftermath of the Second World War. Readings of the letters by Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, help to crystallise what these people must have been like, turning them into real, credible people.

THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN. Screenplay by Harold Pinter. Directed by Karel Reisz. Juniper Films. USA. 1981.
Obtuseness turned into good cinema. Meryl Streep and Jeremy Isaacs are cast as lovers in the 19th century, and actors in the film that they are a part of, allowing them to comment on Victorian love in a similar way to John Fowle’s original novel, but still produce a credible film. A description of the development of this approach is given in Sinyard.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Screenplay by David Lean, George Pollock and Antony Havelock-Allen. Directed by David Lean. Cineguild. GB. 1946.
One of the best screen adaptations based upon Dickens’s work, Lean manages to evoke the dark nature of the prose without the film becoming a harrowing experiences. The transitions from childhood to adulthood are handled almost seamlessly, a credit to the screenwriter, casting director and director.

JURASSIC PARK. Screenplay by David Koepp, Malia Scotch Marmo and Michael Crighton. Amblin Enterprises. USA. 1993.
Demonstrates how some novels can only be diminished by adaptation. Although the computer generated dinosaurs can be startling on the first viewing, further watches diminish the experience, and unfortunately the characters and story are not sustaining enough. Still a blockbuster however. One wonders how things may have turned out if the original Michael Crighton or Scotch Marmo scripts had been filmed instead - read the screen play listed above for this perspective.

KRAMER Versus KRAMER. Screemplay by William Goldman. Directed by Robert Benton. Stanley Jaffe Production for Columbia Pictures Corporation. USA. 1979.
Strong, intelligently written melodrama. Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep come to terms with divorce and a court battle for their son. Goldman takes the main thrust of the novel and re-writes the characters so that the audience is tied between each party. Although he is seemingly the villain of the peace at the beginning of the film, we finally want Hoffman to win, as Streep’s demands seems more and more irrational.

2001: A Space Odyssey. Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, based upon ‘The Sentinel’ by Arthur C. Clarke. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. MGM. GB. 1968.
A product of the 1960s, but still another piece of cinema history. Fans argue over whether this is Science Fiction or simply a story set in space (despite the presence of the monolith), because of Kubrick’s attention to scientific detail (space is a vacuum and therefore soundless - space ships do not thunder when they explode, space ships will not whoosh when they pass the camera). Although Clarke wrote the novel in conjunction with the screen play, one is based around Jupiter, the other Saturn. This allows each to be an excellent example of their media, rather than an adaptation of each other (another reason was that a probe had recently visited Jupiter and Kubrick wanted to use the visually exciting shots of Jupiter which where taken in the film to highlight space exploration’s continuing development).

The Reviews

PYM, John (ed.) The Time Out Film Guide. Thirteenth Edition. Penguin: London, England. 2003.
Less pretentious than Halliwells, and recommended by Barry Norman. Over fifty reviewers contribute over 14,000 film reviews, often from a point of view not previously thought of, and usually as an example of their genre rather than the business as a whole.

If any authors feel their work has been infringed by the above, please let me know and I will be happy to remove any offending material. I have tried to attribute any quotes either here or in the bibliography. Thank you.