Novels into films? The 4 Screenwriter Super Powers

What is the one thing most of us say when we see one of our favorite novels turned into a movie?  It’s just wasn’t as good as the book.  Right?  There are a few reasons for this.

First, the world of the novel originally comes alive, or is “baptized,” in the readers’  individual imaginations.  How on earth are filmmakers supposed to compete with, or even come close to matching, that world — which, by the way, is uniquely shaped in each of the minds of all those thousands and millions of readers.  It just isn’t possible to live up to all those expectations.cropped-stacks-of-screenplays.jpg

Second comes this familiar complaint:  They left out all my favorite scenes and characters.  Strike two on the screenwriter.  But here’s the problem.  The epic book you fell in love with is 350 pages of very-dense-type long.   The screenwriter gets 110 (or so) pages to do that novel justice.   The epic novel takes place over has 10-15 subplots and a cast of hundreds orbiting the central hero’s journey.  The screenwriter’s job is to figure out not what to keep from the novel, but how to story triage what doesn’t need to be in the movie.  Usually, once you’ve identify the central character quest, and a few subplots that serve that quest… you’ve left out two thirds of the novel and you’re also at capacity for a movie.

Lastly, authors get to cheat.  In an omniscient novel, authors can go for pages and pages inside their characters’ minds.  That internal dialogue/reflection/soliloquy works just fine in a book.  In a screenplay, it’s a cardinal sin.  Everything in a film has to be heard or seen  in dialogue and action. Screenwriters don’t get to be the Great Carnac and read characters’ minds.   All they have is a few super powers, including:

  • Voice over,
  • flashbacks,
  • visions and dreams,
  • pop-up bubbles or on-screen graphics (I’ve only seen this used rarely, most brilliantly on the contemporary incarnation of “Sherlock”)

That’s it.  The screenwriters’ super powers must be used sparingly to get at a character’s insides, or they become gimmicky.  That’s also not allowed in movie-making.

I hope you’ll check out my hour-long discussion with Aaron Gansky and Steve McLain about these adaptation challenges on the Firsts in Fiction podcast below or on You Tube or iTunes.

Watch on You Tube Firsts in Fiction podcast: Screenwriting with Brian Bird

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One Reply

  1. Great points here. I’ve certainly been among the mourners when a favorite scene or minor character is left out, but I’ve also celebrated when the starkness of a screenplay pares down all the boring bits (I’m looking at you, HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE and great gobs of LORD OF THE RINGS). I’d include Montage as a fifth superpower of screenwriters–you can get through plenty of verbiage with a catchy song and a montage.

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