14. How to approach an adaptation
A question that I’m often asked is, “How do you write an adaptation?”
Unfortunately, there isn’t an exact answer to this question, nor a ‘paint by numbers’ method, since a writer’s job is to embark upon each new project and create something fresh and unique.
But after over twenty years in the business, many of which have been spent adapting book properties for both TV and film, I do have some tips that I hope will help you approach this challenging but hugely creative and exciting task.
The first one is, never assume you can simply take a story from a book and transfer it directly onto the screen. You can’t. And if you do approach an adaptation in this way, chances are you will fail. A book is filled with details, textures, subtleties and characters’ inner thoughts, while film is a journey told through action.
Your job as a writer is to capture the heart and soul of a story, to be true to the characters and the essence of the journey, and to bring it to new life. Oftentimes, this requires you to make changes or to fill in the gaps that may be missing in a book. You may need to add a subplot or strengthen a through line. You may need to lose some characters and even create some new ones. And sometimes, when a story is really ‘thin’ (and trust me I’ve had my fair share of these projects), you may even be required to create the entire story.
But this is where the exciting challenge lies, for why should a TV series or film be an exact replica of a book? After all, the book already exists. Why retell a story in the exact same way as it’s already been told?
Of course, an adaptation must capture the heart and soul of the original story. It must honour and be true to the author’s vision. But your job as a script-writer is to make the story work for film, and giving yourself permission to make the necessary changes and approach the story in a new way, will lead to a stronger and more successful adaptation.
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