Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Adapting a Novel to the Screen - Part 1

Page 1, The Mighty T Screenplay

While waiting for feedback from some excellent readers who are reading SUNSET HILL, I decided to try my hand at adapting one of my novels to film; i.e., write a screenplay. I thought, I've written four novels, how hard could it be to write a screenplay for one?

Little did I know...

Screenplays and novels are not alike in the least. Novels can be 350 pages of prose while a screenplay should come in at about 100 pages. And no prose. They must consist of mostly action and dialogue with very little description. If a character must be described, it should be no longer than one sentence.

Peter Stone was the screenwriter for the original The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 (1976) (Stone passed away on 2003.) He's an Oscar, Tony, and Emmy winning writer. He talked about the differences between writing a screenplay and a novel in the commentary feature on the Charade DVD.
“When I couldn’t sell the original screenplay (for Charade) I was advised by my wife, and my agent concurred, to turn it into a novel. I had never written a novel and it was in the course of writing the novel that I came to realized that I had no ability for writing novels at all. It’s a different set of muscles. There are very, very few people who can write dramatic material and narrative prose. Very few. Chekhov could do it. There are some today who can do it. Richard Price can do it. Crichton. They just call on a different set of muscles. One is descriptive and uses language in a way that dramatic material does not.
Dramatic material—everything has to be revealed through behavior, that’s all you have to reveal it with. And description plays such a small part in it. It’s just a different set of muscles at work and I don’t have them, or I never developed them, or I wasn’t interested in them or something. But I sure discovered it immediately. So it was a rotten novel.” (Emphasis added.)
"A different set of muscles." That's exactly what it feels like to me.

I've decided to adapt The Mighty T for film.

I Googled screenwriting, found a bunch of good information, and talked to a writer I met on Twitter, Katherine Bennet, who is a screenwriter. Alright. Ready to write that screenplay. After I reread the book. It'd been a while.

When I stopped to come up for air, I was 45 pages in. Unfortunately, I was on page 37 of the novel. Yeah, that won't cut it. At that pace I'd end up with a 500 page screenplay, enough for five movies.

Back to the drawing board.

Katherine strongly suggested using Chris Soth's Mini Movie Method: Organize the screenplay into eight "mini movies," each 12-15 pages long. It is supposedly the format Hollywood is looking for in a screenplay. I just couldn't wrap my brain around that format, though. Not for The Mighty T, at least. And, I'm very impressed by the movies coming out of Hollywood these days. Most are terrible.

So, instead, I decided to use the three acts format, with act 2 broken into two parts. I've organized the novel thusly:

Act I - the killing of the utility GMs
Act II, Part 1 - blowing up the Jones Pumping Plant
Act II, Part 2 - blowing up the O'Shaughnessy Dam
Act III - the attack on the Don Pedro Dam

Each act gets about 25 pages. 

The task then becomes, what to cut from the novel? Obviously, much has to be cut. In fact, most of the novel has to be cut. And that hasn't been easy. I've had to cut scenes I really like. It's been a little like having a family of 50 but only being able to take 10 with you on vacation. 

I'm currently into Act II, Part 2, with 54 pages written. (According to Scrivener's page count.) I'm writing the draft for screenplay in Scrivener, because I love it and already own it, but will have to get a dedicated piece of software for the finished product.


I'll post more on the process.