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Shrinkage: Fitting a Novel Into a Screenplay

Disappointed with one of the Harry Potter movies, a friend of mine asked me why so much material is left out from the books when they’re turned into movies. I aksed him how long the movie was, and he told me 2 hours plus. My response to him was to imagine how long that movie would have been if they had recreated everything from the book into the movie, and he immediately understood.

The prose in a novel is supposed to be descriptive and meticulous. The writing in a screenplay needs to get to the friggin’ point.

Most writers know that the rule in screenwriting is that one page of script equals one minute of screen time. That means that a two-hour movie would require a screenplay of 120 pages. So how do writers take a novel like one of the Harry Potter books, which could be 600 to more than 700 pages of fully written, descriptive prose, and trim it down to 120 or 160 pages in screenplay format?

Well, they have to take material out. And they have to take out a lot. For a book like Harry Potter, or any other book for that matter, the writer has to work with the director and the producer and make creative choices about what aspects of the story have to remain in the script, and what elements can be taken out or changed without adversely affecting the story.

Some adaptations are more effective than others.

I remember seeing Clear and Present Danger in the theater after reading the book, and the thought that came to mind was, “That movie had the same title of a book I once read.” Aside from some of the major story points, there were enough story changes from book to screen to make it feel like a completely different story. But those were the creative choices those filmmakers made, feeling that they could tell a more effective story and/or create an environment for more success at the box office.

If you want to work as a professional writer, you’re going to get hired to adapt a novel at some point.

When this happens, you need to remember your basic screenwriting principals. A novel is written in chapters, and doesn’t have to adhere to the same structural rules that a screenplay does. However, all stories contain some sort of story arc that can fit into screenplay structure. Think about when the main character’s adventure begins. Think about the point in the middle where the stakes are raised, and think about the moment where the main character seems to lose everything before moving on to the climax of the story.

With that structure in mind, you can pick and choose other moments in the story that help write the story in a cinematic way. But also remember that choosing what to leave out is just as important as what you choose to leave in.

Having difficulty figuring that out? My coverage service handles books as well as screenplays. I can read the book and help determine the best way to handle an adaptation. If you’ve already written the adaptation, my service can look at it and help determine how cinematic it is, as well as the overall quality of the writing.

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