Screenwriter and novelist

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Literary Adaptation

Novels which serve as the sources for film or TV productions tend to be treated in one of two ways. They're either honoured, or they're plundered; and the status of the source book (at least in the eyes of those paying the bills) can be a rough guide as to which treatment it's likely to get.

A novel is honoured when there's an effort to keep its narrative intentions, main characters and locales consistent to the original. But not structure, and not dialogue; these are matters of technique. Technique is specific to medium, and you don't serve the material by failing to acknowledge the differences.

A plundered novel will barely resemble its original. It will probably have been acquired for its premise or some other exploitable aspect alone. Often, in development, that very aspect can disappear.

Honouring source novels isn't simply a matter for the classics. Ted Tally's screenplay for THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS effectively reproduced the values of its original and was no less a piece of cinema for doing so. Paul Dehn's adaptation of GOLDFINGER was a benchmark work in popular culture, setting the aspiration level for all the Bonds thereafter. I take it as a point of principle that honouring is better than plundering. There are many motives for plundering a work, but few of them have anything at all to do with good writing practice.

Here's a breakdown of a method for literary adaptation which has worked for me. I offer it in full knowledge that there are Guild members whose experience greatly exceeds my own and if they'd care to wade in with their own advice on these pages, they'll be welcome.

First, obviously, read the book. Unless you're adapting a work of your own, in which case I suggest you don't. You should be familiar enough with what happens, and how you came to express your narrative concerns on the page is of no use to you now. Let that be. Return to the impulses that drove you, and let those impulses now drive the script.

If the book is by someone else, then your task in reading is to get a sense of those impulses. Go through it a second time and this time, take notes; don't worry about plot, but look for those essentials under the plot -- the emotional score, the things that most affect the people in it -- and note down the embodying incidents as briefly as possible. Get it onto one sheet if you can; the plan here is to be able to take in the secret shape of the book all at once. It doesn't have to have logic, but it should have those key moments and images that characterise one's memory of the book when the logic has been forgotten.

From this, get your screen structure. A similarly spare and undetailed document, but with the sole purpose of stacking these elements to make the essence of the thing explicit in terms of visual narrative. Add what you need, drop what you don't. This is the most important single step, your 'handle' on the adaptation. Some people talk of 'seeing the movie in the book'. No two people will see quite the same thing. A track record of seeing something that's better, tighter and more persuasive than others will give you bankability as an adaptor.

You can now build outwards again. Having (hopefully) nailed the essence and liberated yourself from the form of the book, you can keep it to hand and dip into it constantly for your construction materials. Include nothing that is not called for, and be aware that the point at which it best serves may differ from where it first appeared. In Fay Weldon's model TV adaptation of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, for example, the author's famous opening line becomes a line of character dialogue some way in. Because it's apt, the spirit is preserved.

Fidelity in adaptation is to the spirit, not to the letter. Adapting is the art of deconstruction and re-imagination.

And the re-imagination has to be done with the verve of new thought. No book is ever honoured by an adaptation that's dull.

First published as part of the Craft Notes column in the newsletter of The Writers' Guild of Great Britain.