Adapting Your Own Novel for the Screen 10 comments


Computer built out of a novel

My friend Ellen Meister, author of Farewell, Dorothy Parker, was asking today about how novelists can get started with adapting their own work.


My advice is three-fold:

1. First of all, in Ellen’s specific case, she’s already an accomplished novelist: she doesn’t need books to tell her about general writing basics, how to craft a plot, or how to develop a character. I suspect she’ll find most books for screenwriters redundant.

However, there’s one book I highly recommend to anyone new to screenwriting: The Screenwriter’s Bible, 6th Edition: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script (Expanded & Updated) by Dave Trottier. It will address any formatting or technical questions for you.

2. If you can write and you can format your screenplay, the most productive step for writers who are autodidacts and reverse engineers will probably be to read screenplays . For any writers looking to adapt your own books, I would recommend reading screenplays for successful films that were adapted from novels, so you can compare the source material and the resulting adaptation.

Two outstanding scripts to study for students of literary adaptations are:

3. There are also books specifically about writing adaptations. Out of the ones I’ve read, I recommend:

  • Filming Shakespeare’s Plays: The Adaptations of Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, Peter Brook and Akira Kurosawa by Anthony Davies; I confess I’m a Shakespeare buff so I particularly love this book, but Davies’ insights into the strengths and weaknesses of different Shakespeare adaptations is a masterclass into the art of adaptation in its own right;
  • Novels into Film by George Bluestone–it has been a while since I read this but when I was first looking at adaptations myself, it was the most frequent recommendation I received;
  • finally, in the Paris Review Interview The Art of Fiction No. 203, Ray Bradbury discusses writing the screenplay for John Huston’s 1956 adaptation of Moby-Dick–reading about the liberties he took with the source material made me feel far more confident about tackling adaptation projects.

Which screenwriting books would you recommend to a novelist new to screenwriting? Which adapted screenplays would you recommend studying? What are your favourite books specifically about writing adaptations? And if you have experience with adapting your own fiction to the screen, what advice do you have to share?


10 thoughts on “Adapting Your Own Novel for the Screen

  • Ellen Meister

    Thank you, Shaula! This was a great surprise to wake up to.

    I actually have The Screenwriter’s Bible. It was the one book I bought before I began, and it was immensely helpful. I’ll look into the others, too.

    Right now I’m on pins and needles waiting to hear back from someone reading the first draft, and wondering how much work I’ll have ahead of me. I should probably bone up on screenwriting in the meantime … to help with the rewrite AND the anxiety!

    • Shaula Evans Post author

      My pleasure, Ellen. Of course you’re on pins and needles: how exciting!

      Please keep me posted on how things develop with the script. I’m cheering for you.

      PS Thank you for being the first person to write a comment on the new site–what an auspicious start.

  • Lydia Mulvey

    Really great suggestions not just for novelists wanting to adapt their own work but also for any screenwriter wanting to learn the ins and outs of the craft. Dave Trottier is a mine of information.

    If people are reading scripts adapted from novels, I would also suggest the script for Children of Men. It’s a terrific read and shows how much you can play around with the story and still keep the essence of the writer’s original vision.

    • Shaula Evans Post author

      I fully expect to see you adapting your own work for the screen in due course, Ian. When you reach that point, you know where to find me. (Or I’ll just buy the rights and do it myself!)

  • Anne Bergman

    Hi Shaula!
    I will pass this article along to my husband, who has written a thriller and is still looking to get it published. Somewhere along his journey, several people have suggested that his book reads like a movie…

    Hope you are extra happy!

    • Shaula Evans Post author

      Anne, it’s so lovely to see you here. If V. wants to get into screenwriting, please let him know I’m in his corner. And congratulate him for me on writing a thriller, too!

      Life is rich and complex and challenging but I am good and always happy. Hope you and yours are doing well, too.

  • Chris

    Hello, Shaula.

    My first novel will come out next year, and I’m in the meantime studying textbooks on scriptwriting. My publisher insists on getting at least 20 percent from potentially selling movie rights (they originally wanted 40), so that clause will likely be in the contract. Now, how would you say I go about selling the rights to my novel in a way that would not minimize the chances of me also selling my script? Should I inform my publisher about my future script (probably completed around the time the book comes out)?

    I know writers of prose are not commonly very good at adapting their own work, but in this case I feel my ability to look at the source material as if it had been written by someone else might permit an exception.

    On another note, Trottier’s book is indeed quite useful. Linda Aronson’s “The 21st Century Screenplay” and Syd Field’s “Screenplay” are not entirely without merit either (although terribly repetitive).

    Thank you.

    • Shaula Evans

      Hi, Chris.

      First of all, congratulations on publishing your first novel! I hope that your launch next year goes well.

      > Now, how would you say I go about selling the rights to my novel in a way that would not minimize the chances of me also selling my script? Should I inform my publisher about my future script (probably completed around the time the book comes out)?

      If you’re interested in writing your own adaptation, check out how Gillian Flynn adapted her novel “Gone Girl” to the screen.

      As for how to word your contract and what to tell whom, these are questions for your lawyer and agent.

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