Turning a Novel into a Screenplay

Let’s face it: A novel and a screenplay are two very different creatures. It’s like comparing a housecat with a bobcat—both are cats, but one you want curled up on your lap and the other, not so much. by John Folsom
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Let’s face it: A novel and a screenplay are two very different creatures. It’s like comparing a housecat with a bobcat—both are cats, but one you want curled up on your lap and the other, not so much.

It can be difficult adapting a novel that runs 300 to 600 (or more) pages. The screenwriter also faces the challenges of meeting the producer’s, studio’s and fan's expectations. Not to mention the book’s author who can be very protective of his/her work.

Consider the 2005 adaptation of best-selling author Clive Cussler’s novel Sahara. Cussler sued the production company that made Sahara, Crusader Entertainment, in January 2004 seeking $40 million in damages, claiming that the production company breached its contract by failing to give him full final draft script approval. Cussler claimed that Crusader ripped the heart out of the story, later causing the 2005 film to flop.

In a cross-complaint, Crusader alleged that Cussler sabotaged the film by making disparaging public comments about the film and encouraging his fans to boycott it. He sought at least $115 million in damages.

Does this mean you must be faithful to the book all the time? No. You can’t. Characters are dropped, or combined. So are plotlines. All the internal conflicts of the characters must be externalized so they are visual and dramatic. Remember, the novelist has room to explore each scene, character and plot twist in exquisite detail. The screenwriter doesn’t. You’re limited by time, format, and structure. The only thing you need to be faithful to is the story.

The process begins when you receive the material to be adapted. Once you have the novel, read through it twice. Read it first for fun. After all, if you don’t enjoy the book, you might as well stop there. If you’re not passionate about turning the book into a script, you’ll most likely wind up with a script nobody likes.

With the second read-through, the story should suggest a filmic shape to you. As you read, the scenes should play out in your head. Picture the characters and the scenes, make note of them and, after this second read-through, form them into the shape and structure of a screenplay. It’s something akin to what Michelangelo said about sculpting: The statue was already there; all he had to do was chip away the extraneous material.

To illustrate this process, I offer my own experience adapting a popular novel; The Codex by best-selling author Douglas Preston. The Codex tells the story of eccentric millionaire Maxwell Broadbent who rigs an elaborate test for his three sons (Tom, Philip and Vernon). In order to claim their inheritance, the young men must embark on a perilous trek deep into the Honduran jungle to a lost city where their father has buried himself (and the treasures he’d plundered over the years).

The book follows the archetypal quest for a prize in order to prove one’s worth to a parent. In psychology, the metaphor of defeating the father represents growth from being part of a family to now being ready to face the world on one’s own. The book also touches on themes of resurrection and redemption.

The first thing I did was make changes to the characters. I knew from the initial reading that the character of Vernon had to go. He doesn’t do much in the novel and eliminating him helped me focus on the brother-dynamics between Tom and Philip (Tom being the Golden Boy and Philip being the son who could never win his father’s approval). Tom changed from being a veterinarian in the book to being a paleontologist in the script. This way I could continue the resurrection-motif (we first meet Tom as he’s dusting away the dirt around a fossil).

I also changed the nature of the codex itself. In the novel, the codex is a book of Mayan medicine with the potential to provide ancient remedies for current-day maladies. In my script, I added the extra dimension of the codex containing magic, including a spell that brought the dead back to life. This reinforced the resurrection theme.

However you decide to adapt a novel, the most critical is making it visual. I was in luck because Douglas Preston’s writing is already extremely cinematic. There were jungles, narrow escapes, battles, rope bridges suspended over thousand-foot gorges, lost cities, a fight to the death with a python to save the girl, white-knuckle airplane landings and fist-fights. What’s not to love? However, I needed more action up-front to start the story off. So I came up with a historical montage showing various groups fighting over the codex. Not only is this visually exciting, it also shows the audience why the codex is worth killing over. It also shows our story will not only be an action-adventure, but also contain fantasy elements.

Finally, I also altered the ending. This was partially due to character changes, but it also brought the theme of family redemption (or resurrection) to a satisfying conclusion.

And what did author Douglas Preston think of these changes to his book? Unlike Clive Cussler, Douglas Preston didn’t mind a screenwriter making changes to his work. In fact, Preston suggested I pass the script along to producer Lynda Obst, who had optioned the novel based on an outline and was having trouble finding the right script.

Unfortunately, Lynda Obst passed. "It rarely works when authors assign their own adaptations, because they can't anticipate the needs of the studio or loves of the producer, which in this case was anthropology," Obst said. She optioned the film rights based on an initial outline she’d received of Preston’s novel.

"At the time, after some discussions, I’d been looking for an anthropology thriller for Director Peter Weir (The Truman Show and Master and Commander)," Obst said. "And while there were elements of anthropology in the novel and in the script, both turned out to be more mythic adventure than scientific travelogue."

There are always expectations when adapting a novel into a screenplay. You, as the screenwriter, can’t possibly know or adhere to all of them or even any of them. All you can do is write what the story is telling you.

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