7 lessons from books made into movie adaptations

Hi friends and authors,  a reviewer of my novel said it would make a great film. I was flattered, but being a first book, I didn’t take it seriously. Like everything, these things get filed until we are given a reminder. Today it came from Bridget at NowNovel. Makes interesting reading. I hope you enjoy the tips, just in case you believe you have written a movie… 

good luck, Glennis

7 lessons from books made into movie adaptations. books made into movie adaptations – lessons

Many authors who have had books made into movie adaptations have become multi-millionaires almost overnight. Why are some books primed for screen adaptation from the start? They share in common strong high concepts, great structure, visual flair and more. Read 7 lessons from books adapted for screen that will help you make your novel blockbuster material:

1. Brainstorm a strong central idea or high concept

2. Work at your story’s structure for good plot

3. Make your fictional world visual and vivid

4. Tap into universal story themes

5. Make your prose lean and effective

6. Write dialogue that gets books made into movies

7. Think for the silver screen: Show more than tell

Let’s explore each of these tips with examples from books adapted for film:

1. Brainstorm a strong central idea or high concept

Movie-ready books have good central ideas and high concepts. A ‘high concept’ in film and television means a striking, easily communicated idea or premise. Even though adapting Harry Potter for film made financial sense (given its massive audience), Rowling’s central idea for the first novel is already cinematic:

Harry Potter has never even heard of Hogwarts when the letters start dropping on the doormat at number four, Privet Drive. Addressed in green ink on yellowish parchment with a purple seal, they are swiftly confiscated by his grisly aunt and uncle. Then, on Harry’s eleventh birthday, a great beetle-eyed giant of a man called Rubeus Hagrid bursts in with some astonishing news: Harry Potter is a wizard, and he has a place at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. An incredible adventure is about to begin!’ (via Bloomsbury)

Let’s examine the components of what makes this a movie-ready high concept:

There’s a hook or inciting event.The first sentence tells a crucial, curiosity-inducing event – mysterious letters arriving – that sets the story in motion.

We see a central character’s starting point and are promised exciting change. From the starting point of Harry’s life at 4 Privet Drive, we know an ‘incredible adventure’ will happen and have hints for why it will be exciting (Harry discovers he’s a wizard).

We learn the initial settings (and are promised a progression from ordinary to extraordinary setting).We know the story will take us from the ordinary suburban setting of ‘Privet Drive’ to ‘Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry’.

There are small secondary character introductions. Not only do we know something about Harry (he finds out he’s a wizard on his 11th birthday) but we also learn of his ‘grisly’ aunt and uncle and the ‘beetle-eyed giant of a man’, Hagrid.

The central idea easily communicates just enough details of setting, character, and change to get us intrigued. Make sure your own central idea also gives a general, beguiling glimpse into your story.

2. Work at your story’s structure for good plot

Books made into movie adaptations are typically well paced and structured. They grip readers’ attention and pull them into their worlds, leaving screenwriters less work to do when adapting.

Let’s start with a list of books made into movies more than once:

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (15 adaptations)

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (11 adaptations including miniseries)

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (23 film, 13 TV)

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (22 for film and TV, including Italian, Japanese and Bollywood adaptations)

Each of the books in the list above is well-structured. Anna Karenina is divided into eight parts, already a satisfying division for a miniseries adaptation

Part 1 sets up the main intrigues of the epic saga. The title character’s brother, Stiva, has cheated on his wife and the family is in turmoil, just when Anna visits Moscow. At the same time, Stiva’s old friend Kostantin Levin (‘Kostya’) is arriving to propose to Stiva’s wife’s youngest sister, Kitty. Kitty in turn is being pursued by a handsome young count, Vronksy.

If you summarized part 1 in a word, it would be ‘arrivals’. Tolstoy uses part 1 to establish the criss-crossing desires of the characters living or arriving in Moscow and sets his characters (with their different objectives) on a collision course.

This creates multiples situations of suspense and curiosity from the outset. By the end of part 1, we have an idea of multiple characters’ goals as well as competition between them (such as Kostya and Vronksy’s competition for Kitty’s affections).

Set up your story’s opening so it draws readers into your characters’ arcs from the outset. A strong hook and structured plot prime a story for screen adaptation.

3. Make your fictional world visual and vivid

What do novels adapted for film and TV such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings cycle and George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series have in common? Besides genre (in this instance) and gripping plot, both offer readers rich, finely mapped and imagined worlds. Worlds of vivid imagery and striking contrasts. Consider the contrast betwen Tolkien’s description of The Shire (the Hobbits’ peaceful homeland), and the dangerous Mordor:

Frodo’s uncle Bilbo describing the Shire:

‘I want to see the wild country again before I die, and the Mountains; but [Frodo] is still in love with the Shire, with woods and fields and little rivers.’

Elsewhere, Tolkien also describes the Shire’s landscape and mood:

‘The Shire had seldom seen so fair a summer, or so rich an autumn: the trees were laden with apples, honey was dripping in the combs, and the corn was tall and full.’

Compare to Tolkien’s description of Frodo first laying eyes upon Sauron’s fortress in Mordor:

‘Darkness lay there under the Sun. Fire glowed amid the smoke. Mount Doom was burning, and a great reek rising. Then at last his gaze was held: wall upon wall, battlement upon battlement, black, immeasurably strong, mountain of iron, gate of steel, tower of adamant, he saw it: Barad-dûr, Fortress of Sauron. All hope left him.’

Compare the apple-laden trees of the shire to the ‘great reek’ and the ‘wall upon wall’ of Mordor’s hope-destroying ‘mountain of iron’. Vivid descriptions such as these make writing visual and immersive. They thus give visual screenplay authors plenty to work with.

4. Tap into universal story themes

Like the best novels, great screenplays connect with diverse audiences because they evoke universal story themes we can relate to. Common universal themes include:

Strength in adversity

The power (or danger) of love

The perils of (insert negative character attribute here, e.g. pride, jealousy, infidelity)

Ordinary heroism

The importance of friendship

Strength in adversity stories like Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (adapted by Ang Li) give us a David vs Goliath story. We cheer on the small protagonist who faces vast odds. The David of the story is a skinny castaway who must survive against the book’s Goliaths – the Pacific Ocean and the Tiger he’s marooned with on a boat.

This universal theme is a favourite in film adaptations because viewers and readers alike enjoy the suspense, the tension and release, when underdogs face incredible odds.

When you’re brainstorming the central idea for a book, think about the themes you could explore. If we look at the central idea given in the Harry Potter synopsis above, we see universal themes. ‘Ordinary heroism’ is the most obvious, since an eleven-year-old finds out he is actually a wizard who (it emerges) must fulfill a crucial yet dangerous role.

Although the themes of your story might only occur to you when your first draft is finished, keeping ‘theme’ in mind as a concept when you start will remind you to develop your themes and broader ideas.

5. Make your prose lean and effective

If we examine the prose of books made into movies, we see it’s often lean and gets to the point fast. Stephen King’s The Shining, for example (famously adapted by director Stanley Kubrick) cuts straight to dialogue, as Jack is offered the position of winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel:

‘Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.

Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men. The part in his hair was exact, and his dark suit was sober but comforting.’

This opening is gold for filmmakers. The opening lines are rich with description. They’d give all parties from actors (the speed of Ullman’s movements) to hair and make-up (‘the part in his hair was exact’) and wardrobe (‘his dark suit was sober but comforting’) details to work with. We get everything we need to picture the scene. Aim for this level of efficiency and cut away inessential guff.

In a screenplay, the screenwriter has to make many decisions for what to cut and what to keep (many weren’t happy with Kubrick’s choices for The Shining). Aim for precise prose that would make a screenwriter’s task easy.

6. Write dialogue that gets books made into movies

In film, a voice-over (except in more experimental movies) doesn’t tell viewers what characters think, feel or want constantly. We see these elements through action, expression, and dialogue in particular.

As we’ve said before, great dialogue (in books and film):

Sounds like real speech when read aloud – slang, interruptions, and all

Communicates important details about characters: Their personalities, goals and desires

Gives each character their own voice

Consider this extract of dialogue from Tennessee Williams’ famous play, A Streetcar Named Desire. Blanche DuBois has come to visit her married sister, Stella Kowalski, in New Orleans:

Blanche: No coke, honey, not with my nerves tonight! Where- where- where is – ?

Stella: Stanley [Stella’s husband]? Bowling! He loves it. They’re having a – found some soda! – tournament …

Blanche: Just water, baby, to chase it! Now don’t get worried, your sister hasn’t turned into a drunkard, she’s just all shaken up and hot and tired and dirty! You sit down, now, and explain this place to me! What are you doing in a place like this?

Stella: Now, Blanche –

Blanche: Oh, I’m not going to be hypocritical, I’m going to be honestly critical about it! Never, never, never in my worst dreams could I picture- Only Poe! Only Mr. Edgar Allan Poe! – could do it justice! Out there I suppose is the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir! [She laughs.]

The dialogue is effective. We see Blanche’s ‘Southern belle’ persona, as she calls Stella ‘honey’ and ‘baby’. Stella’s speech, by contrast, is more plain. We also see Blanche’s personality as she criticizes Stella’s home. Blanche lacks tact and self-awareness. The dialogue characterizes each sister precisely.

A play condenses characters’ movements, actions and speech into a few acts. This is why reading play scripts can also help you to create fully-realized characters.

What helps books get made into movies

7. Think for the silver screen: Show more than tell

Many aspiring authors are sick of hearing the words ‘show, don’t tell.’ It’s true, as we’ve discussed elsewhere, that sometimes telling is necessary.

Good balance between showing and telling makes books readier for the screen. Compare these two examples:

‘Entering the house, she smelt something awful. She felt fear but kept walking to the end of the corridor. The door at the end, on the left, was stiff and she was hesitant to push it open. When she did, she couldn’t believe what she saw.’

This is telling. If we show a little more:

‘The stench in the house was repugnant, of rot and decay. Pinching her nose closed she crept down the corridor, stopping to listen every few feet. Dimly, a door on the left was just visible. Pushing it, she found it stiff. She paused, pushed harder, but leaped backwards when she saw what lay beyond.’

The second example is stronger. We see rather than hear about the character. Actions (creeping, leaping) are also stronger, contributing to mood.

See how Emily Brontë shows her characters’ gestures clearly in Wuthering Heights: It already has a cinematic quality:

‘‘You see, sir, I am come, according to promise!’ I exclaimed, assuming the cheerful; ‘and I fear I shall be weather-bound for half an hour, if you can afford me shelter during that space.’

‘Half an hour?’ he said, shaking the white flakes from his clothes; ‘I wonder you should select the thick of a snow-storm to ramble about in.’

The narrator Lockwood has been walking in the snow but the snowstorm worsens and he attempts to take shelter at the character Heathcliff’s cottage on the moors. The description ‘shaking the white flakes from his clothes’, woven naturally into the dialogue, shows an element of setting, blending dialogue and scene setting together.

This type of showing creates a vivid world, giving the sort of detail that a screenwriter could include for unity of setting, dialogue and action.

Join Now Novel to brainstorm a strong, film-worthy central idea, and get helpful feedback from your online community.

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