Book-to-Movie: How To Successfully Adapt Novels into Screenplays

“Boil down the story to its very essence and think how it can be reborn in the new form.”

Today, we sat down with International Film Institute of New York‘s friend, screenwriter and producer Frederic Richter to learn more about adapting novels into screenplays. We wanted to know how to approach this task, what tips Frederic has for our community of filmmakers, and what his favorites are in this category of film. Read on for details from our conversation.

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What’s the first step to adapting a novel or play for a screenplay?

Read it. Read it again. Take notes and internalize the story and narrative. Put it aside for a little time, think about how it would best work as a film or television show structurally and story wise. What would have to be changed to work in that format, and what can be kept? Boil down the story to its very essence and think how it can be reborn in the new form. Even authors of books themselves realize this, as illustrated by interview with the author/ screenwriters of “Room” (2015) and “Gone Girl” (2014), writers who adapted their own work. Sometimes the most successful adaptations are not entirely faithful to the book or work as it is written, but are very successful to the essence of the story. Look at “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008), which could easily be considered to be more successful and meaningful than the original, very short and arguably under developed, short story. It is also depends on the original work itself. For instance, a writer like Cormac McCarthy is likely less difficult to adapt than an interior and dense writer like Thomas Pynchon.

 

Would you recommend having a relationship with the original author? What are the benefits and drawbacks?

That’s really a personal choice and decision on the part of both writers. I would say many don’t have this luxury; the author is very often deceased. Sometimes the author is not even interested in talking. It is so dependent on the situation. It could be very helpful to learn what the essence and most important aspect of their story and characters are to them. They are the ones who originally created the world of the book, and sometimes they can help enrich the adaptation in that way. However, if they are precious with their work it could also be crippling to the process. A few meetings or calls could beneficial and interesting. But, it could also become very troublesome, especially if they are involved the whole way through the project. This may be the case with certain very powerful novelists. In at least one case – John LeCarre – has been quite involved with several of his adaptations as a consultant, and they have turned out quite favorably.

 

What are the risks a director should take in adapting a screenplay? 

In my experience, directors don’t “adapt a screenplay.” Instead, they are using the screenplay as a blueprint for their own film. In any event, I think the most important thing a director can do is to make sure the actor’s performances are there, and create the most lifelike scenes possible.

 

What is your favorite novel to film adaptation and why? 

I have several: “The Godfather” (1972) “Empire of the Sun” (1987), “Schindler’s List” (1993), and “Lincoln” (2012). They’re all terrific adaptations – and incredibly ambitious – in many ways. “Lincoln” is even more amazing considering it is adapted from an excellent, albeit still very historical, non-fiction book by Dorris Kerns Goodwin. The original screenplay was hundreds of pages, and yet Tony Kushner and Spielberg managed to whittle that down to the film that was produced. As an overall film, I would have to say “The Godfather” or “Schindler’s List”. Honestly, “Schindler’s List” was the movie that made me want to work in this business.

Thank you, Frederic, for your insight and sharing so many useful tips for our filmmaking community!

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Frederic Richter received his BA at Sarah Lawrence College, and was a Screenwriting Fellow at The American Film Institute (AFI), where he earned his MFA. His thesis short-film, MACHSOM, was the recipient of the Deluxe Production grant, amongst others. The film was accepted into over twenty-five festivals including AFI FEST, and won numerous awards around the world. His feature-length screenplay APPEARANCES, won 1st place in the Slamdance Screenwriting competition. He has a number of feature projects in active development with producers. Frederic has been employed for years as a Story Analyst for numerous companies, including Goldcrest Films, Film Rites (Steven Zaillian’s company), QED International, Black Label Media and The Black List 3.0. He is a producer and executive with Tradition Pictures, a newly formed LA based production company. He worked on an upcoming television series for Stephen David Entertainment. He teaches classes on screenwriting, script development, story structure, film studies/ history and the entertainment industry at Sarah Lawrence College, NYU SPS, Mercy College and The Ghetto Film School. He is a Teaching Artist at The Ghetto Film School, and an Adjunct Instructor at NYU SPS. He is a proud member of the Sarah Lawrence College Alumni Board.