The art of adaptation

To adapt or not to adapt

To adapt means to transpose from one medium to another. It is the ability to make fit or suitable by changing or adjusting. Modifying something to create a change in structure, function, and form produces a better adjustment.

It may seem strange to translate one art form into another, but it is an age-old custom.

Shakespeare adapted Romeo and Juliet from the Roman poet Ovid’s ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’, which later became the hit Broadway musical ‘West Side Story’, was retold as an Asian gang versus the American mob in ‘Romeo must Die’, Bazz Luhrman updated the story with his contemporary re-visioning, and Stephen Spielberg re-imaged West Side Story, collaborating with one of his long-time collaborators, the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Tony Kushner, to write the screenplay. 

Here’s the concept of Moulin Rouge: A tragic romance about a poor writer who falls in love with a high-class hooker who is being kept by a rich Duke. The concept and characters were adapted from Alexandre Dumas’ 1848 novel Camille, which was also adapted into the opera La Traviata.  Dumas wrote the story from his own life. Moulin Rouge, the tragic romance about a poor writer who falls in love with a high-class hooker who is being kept by a rich duke is derived from Alexandre Dumas’ 1848 novel ‘Camille’ which was also made into an opera ‘La Traviata’. Dumas wrote an original story based on his own life.

Francis Coppola’s Oscar-winning Apocalypse Now is loosely based on a novel by 19th-century author Joseph Conrad ‘Heart of Darkness’, set in colonial Africa, where Mr. Kurtz, a white man, has gone upriver and set himself up as a mad god to African tribespeople. Marlow, the hero is sent to bring him back. Kurtz, dying, tries to communicate to Marlow the horror of what he’s seen and done, so that he can explain it to Kurtz’s fiancée. In Apocalypse Now, Colonel Kurtz, a promising career soldier, has gone upriver and set himself up as a mad god to Cambodian tribespeople. Captain Willard, an army assassin, is sent to kill him. Kurtz, dying, tries to communicate to Willard the horror of what he’s seen and done, so that Willard can explain to Kurtz’s son why Kurtz did what he did. The updating is in setting the movie in the insanity of the Vietnam war. The scenes and characters are replaced, but the through-line and the driving question are the same.

Screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, an Oscar nominee for his work on The Fisher King, had to adapt the 400-page Water for Elephants into a workable screenplay “When a book is well-loved, it’s important to keep what readers expect, but at the same time you have to understand that, when reading a story, you’re seeing and hearing characters in your head, and everyone has their own versions in their own minds. When you see the story played on screen with real people it becomes literal – one version – and there are certain ideas that work in a book that wouldn’t work on screen. The key task was making the three principal characters more active and re-inventing Marlena’s and August’s backstories. We wanted every character’s reasons to be understood, so that morally, who’s right and who’s wrong, is a little more complex.  No one is 100 per cent innocent.”

This year Francine Rivers has adapted her best-selling novel Redeeming Love for the Big Screen with director D. J. Caruso, a life-changing story of relentless love and perseverance as a young couple’s relationship clashes with the harsh realities of the California Gold Rush of 1850; Guillermo del Toro co-wrote the screenplay of Nightmare Alley with Kim Morgan, who is also film critic and journalist with a love of cinematic history – the film is based on William Lindsay Gresham’s fatalistic novel published in 1946 about a charismatic huckster consumed by uncontrolled ambition.  As the writer-director of The Tiger Rising, Ray Giarratana brought the New York Times best-selling book to life, “a story about cages…the cages we build to protect ourselves from hurt, loss and pain.” Based on the 1937 novel by Agatha Christie, Death on the Nile is a daring mystery-thriller directed by Kenneth Branagh about the emotional chaos and deadly consequences triggered by obsessive love.

Good adaptations can never include all elements of the source material, so the art of adaptation becomes one of distillation.

  • Rule # 1: You owe nothing to the original text! You only need the original text to get started and inspire you, but now that you are moving into the world of scripts and storytelling, new rules apply.
  • Rule # 2: If it makes for a good story, it stays. If not, it must be trashed! There might be s scene, detail, or character that you do not want to part with, but if it doesn’t push the story forward, it must be avoided. 

Adapting another form of writing to film / television means finding cinematic equivalents in the original piece

Adaptations are a significant part of the film and TV world and merit greater interest and attention.

How do you transform a 3-page-article into a 110-page script? Or if you are adapting a 500-page classic Russian novel and transporting it to contemporary society, the question still begs to be answered: How do I compress 500 pages into a 120-page screenplay?

Firstly, you do not owe anything to the original source material; it might have been someone else’s story once, now it’s yours. You will be judged by how you choose to tell your tale, and no matter how good the original story was, it’s your responsibility now.

Screenwriters only have 120 pages to tell the story and have to choose story events carefully so they highlight and illustrate the screenplay with good visual and dramatic components. The screenplay must provide visualisation of the action that can be captured on film.

Adapting a novel, book, play, article or musical into a screenplay is the same as writing an original screenplay. It only starts from the source material.

When screenwriters adapt from another medium it must be a visual experience. That is the primary job of the screenwriters who must remain true only to the integrity of the source material.

The trick of adaptation is to find what still works and find a way to update what no longer does.


Films based on real-life stories: The Last Duel, Judy, Midway, Official Secrets, In The Heart of The Sea, Suffragette, The 33, 13 Hours, Race, Eddie The Eagle, Sing Street, The Man who knew Infinity, Woodlawn, The Danish Girl, The Idol, Elvis & Nixon, Genius, Spotlight

Imaginative adaptations: Jumanji, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Adapting novels

A novel usually takes place inside the character’s head. A play deals with the language of dramatic action. A screenplay deals with externals, with details – the ticking of a clock, a child playing in an empty street, a car turning the corner. Up to 25% of all feature films have been literary adaptations.

After seeing the film version of a well-known novel, most of us have commented that the book was better, or different in some parts. Adapting a book into a screenplay means to change one (book) into another (screenplay), not to superimpose one onto the other.

A novel usually deals with the internal life of someone, the character’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, and memories occurring within the mindscape of dramatic action. In a novel, you can write the same scene in a sentence, a paragraph, a page, or a chapter, describing the internal dialogue, the thoughts, feelings, and impressions of the character. A novel usually takes place inside the character’s head.

The novelist conveys his narrative thought through the use of verbal language. The screenwriter conveys narrative thought through visual and verbal means.

Because the film is a visual medium and tells us much more than the novel possibly could about the physical nature of people, places and things, the filmmaker is more limited than the novelist in the images he presents but has much more control over how his audience receives such images.

Doctor Sleep

Directed and edited by Mike Flanagan from his own screenplay based upon the novel by Stephen King, Doctor Sleep continues the story of Danny Torrance, 40 years after his terrifying stay at the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. “I always tell people the difference between Stanley Kubrick’s movie and my book is his movie ended in ice and my book ended in fire,” says Stephen King. “But, by taking Dan Torrance’s story as a grown-up and filtering it through his own, apparently large heart, Mike has been able to take the Kubrick movie a step further, so that it warms things up. Mike’s film does two things. It is a fine adaptation of Doctor Sleep, but it is also a terrific sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s movie ‘The Shining.’ Mike has worked in a universe where some of the things that happened in ‘The Shining’ movie didn’t happen in my book…and has somehow been able to make it work.”

Adapting poetry and song lyrics

Poetry and song lyrics are defined as writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound and rhythm.

The meaning comes from the literal meaning of the words and what those words suggest by imagery and symbolism. That kind of imagery in the stage directions of a screenplay is useless in the film.

Imagery may help the director to understand the writer’s intention, but most directors pay little attention to the literary quality of the stage directions.

Imagery in dialogue will seem unreal and literary against the realistic background of the film.

The impact of language in poetry occurs through the rhythmic arrangement of the words. There is not much point, except to salve the writer’s ego, to put the dialogue in too distinctive a rhythm or to write the stage directions in a poetic rhythm.

The rhythmical narration has occasionally been used in the film, but its use is very formal. It seems contrived and artificial to modern audiences.

Watch the film The Man From Snowy River, which was based on a poem. Also, watch and listen to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, and read the T.S Elliot poems; as well as Chicago. Write a page or two on how the material was adapted.

Adapting magazine or newspaper articles

In screenwriting you go from the general to the specific, you find the story first, then collect facts. In journalism, you go from specific to general; you collect the facts first, then find the story.

Approach it from the screenwriter’s point of view.

Adapting prose

Prose is the ordinary language of speaking and writing and it appears in a variety of forms. The essay is a collection of ideas expressed in words.

The emphasis is on the facts, some of which can be shown on the screen, and abstract ideas, which generally is difficult to visualise.

Films are about objects – human and otherwise – and about their actions. It is not the best medium for abstract ideas.

Adapting short stories and non-fiction

These stories usually deal with some kind of activity on a limited scale. The activity and the characters, either fictional or real, can be shown on the screen, but the characters’ interior states of mind which can be expressed easily in stories, cannot be expressed directly on the screen.

Because of the short length of stories and articles, they may work adequately as short films, but may have to be developed and added to work as longer films.

Adapting stageplays

A play is told in words, and thoughts, feelings, and events are described in dialogue on a stage locked within the boundaries of the proscenium arch.

The action in the theatre is stylised. We accept the unreality of the action as a representation of reality. We know that events will occur on stage in a much shorter amount of time than in real life. Because of this stylisation of action, we will also accept a stylisation of language, either in the poetic forms of the Greek tragedies, Shakespeare, and Moliere or in the expressive prose of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.

A play deals with the language of dramatic action.

Award-winning French novelist, playwright and director Florian Zeller made his feature film directing debut with The Father, which he adapted for film from his celebrated stage play with British writer Christopher Hampton, his long-time collaborator and translator.

Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman in The Father

Adapting Musicals

Created by four undisputed geniuses, director and choreographer Jerome  Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and playwright Arthur Laurents, it is more than just a classic film and a historic, seminal Broadway production.

“In the theatre, West Side Story has been performed all over the world, from high schools to community theatres to Broadway revivals. Part of its power is its ability to be restaged and reimagined,” says Spielberg, who directs West Side Story from a screenplay by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner Tony Kushner, telling the classic tale of fierce rivalries and young love in 1957 New York City.

Pulitzer Prize, Grammy, Emmy and Tony Award-winning songwriter, actor and director Lin-Manuel Miranda is the creator and original star of Broadway’s Tony-winning “Hamilton”and “In the Heights. He invites you to In The Heights, a cinematic event, where the streets are made of music and little dreams become big, fusing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s kinetic music and lyrics with director Jon M. Chu’s lively and authentic eye for storytelling to capture a world very much of its place, but universal in its experience.

Director Jon Favreau, who utilized technology to tell the story of the live-action The Jungle Book in a contemporary and immersive way, has long admired Walt Disney’s pioneering spirit, and pushed the boundaries to take The Lion King to the big screen in a whole new way—employing an evolution of storytelling technology that blends live-action filmmaking techniques with photoreal computer-generated imagery. “It’s such a beloved property,” says Favreau, who directed the film from a screenplay crafted by Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me If You Can, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales), based on the 1994 screenplay by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton.

When Tom Hooper was approached by producer Debra Hayward about a film version of Cats in 2012, in London, where Hooper was in post-production on his film adaptation of the stage musical Les Misérables,  the possibility intrigued him. “I just thought what a shame it would be if I never did a musical again because I’d learned so much doing Les Mis,” Hooper says.

Adapting comic books

The form of writing that is closest to screenwriting. Comic strips and films combine action and dialogue. The comic strip writer must try to find the balance between the two.

Pictures in comic strips do not move, so we can spend as much time as we want reading the words and pictures. Films move, and they have to be clear enough both visually and aurally that we can understand them as they go past.

Directed, co-written and produced by Todd Phillips, Joker is the filmmaker’s original vision of the infamous DC villain, an origin story infused with, but distinctly outside, the character’s more traditional mythologies. Phillips directed Joker from a screenplay he co-wrote with Oscar-nominated writer Scott Silver (The Fighter), based on characters from DC.  Phillips’ exploration of Arthur Fleck, who is indelibly portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, is of a man struggling to find his way in Gotham’s fractured society.  Longing for any light to shine on him, he tries his hand as a stand-up comic, but finds the joke always seems to be on him.  Caught in a cyclical existence between apathy and cruelty and, ultimately, betrayal, Arthur makes one bad decision after another that brings about a chain reaction of escalating events in this gritty, allegorical character study.

Adapting a TV Series

Writer-director Elizabeth Banks takes the helm as the next generation of fearless Charlie’s Angels take flight, from a story by Evan Spiliotopoulos and David Auburn. It is the third installment in the Charlie’s Angels film series, which is a continuation of the story that began with the television series of the same title by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts and the theatrical films, Charlie’s Angels (2000) and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003).

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