From Page To Screen – Time Well Spent
Whilst it is a given that writing novels and writing screenplays are two very different disciplines – which is why, with a few notable exceptions, writers are seldom equally successful in both fields – the conception and delivery of a setting, a plot and characters are common to both and fired by the same instincts and powers of creativity. In reality, the common factors between the two areas far outweigh the differences. Yet, due to the very specific demands of each, they are two distinctly different art forms.
So, is it also a given that most authors should resign themselves to handing over the ‘child’ of their painstaking creation to a screenwriter, and the majority of screenwriters should abandon all hope of ever creating a novel? In my opinion, to borrow a famous lyric, “It ain’t necessarily so”.
Every author I know sees a picture in their mind as they are writing. It is akin to having your own personal cinema screen in your head. Likewise, anyone writing a screenplay sees every shot in their mind as they create each scene. So the starting point for both is the same place. The divergence begins immediately, however, because the author of a novel is master of his/her universe and can follow every flight of fancy and any path he/she wishes. The screenwriter cannot write a single word without first considering that he/she is entering upon a totally collaborative art form that cannot, and will not, exist without the exigencies and restrictions that arise from that collaboration and to which every scene is subjected. But those very constraints can provide benefits to an author.
If there is one essential for any author wishing to write a screenplay for television or film, it is that one must understand the process by which film and television drama is created. It is often equated with the organisation and command of a vast army, and the analogy is not inaccurate. I was fortunate in that I came to writing novels relatively late in my career, having spent my working life as an actor, so I was fully aware of how a screenplay is brought to life, but I think most people are generally acquainted with the process and it requires only a little research and application to gain a serviceable knowledge of the wide demands involved and that must be catered for in a screenplay.
Some aspects are purely practical and financial. For instance, I have recently completed a television drama script based upon a novel of mine that is set in 1935. Period drama is immediately greeted with alarm by accountants because there is an instant extra cost. You can shoot a modern day drama in a modern day street and there are few problems. Place a street scene in 1935 and you are immediately beset with major difficulties. The houses/buildings must be correct, the street ‘furniture’ (street lamps, signage, road markings, traffic lights etc.) must be right, no parking meters or yellow lines can be visible, all passing traffic must be period vehicles etc. etc. But a writer can also ease this process and keep down the budget. There are several scenes in this particular novel that take place in and around the Savoy Hotel in London. The Savoy is a highly recognisable building and it would cost a small fortune to try and clear the Strand and organise a shoot – so, unless the Savoy is intrinsic to the plot itself (and, in this case, it can function just as well being a different hotel), the Savoy must be changed for an alternative – and it was. The same logic applies to all locations within the novel. The screenwriter has to think constantly as to how any location can be simplified from the production design point of view.
Where a building is intrinsic to the story, there are certain ‘cheat’ options available. Shots are the province of the director of course – but a narrow establishing shot of the top of a building, panning down to a front entrance, enables you to recognise it without worrying about what’s on either side. Then a quick cut to an interior solves the problem and means you haven’t spent time and money on transforming the outside street. All producers prefer to read that in the scene set-up, rather than a wide-shot encompassing a whole road.
The main consideration in turning any book into a screenplay is of course length. A novel of several hundred pages must be reduced to a two hour film – but that is less daunting than it sounds when you consider that a novel must depict the sight, the sound, the smell, the atmosphere of a place and describe who is present, what they look like, and what their attitudes are. All of that can be conveyed in a single cinematic shot.
The prime need in constructing a screenplay from a book is to start by reducing the novel to its ‘essential elements’. One can write a shorthand list of what actually transpires in terms of action within so many chapters. Then decide what necessary information is conveyed and what happens to each character. Anything that keeps the plot moving forward is retained and anything that does not move the plot forward is cut. This is hard for any author who has spent hours creating prose to which he/she is dearly attached – but ruthlessness is required.
The other essential is constantly to reduce dialogue. With one look, lasting only a few frames, an actor can convey thoughts and emotions that took numerous paragraphs of painstaking writing to express on the page of a novel. Keep re-reading every draft of a screenplay and cut every possible word you can. The results are worth the sacrifice.
A great example is to consider ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’. A brilliant novel by the great John le Carré, a wonderful 315 minute TV series by Arthur Hopcraft, and a terrific 120 minute film by Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor. All very different, and all different lengths, but each successful. And each also retaining all the essential elements of the story despite the differences in length and available time. Living proof of the art of reduction.
In a short article such as this, one can only touch the surface of this wide topic. But I would recommend all authors of novels to leave their comfort zone and try their hand at adapting their work for the screen – regardless of whether it ever leads to a film or television drama actually being shot. The process itself imposes disciplines that, once mastered, help with economy of writing and tightness of plot and structure that then aid the creation of novels. It’s well worth a try!