Friday, May 22, 2009

Books to Film: Is there a formula?

As an author who is also a filmmaker, I have gone through the full process of completing and releasing projects in both mediums. This has given me a very good perspective regarding the mental approach necessary for developing both novels and films. These experiences have also brought me a deep appreciation for the great differences with the writing and structural foundations of each of these mediums.

When it comes to the issue of film, I have definite opinions as to whether an author should do anything differently in developing a book with the hopes of making it a future target for a film project. It is only my personal perspective, and other writers may see this matter differently, but my absolute response is to fully develop the book, first and foremost. Once you have the best novel that you can write, that is when you should start thinking of ways that it could be adapted for film.

Of course, there are always some obvious over-arching issues regarding a particular book and its future film potential. If one is writing a sweeping epic, with massive battle scenes and scenic landscapes, it is a pretty safe bet that any possible film version will have to be a big budget Hollywood project. On the other hand, if the story is a little more intimate, involves a smaller number of characters, and does not entail overly exotic locations or period-piece demands, an independent film version could be possible. If a film can be made within a lower budget, independent context, it certainly broadens the possibility of a film option being secured, or a film actually getting made.

Those very basic, broad issues are about as much consideration as I would ever risk when looking towards writing a book with an interest towards making it a film in the future.

The flow and structuring of a movie are very different from that of a book, which is precisely why some things that work very well in books do not translate to movies, and vice versa.

A well-known example of this in the fantasy genre is the Tom Bombadil encounter in the Lord of the Rings novels, by J.R.R. Tolkien. The character is very beloved by fantasy readers, but in translating the trilogy to cinema, this segment would not have fit in well with the pacing of a movie.

A lot of readers were disappointed with the absence of Tom Bombadil, but being a film writer and director, I do understand exactly why Peter Jackson omitted this sequence (as well as the Sharky sequence at the end of Return of the King). The inclusion of the hobbits encounter with Tom Bombadil would have really slowed down the cinematic pace, if not taking things entirely off path. Peter Jackson needed to move the central story about the One Ring itself along, and made the proper decision for the particular medium.

Always keep in mind that a screenplay is, more or less, a blueprint. Where an author thoroughly paints images with words in a novel, often employing great detail, keeping detail fairly limited in describing scenes in a screenplay is the norm. Only the most important elements are included in a script, and any descriptions of general environments and atmosphere are kept very brief.

The screenplay’s final form gets significantly affected by many other individuals by the time that actual shooting of the movie takes place. The director, production designers, cinematographers, and even actors and actresses have a profound impact on the actual shooting script (what is
actually used for the physical production of the particular scene). Revisions to scripts take place constantly on a Hollywood set to meet the new adjustments, suggestions, ideas, and other input factors. Revisions are even being made on the very day that a particular scene is being shot.

Furthermore, with adaptations of novels, less than 10% of a novel even makes it to the finished screenplay (6-8% probably being a more general norm). This means that over 90% of a novel’s content is not going to be translated to the screenplay for eventual production. I believe that trying to develop the novel into something attractive for film becomes very problematic in this aspect, as it would be highly difficult for a writer to foresee what exactly would fall into the 90% or more that ends up being omitted, and what is retained. This does not even take into account the alterations and changes that occur during the production process, which result in the things that the reader watching a movie version notices were not in the original book.

This is not to dishearten an author regarding the possibility of an adaptation. Keep in mind that all manner of styles can be adapted over to film and television. George R.R. Martin’s writing style utilizing multiple character threads in his popular “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels is very different from the literary style employed by Terry Goodkind in his “Sword of Truth” novels. Yet Terry Goodkind’s work was adapted for the “Legend of the Seeker” television series, while Martin’s is currently being developed for an HBO series.

The rules of the movie game are pretty simple. Commercial potential breeds Hollywood interest, bottom line. If studio believes that it can a film version of a novel can sell, believe me, they will find a way to adapt it. A popular novel immediately becomes a viable target of interest for the film world. The movie world, like major publishers, are motivated by what sells. In a world where writers are artists, this is a cold reality, but it is a reality nonetheless.

So what is my advice at the end of the day?

Write the best novel that you possibly can. Focus all your efforts on the novel, without convoluting your effort by worrying about whether it might make a good film or not. Only then, and not a moment before, begin to look at ways to effectively adapt your book properly for the medium of film.

If you simply have a great movie idea, then just write the screenplay. You can always write a novelization of the movie later!

Stephen Zimmer is an author and independent filmmaker living in Lexington, Kentucky. His debut novel, The Exodus Gate (Seventh Star Press, available in trade paperback, eBook, and Kindle editions), is the first of a projected 5 book modern fantasy series called The Rising Dawn Saga. The first book in his epic medieval-fantasy series is projected for fall release. Stephen’s filmmaking endeavors include the modern fantasy/supernatural Thriller “Shadows Light”, and the horror short film “The Sirens”, which is on volume 1 of the Festival of Horrors Series by
Indie Movie Masters.

Seventh Star Press
Stephen Zimmer's website
Stephen's Myspace page


Sheila Deeth said...

Interesting article. When I first got serious about writing stuff people would read (friends in high school were the people I was aiming for then) I found myself imagining what I wrote as a film, so I could move with the camera and see how it looked. Not that I was interested in making movies (still trying to make books) but I think it helped me write better.

Marta Stephens said...

Hi Stephen. Thanks for joining us on MB4. When my first novel was released, a screenwriter read it, like it, and said he'd have to cut it down to 120 pages. Since I had labored for a couple of years on it and it had just been released, the thought of scrapping over half the book was to ... distressing. But after having read his explanation of what goes into the film process, I understand why we’re usually disappointed with the Hollywood version of the book.

Kim Smith said...

Hey Stephen,

Glad to have you with us today. I am so fascinated with the process of indie filmmaking, AND writing, I can totally see the movie playing in my head as I write!

Aaron Paul Lazar said...


Fascinating glimpse into the process behind the scenes, so to speak. ;o) I wonder if all writers imagine their works as movies? I've done so from the start, of course including my favorite actors in the scenes as well.

Thanks so much for blogging with us. We'd love to have you come back another time, Stephen. Perhaps you could share with us the mechanical details surrounding scriptwriting? Always wanted to try my hand at it, but never actually saw a "real" script to use as an example. Take care and best of luck with your books and movies!

sgzimmer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sgzimmer said...

Hello everyone,

Memorial Day weekend sluggishness! Sorry for being a day or so behind on replying on comments! LOL (and I didn't get my reply totally right the first attempt, so I had to delete and repost already! haha)

Sheila: I can definitely see what you are getting at, as writer's "see" the scenes in their stories playing out. Visualization certainly helps the writing process, I believe, though the structures of book and film are very different creatures.

Marta: The whittling down of a novel into a film adaptation is quite brutal! It definitely is the reason why book lovers are so often disappointed with film versions. So little of the content actually makes it through. It is just the nature of the beast when you have a several hundred page work getting converted to something that is most often less than 2 hours of content.

Kim: I see and hear my scenes in my head when I write, but it is so frustrating sometimes writing a screenplay as I have to restrain myself from the temptation to "flesh out" descriptions and such. Coming from working on novels, it is very easy to inject far too much detail into a screenplay attempt.

Aaron: I am really glad to be here and would love to contribute again in the future. Just email me and let me know (stephen at ) I think a great majority of writers tend to give a few moments of thought to their work as films since we live in such a visual age.

In my opinion, be somewhat careful of slipping too much into a movie-mindset when working on the novel side of things. As the structures of each are different, a different set of techniques and approaches apply to each medium, and there are risks in trying to make a book play out like a film or vice-versa.

s.w. vaughn said...

Fascinating! No wonder so many novelists are disappointed at the translations of their books to films. :-) But this does make sense - they are completely different mediums.

I've seen very few novel-to-film adaptions that stay more or less true to the book. One is Stephen King's "Green Mile" - there's actually a good amount of dialogue in that movie lifted straight from the book, and it works. But the film did leave out almost all of the "other" story (older Paul's struggles in the nursing home), which was good for the movie.