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  1. #1
    R.J Hunter

    Adapting novel into a play

    Is this a good idea? Or how about the other way round? Interested in hearing from anyone who has experiance in this.

  2. #2
    Rachael Elg

    Re: Adapting novel into a play

    If someone yells "watch out" at you as you walk down the street, do you look up and stop before you're hit by a car? I would certainly hope so.

    So, if you have a novel that is telling you, "I'm a play, I'm a play!" heed its warning, though I don't think you'd actually get hit by a car or its literary equivalent....

  3. #3
    Mya Bell

    Re: Adapting novel into a play

    Well I'm in the process of adapting a novel to a screenplay (and I've written screenplays in the past) and, from my experience, it's very challenging.

    One has to constantly evaluate what to keep and what to omit (about two-thirds has to be cut or expressed in a more succinct way) and the dialog has to be honed so that it's tight, sharp, and absolutely riveting. This is done in a way that is different from a novel, since the actors provide the emotional nuances, rather than the writer evoking those reactions in the reader through words alone.

    It's a worthwhile endeavor. It will certainly stretch your writing skills, but it's much tougher than most people might expect.

    --- Mya Bell

  4. #4
    Anthony Ravenscroft

    Re: Adapting novel into a play

    The only advice that I'd have is to length, & the amount of content.

    A screenwriter once told me that an action-laden movie has a script that's about 14 pages. No, that's not a typo. The rest of the two-hour experience is visual. Rent a copy of Titanic & time how much actually involves acting, much less dialogue. (And it's worse for the climactic assault on the Battle Star in Star Wars or the big chase at the end of Terminator 2.)

    Few novels benefit from conversion to a movie (100 minutes, maybe as high as 150 if the director & producers are fanatic). Look at Dune, which David Lynch, the final director, felt was stretched to its limits at about four hours. A two-hour TV movie actually has less than 80 minutes of run-time.

    Narration, though sometimes used artfully, usually demonstrates a failure of moviemaking. An exception would be Romeo is Bleeding.

    In general, a feature-length movie is roughly equivalent to maybe 15,000 words of publishable story. You have to leave out all the narrative asides, the characters' unvoiced thoughts, & many of the nuances of written English. Long exteriors & interior establishing shots eat up valuable screen-time.

    The "voices" in the reader's head will no longer be up to the reader, but to a single final form by the actor (& director & editor). Watch The Lion in Winter & marvel at stunningly realised dialogue.

    If I was being offered such an opportunity, I'd take my novel & start by whittling it down to a skeletal 20,000 words, with emphasis on dialogue with spare visuals -- the latter is the cinematographer's job. Then (in most cases) I'd make sure that verbal exchanges had no more than two minutes at a time, especially if this is "talking heads" stuff.

  5. #5
    Simon Says

    Re: Adapting novel into a play

    It appears that RJ was asking about adapting his story into a stage play not a screenplay.

    Screenplays and plays are totally different beasts - they are different crafts, they tell their stories in different ways and they require different considerations when adapting.

    As Anthony has pointed out - a screenplay is a story told primarily through visual images.

    A play on the other hand is a story told primarily through dialogue. So you need to have well drawn characters, lots of conflict between characters and a story that can be told without a lot of action or visuals.

    If your story is very internal - i.e. a lot of the narration focuses on what's going on in your character's head as opposed to his actions and interactions - then it may not be a piece that would lend itself to being adapted to a play (or a screenplay for that matter).

    If you are serious about adapting it into play then I suggest you take the time to learn the craft of playwriting. There are many books on the subject as well as some good onlline courses also check the colleges in your area.

  6. #6
    Simon Says

    Re: Adapting novel into a play

    I have a pet peeve about erroneous information on the web especially on sites like this because people use sites like this to gather information. So I am going to correct the erroneous and incorrect information that Anthony provided.

    I know that Anthony's intentions were good, but his knowledge is second hand and I think he may have misunderstood some of what he has been told regarding screenwriting. I have both an academic education and practical work experience in this industry - I am a film school graduate and screenwriter and I have experience as a writing consultant and a development executive.

    The craft of screenwriting is a unique animal. It is not about stripping everything down to bare bones - on the contrary it's about conveying as much as possible both visually and viscerally with as few words as possible. It is about engaging and engrossing your reader and creating a world that they can see in their head without the benefit of long passages of descriptions. Directors, actors, cinematographers, editors all translate what is on the page - they don't create it from scratch. A screenplay is a story told through visual images and action.

    A feature with a lot of action is not anywhere near 14 pages. I've read dozens if not hundreds of action flicks and written some as well and all have been 85 pages and up (mostly up). Also when writing an action film - the visuals and action sequences are not in lieu of storytellling - they ARE the storytelling - which means that action sequences and many of the visual images are written into the script. You would be amazed at just how many of the iconic visual images that remain in our heads - were actually conceived by the writer - not the director.

    An action script does not detail and orchestrate every moment of a scene - but it does spell out the basics and hit on all the important things that happen in a specific scene whether it's a heavy dialogue scene or a car chase. The script for "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is full of action - yet it's actually LONGER than the script for "High Fidelity" - which is a dialogue heavy, character driven romantic comedy - both films have similar running times.

    The general rule of thumb is one page = one minute of screentime, regardless of genre and regardless of the medium where it will be shown.

    And finally when it comes to beginning the adapting process - I don't necessarily think that stripping it down to its skeletal roots is the smartest way to go. Adaptation is not about simply transferring from one medium to another - it requires translation and tranformation. Therefore I suggest focusing on the heart and soul of your story. What the key thing you are trying to communicate is. Then take a little time to think about what aspects of your plot, your character's arc, etc. best dramatize this. What elements of the the conflict best illustrate your theme. What parts of your story can be translated to a more visual medium.

    In some cases - it may mean taking and building up one element of your story rather than stripping back. For example a novel that spans the life of a character might be best served by honing in on the character's teen years or thirties or whatever - and leaving the rest out. Or fleshing out one specific experience. It might mean losing characters or combining them and often means wholesale changes and adding things that are not in the book at all. It is often harder to adapt your own work than someone else's and I don't suggest even attempting it until you have a solid understanding of the craft of screenwriting.

    Again, I realize Anthony meant well, and appreciate his input but his understanding of what a screenplay is, is actually the antithesis of what a screenplay is.


  7. #7
    Anthony Ravenscroft

    Re: Adapting novel into a play

    And while I understand that you've got classroom & field experience, Simon, I hang out with people bringing their films to the Santa Fe Film Festival. At worst, we're each citing valid examples that are simply more toward opposite extremes -- you're no more "wrong" than I.

    I know that there are plenty of people who'd say that the last person to adapt a novel for stage or screen would be the author -- and an author who does a successful adaptation would, at a guess, be someone who's either a huge fan of the medium, or has been successfully published for long enough to to necessarily believe that their every word is golden.

    Thus, my advice that a novel's gotta be "stripped to the bone" so that the author understands her/his own story thoroughly enough that it can actually be built up again to fit the medium. I can certainly say that many of the best starting-out writers I'm reading have a very strong intuitive streak, & tend to write "what sounds right." Often, a craftsman is the worst person to teach how to do what that craftsman does, because the lessons have been pared down to reflex & intuition.

    While I appreciate Simon's advice, he denies what I've said, yet in demonstrating his authority does nothing to address a central problem that I at least took a few preliminary swings at. Let's see if we can get a productive discussion to ensue rather than turn it into diploma-waving, okay? Granting that Simon's numbers have substance, how about if we get some useful input on this:

    How the heck does an author turn a 450-page manuscript into an 85-page script -- with really big margins & large type?

    Really, SS, if you've got better advice than my "antithesis," perhaps you could prove that a thesis even exists. And if my understanding is flawed, I'm ready to learn an easier way!

    After that, I suppose I can raise some hell about the advisability of turning a play into a novel...

  8. #8
    Simon Says

    Re: Adapting novel into a play

    Yes, Anthony I deny what you say because you don't seem to grasp what a screenplay is supposed to be or what it is supposed to achieve. And that is the single most important thing when speaking of adaptation. How can you transform your story into a screenplay - if you don't understand the mechanics and craft?

    Hanging out with people who submit to film festivals does not necessarily give you the knowledge needed to advise others. I hang out with a neuro-suregeon and a CPA on a regular basis, but you won't find me giving advice on brain surgery or taxes. I'm not trying to one up you here, but the people in the film business that I hang out with - are JUDGING the Santa Fe Film Festival and/or having their films released by Universal on a thousand screens. As I said in my earlier post, Anthony I appreciate your intent. But intent aside your orignal posting would do more harm than good for anyone who was seeking guidance on adaptation. So I am going to have to humbly disagree with you regarding your belief that neither of us is "more wrong" than the other.

    Your comments regarding the length of an action screenplay or that visuals "is the cinematographer's job" is completely wrong. If someone took your advice and adapted their 85K thriller into a 14 page screenplay - they would not have a feature film screenplay. They would also not have a screenplay if they whittled "it down to a skeletal 20,000 words, with emphasis on dialogue with spare visuals. Because in reality a screenplay is the opposite - a story told THROUGH visuals. A well balanced screenplay should be 50% action 50% dialogue. So in fact you need a lot of description of the visuals and the action. And whenever possible you should SHOW rather than tell which means that you should reveal character through actions (visuals) and use dialogue only as a last resort. This is the very basics of the craft. Screenwriting 101. Anyone who doesn't understand this should not be advising others on how to write a screenplay.

    I did attempt to address the central problem regarding adaption - that being that you need to focus on the heart and soul of your story and you should definitely NOT just strip it down.

    As for how to adapt a 450 page novel - the answer to that question depends in large part on the source material you are adapting. I am by no means an adaptation expert but I have been involved in the development process of a few adaptations. Each and every one was different and required a different approach. Different genres have different strengths and weaknesses that lend or do not lend themselves well to adaptation so they require a different tact. While cutting out the flab from scenes and the story is essential, that in itself is not enough and also not necessarily the best place to start. It's not a one size fits all kinda thing and it's definitely something that can't be explained adequately on an internet message board. Where you start depends largely on the genre and as I pointed out what you want to convey to an audience.

    Selling a screenplay adapted from an unpublished novel is even more of a longshot then publishing said novel to begin with. As for published novels, most producers are seeking to option or buy the film rights and then bring in a professional screenwriter to do the adaptation. While most literary agents have affiliations with other agents to sell the film rights to novels, few have the network in place to sell screenplays - so you'd have to find a screenplay agent. So from a purely economical practical matter - I'm not sure how much sense it makes to do an adaptation on your own.

    But for those who are interested in doing so, as always I advocate educating yourself. There are some good books out there on adapting novels into screenplays and there are many good courses at many colleges and online that teach screenwriting.

  9. #9
    Just Me

    Re: Adapting novel into a play

    I haven't done much film, but I've done plenty of theatre. Here's my perspective:

    The main difference between a novel and a play is that a novel is written to be read by readers; a play is written to be read by actors and directors. In other words, it's a blueprint to be read by your collaborators, not your audience. In a novel, you have to put in anything you want the audience to see; in a play, you only have to put in enough clues that the actors and director will pick up on them and show the audience what you want them to see. This is their job: picking up your clues and bringing them to life. Some of the best plays I've ever done sounded, at the first reading, lifeless and shapeless. It was only when we started working on the script in depth that we saw the subtle little clues the playwright had left us, and the play came to life.

    For a good example of the differences between the three genres, read the novel 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses'; then read (or, if possible, see) the play; then rent the movie.

  10. #10
    Prince Louis Richard de la Pau

    Re: Adapting novel into a play

    Hi Just Me, that's a superb example. I've done all three - read the book and saw the play in French, watched the film in English and read the play in English.

    I'm also going through the same problem. If my book actually makes it to publication - and I'll know this week - then I've got to have it translated into German and after that, I've got to try and produce a screenplay in German, because there's already a glimmer of interest in the film rights. I'm dreading it. Most of the book is emotive with a lot going on under the surface. I read the conversation above between Anthony and Simon and ended up completely confused, to be honest.

    Oh, and the director of a theatre in LA is also interested in producing it as a play - if the book sells well - so I've got that hell to go through, as well.

    I'm wondering if there's any kind of literature available that might be of help, or whether there are are professionals capable of doing this for an author.

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