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Adaptation: From Novel to Film

"Film is visual brevity.... If the novel is a poem, the film is a telegram."
-- Michael Hastings, screenwriter

In Reading the Movies, William Costanzo notes that it has been estimated that a third of all films ever made were adapted from novels. If you count other literary forms, such as drama or short stories, that estimate might well be 65 percent or more. Nearly all of the classic works students study in high school have been adapted for film, some several times in several different eras. But turning a novel into a screenplay is not just a matter of pulling dialogue from the pages of a book. In novels, we often come to know characters best not through what they say, but through what they are thinking or what is said about them in the narration. A narrator mediates the meaning of what we read through his or her point of view: a coming-of-age story reads much differently if we hear about what happens from the point of view of the person growing up than if we learn about it from that person's mother, sister, or teacher. But in film, the narrator largely disappears. Sometimes a narrator's perspective is kept through the use of a voice-over, but generally the director, cast, and crew must rely on the other tools of film to reproduce what was felt, thought, and described on the page. In the opening of A Death in the Family, for instance, James Agee devotes nearly six pages of description to how the little boy, Rufus, feels walking home with his father, enjoying the summer evening: grown up, trusted, loved, and safe. In the Masterpiece Theatre film, this becomes just a brief scene as the camera shows the two walking contentedly together, talking about the locusts they hear, and sharing a mint. Yet the same feelings are evoked, and the same information is given.

The major difference between books and film is that visual images stimulate our perceptions directly, while written words can do this indirectly. Reading the word chair requires a kind of mental "translation" that viewing a picture of a chair does not. Film is a more sensory experience than reading -- besides verbal language, there is also color, movement, and sound. Yet film is also limited: for one thing, there are no time constraints on a novel, while a film must generally compress events into two hours or so. For another, the meaning of a novel is controlled by only one person -- the author -- while the meaning we get from a film is the result of a collaborative effort by a large number of people. Film also does not allow us the same freedom a novel does -- to interact with the plot or characters by imagining them in our minds. For some viewers, this is often the most frustrating aspect of turning a novel into a film.

How faithful to the original written work should a film version strive to be? In Reading the Movies, Costanzo quotes George Bluestone, one of the first to study film adaptations of literature. Bluestone believes the filmmaker is an independent artist, "not a translator for an established author, but a new author in his own right." Thinkers like Bluestone agree that a literal translation of a book is often foolish -- even, some have said, a "betrayal" of the original work. Instead, the filmmaker has to refashion the spirit of the story with his or her own vision and tools.

There are three main reasons a filmmaker or screenwriter might make major changes in adapting a literary work to film. One is simply the change demanded by a new medium. For instance, film and literature each have their own tools for manipulating narrative structure. In a novel, a new chapter might take us back to a different time and place in the narrative; in a film, we might go back to that same time and place through the use of a flashback, a crosscut, or a dissolve. Thus, a close-up in Oliver Twist of the face of Oliver's dead mother dissolves into a close-up of her youthful face as we are pulled back into the time when she was a girl. For other works, the problems of translation might be even more difficult. Screenwriters working with the novels of Henry James, for instance, must take works that are often more about ideas than events and make them dramatic for the screen. Michael Hastings, screenwriter for Henry James's The American, had to make many difficult choices when adapting that work. As he notes in an interview, "Film is visual brevity.... If the novel is a poem, the film is a telegram."

Sometimes filmmakers make changes to highlight new themes, emphasize different traits in a character, or even try to solve problems they perceive in the original work. Allan Cubitt, who wrote the screenplay for Anna Karenina, says in an interview that he always felt Vronsky's suicide attempt was "undermotivated" and therefore tried to strengthen the character's sense of rejection and humiliation in the film version. Similarly, in Alan Bleasdale's version of Oliver Twist, five pages at the end of the original novel become the first two hours of the film. Because he wrote in monthly installments, Bleasdale says Dickens often found himself "painted into a corner" with dangling plot lines. Bleasdale was concerned that certain "incredible coincidences" at the end of the novel would be hard for contemporary audiences to believe. But then he realized that this problematic part of the novel was actually his solution: "By beginning with this material, the audience would understand the motivation of the characters throughout," Bleasdale says. The first two hours of the film now explain how Oliver came to be born, and why Fagin, Monks, and Mrs. Leeford act as they do: in this version, they're after his inheritance.

Some changes are inspired by a desire to make the original story interesting and applicable to a contemporary audience. The Masterpiece Theatre version of Othello bears almost no resemblance to the original in setting and language, yet it is a faithful translation of the characters and themes. In this version, Othello is a black police officer in contemporary London hounded by "Jago," his seeming friend; Desdemona's handkerchief, a key symbol in the play, is replaced with something today's viewers are much more likely to recognize as the token of a sexual liaison: a silk dressing gown. Similarly, the sedate opening scene of the novel The Hound of the Baskervilles in the office of Sherlock Holmes gives way in the film to the civilized setting of a courtroom and, next, the chaotic and frightening scenes of an escaped convict on the wild moors. In both the film and the book, the juxtaposition of the rational/scientific with the irrational/superstitious is a theme, but in the filmed version, it is much more immediate for contemporary viewers.

Students can use these activities to explore the process of adaptation and the issues surrounding it.
  1. How are film and literature alike? How are they different? Create a Venn diagram that lists as many similarities and differences between these media as you can. Think about the tools each uses to tell a story and to draw in its audience. Consider how each handles aspects of storytelling like point of view, narrative structure, and time frame. Consider also that a work of literature is created by just one person and a film is created by a team. What conclusions can you draw?

  2. What does it mean to be "faithful" to a work of literature -- to capture it literally or to capture its spirit? Often in films, screenwriters adapt the plots, change the endings, or shift the emphasis of the literature from which they are working. What do you think about that? What are the rights of the original author? Are there limits to how much something can or should be changed? What would Dickens think of the Masterpiece Theatre version of Oliver Twist in which the first two hours are nearly wholly invented? How might Thornton Wilder feel if the Stage Manager in Our Town were a woman or if a hip-hop version of the play were created today?

  3. With a partner, try your own adaptation exercise. Have each of you write a paragraph or two that describes some event, action, or situation (an argument, a car trip, a first date, a fight, etc.). Then switch paragraphs with your partner, and try storyboarding each other's description. As you storyboard, you may take some liberties with the written paragraphs to make them more cinematic, but try to be true to the spirit of the original idea.

  4. Open to a page from any classic novel. How much of the text is dialogue? How much is narration? If you were to cut the narration from the page, what would be lost? What does the narration show you about character, setting, and action that dialogue alone cannot? How would you replace it if you were filming this scene? (You can also reverse this process by taking a scene from a film and rewriting it as narrative description. What is lost? What is gained?) For example, if you are studying Anna Karenina, try transforming Levin's argument with himself about marriage into sound and image for a movie audience. See how the screenwriter did it here.

  5. What wonderful adaptations of books do you know of? Which adaptations can you think of that are terrible? Choose an adaptation of a literary work that you believe was not successful, and write an essay in which you analyze why.

  6. What written work would you love to adapt for the movies? It could be a children's book, nonfiction book or essay, novel, short story, or play. Write the "pitch" that you'd deliver to the Hollywood executives who will decide whether or not to "green light" your idea. Your pitch should be no longer than five minutes if you deliver it orally, or two written pages, and should provide as much detail as possible: Who will star in this film? How faithful will you be to the original text? Where will it be set? What will be some of the film's highlights? What will the opening sequence be? What music might be used on the soundtrack? You might choose to do this in small groups. Another group can act as the Hollywood executives who will decide which team has the most viable idea.

  7. As you read a work of literature that's more than fifty years old, make a list of the problems a filmmaker might encounter in bringing it to life for a contemporary audience. How could he or she solve them? Then watch the film version and make notes on how the filmmaker addressed the issues you listed. How successful is the result? For example, is it possible to take Henry James's cerebral 1877 novel The American and make it entertaining and accessible to an audience today? Make a list of how you might do this, then compare it with Michael Hastings's actual screenplay.

  8. In small groups, improvise a critical scene from a literary work you're studying, then watch how the director chose to bring it to life. What choices do you think he or she made that either enhanced or detracted from the text? For instance, a pivotal scene in Our Town is the one in which Emily revisits an "ordinary day" from the grave. How would you stage, direct, or act this scene? How does the filmed version compare to yours? Which do you prefer?

  9. Write, storyboard, act out, or film a "missing scene" from a written work or a film. This scene could be something that happens before, during, or after the action of the filmed or written story. It might flesh out a character you are curious about, a theme or motif already present in the work, or an event alluded to but not depicted. It might also be a sequel or a prequel to the story. For instance, The Road from Coorain, a memoir about Jill Ker Conway's childhood, provides a compelling portrait of her mother, Eve. You could create a "missing scene" that explains how her mother came to be the complicated person that she was, or one that shows some of the story's action from Eve's point of view.

  10. After reading a literary work and then viewing the film version of the same story, write, role-play, or film the dialogue you think might occur between the writer of the original work and the director or screenwriter of the adaptation -- or write the brutally honest letter the original author might write to the filmmakers. Or consider what happens when the screenwriter and the author of the original work are one and the same, such as with Esmeralda Santiago's memoir Almost a Woman. What compromises did she have to make for the screen?

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Exploring Screenwriting

What do screenwriters do when they adapt a literary work for the movies? First, help students become familiar with the content and format of a screenplay by reading several excerpts. Note that the screenplay is not only dialogue, but also instructions for the actors, set and lighting descriptions, etc. (You can find excerpts from screenplays on the Masterpiece Theatre Web site, as well as at

A key scene in Daniel Deronda is when Daniel meets his mother for the first time. Dying, she has summoned him to Italy, and he goes to finally learn the truth about his identity. An excerpt from the script and the novel is provided on the following page.

Have students use the Storyboard (pdf) to turn this into a scene of less than ten shots, paying particular attention to their choices for costumes, set, and lighting. Then have them compare their work with either the script or the actual scene from the film.

Daniel Deronda
Script by Andrew Davies

Int. Genoa hotel, Contessa's suite.
Daniel goes through and the servant closes the doors behind him.

The Contessa is standing by her throne-like chair as if she is indeed royalty, or indeed a deity. She is very beautiful, in her fifties, but clearly ill. She looks a little unearthly, a little scary. She holds out a hand to Daniel without a word. He comes forward and takes it, and on impulse, raises it to his lips.

The Contessa: Well -- you are a beautiful creature. I thought you would. Come here.

She kisses him on both cheeks, "like a greeting between royalties." Then stands back, looks at him searchingly.

Daniel Deronda
Novel by George Eliot

She was covered, except as to her face and part of her arms, with black lace hanging loosely from the summit of her whitening hair to the long train stretching from her tall figure. Her arms, naked from the elbow, except for some rich bracelets, were folded before her, and the fine poise of her head made it look handsomer than it really was. But Deronda felt no interval of observation before he was close in front of her, holding the hand she had put out and then raising it to his lips. She still kept her hand in his and looked at him examiningly; while his chief consciousness was that her eyes were piercing and her face so mobile that the next moment she might look like a different person. For even while she was examining him there was a play of the brow and nostril, which made a tacit language. Deronda dared no movement, not able to conceive what sort of manifestation her feeling demanded; but he felt himself changing colour like a girl, and yet wondering at his own lack of emotion: he had lived through so many ideal meetings with his mother, and they had seemed more real than this! He could not even conjecture in what language she would speak to him. He imagined it would not be English. Suddenly, she let fall his hand, and placed both hers on his shoulders, while her face gave out a flash of admiration in which every worn line disappeared and seemed to leave a restored youth.

"You are a beautiful creature!" she said, in a low melodious voice, with syllables which had what might be called a foreign but agreeable outline. "I knew you would be." Then she kissed him on each cheek, and he returned her kisses. But it was something like a greeting between royalties.

Film in the Classroom:
Film in the Classroom Home | About This Guide | Introduction
The Language of Film | Adaptation | Literary Elements | Wrap Up
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