I’ve read many wonderful, original stories over the years that I thought would make great movies, while Hollywood continues to churn out remakes and formulaic ‘me-too’ dross. I always wondered why.
Now I understand at least part of the reason – movie adaptations of novels are hard. There are other reasons relating to the economics of the movie industry that are important too, but let me repeat: movie adaptations of novels are hard. Really hard.
While I’m waiting for the editors to be done with their work on Harry Seven, I decided to read up on the fundamentals of writing screenplays for feature films and then apply and test what I’d learned by adapting my own novel.
I’d always thought it would be fun to try writing a screenplay, and it was (though I ought to have known better – listening to the little voice in my head saying “it might be fun to write a novel” has changed my life over the past five years.)
I expected to do some work in translating all the internal monologue into visuals and dialogue, and that didn’t prove too hard. In some ways, the ability to rely on the actors to convey emotion, and visual settings to create atmosphere was quite freeing. There’s only so many ways to describe facial expressions without feeling like you’re repeating yourself.
What I soon discovered though is that an average length novel (Harry Seven is 91,000 words or about 350 pages) will be about two to two and a half times as long as it needs to be when translated directly into a script.
(As an aside, an average screenplay is 100 to 110 pages when formatted correctly giving a rule of thumb of one page = one minute of running time. BTW – violate the screenplay formatting rules and no one in the industry will even pick up your script, let alone read it.)
What I had to do was cut the story down dramatically by eliminating many secondary characters and most of the sub-plots, so that the focus was almost exclusively on the main characters (in this case Harrison and Alicia) and their core desires.
Movies also follow a much more predictable structure (especially if you’re targeting the mass market), so even the main plot had to be simplified and reorganized. For example, some of the twists that take time to build in the novel have to be revealed much earlier in the piece to fit the standard pattern. I found that challenging at first, but I think it’s actually given me a better handle on structuring a story for any format, so much so that I’m actually considering for my next novel writing the screenplay first.