Adapting screenplays and novels

On a writing forum recently, someone asked a question about why novelisations of television dramas and films were always so badly written. The answer is they were written by screenwriters, who aren’t used to writing description or thoughts and feelings.

Film scripts are economical – they have to be. The dialogue and the plot are in the hands of the director and actors and they bring it to life in how they react and interact. At most a screenplay will be 120 pages long – a novel can be as long as the market and the story requires.

Writing a novel from a screenplay needs a completely different set of tools and skills than the screenplay requires. Fewer characters, perhaps fewer locations in the screenplay but the novel allows as many characters as the reader can deal with, because the brain takes in the information differently. The novelist isn’t hampered by budgetary constraints either – characters can go to Mars, travel back 500 years and as long as the reader believes them, the cost is the same as placing their story in the 21st century in a supermarket.

There was a trend in the 80’s for books the size of doorstops with so many characters there were lists of them at the beginning, to help the reader identify who was who. It seemed like people had forgotten that the human brain could only hold so much information and keeping it simple worked. When stories originated they were drawn on a cave wall long before they were spoken – woolly mammoth and man with spear – job done. Even when storytellers gathered around campfires, there were likely only a few characters, if that, in their tales – look at the traditional stories:  Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel.  Walt Disney and Pixar might have had a problem with their multi character casts.

There are some on-line blogs that start off talking about adapting a screenplay into a novel but half way through drift into talking about the reverse process, which has been the accepted trend for years.  Advice is that you choose the major characters from the novel and the stand out scenes and write your script around them, keeping in mind the end of the story.   You can turn this advice around for the reverse process but you could end up with a scaffold of empty rooms through which the characters move.  Adapting a screenplay to a novel is like moving to a different country and setting up home there.  To be able to write well in both mediums is a formidable talent – as Graham Greene displayed in The Third Man, both screenplay and novel.

Prose has to paint pictures for the reader and this is something that screenwriters aren’t used to doing.  The script is a tool to produce the entertainment, the novel is the entertainment.

 

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Filed under Adaptation, Novels, Writing and rejection

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