The 5 Best Screenplay Adaptations From Novels

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From the Pages of a Book: Five Successful Adaptations

When I was in film school at UCLA, the head of our department, Richard Walter, gave a lecture in which he asked the question, “What does a screenwriter owe the original material?” Immediately, he answered his own question, saying “Nothing!”

While this is a great point—as a screenwriter you need to do more than simply transcribe a novel into screenplay format—the more important, and trickier question is, “What does the screenwriter owe the audience?”

Here are five successful film adaptations which answer that fundamental question is various ways:

The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) Photo courtesy: United Artists

The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) Photo courtesy: United Artists

No. 1 — The French Lieutenant’s Woman

This best-selling, postmodern novel from 1969 includes different stylistic effects ranging from essays on the social mores of the Victorian period to several possible endings. When Harold Pinter adapted the novel for film he created an entirely new story around a film crew shooting what is basically the central story of the novel.

The two storylines both contain a romance, with each romance having a different ending—echoing the novel. By stepping completely away from novel, Pinter managed to capture the book’s postmodern spirit.

Sometimes you have to think completely outside the box to stay in the box. If you’re adapting a period piece, ask yourself, how can I make this compelling and fresh? How can I add to the material but also make it the core of my film?

Pride and Prejudice (2005) Photo courtesy: Universal Pictures

Pride and Prejudice (2005) Photo courtesy: Universal Pictures

No. 2 — Pride and Prejudice

This classic novel has been adapted to film many times, including a well-loved BBC mini-series and a go-round with zombies. My personal favorite is the 2005 film written by Deborah Moggach (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and the TV mini-series The Diary of Anne Frank), which manages to feel fully realized while at the same time adding understanding to story via it’s excellent period detail.

The precarious financial position of the Bennett’s is apparent in not only in the well-crafted dialogue but also in the shabbiness of their estate, which is shown here more as a working farm than anything resembling the financial excess of say Downton Abbey.

This illustrates what you need to do when adapting material that’s been done repeatedly… find something new to add. Look closely at the material and bring forth an element that might not have been as interesting to previous adapters.

About a Boy (2002) Photo courtesy: Universal Pictures

About a Boy (2002) Photo courtesy: Universal Pictures

No. 3 — About A Boy

Nick Hornsby’s novel is written in an unusual way. The chapters alternate between Will Freeman and the boy, Marcus, following each story as they intertwine but also strike out on their own.

The film, maintains this feeling by giving both characters, not only their own storylines, but also their own voiceovers. Central to both the book and the film is the very jokey idea of Will pretending to have a young son in order to attract women.

This could have been a very traditional Hollywood high-concept plot, but the book, and the film, wisely sidestep the high concept plot and keep the focus on the relationship between Will and Marcus. For the screenwriter, it’s important to understand why a book works and then capture that.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) – Photo Courtesy of: Warner Brothers

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) – Photo Courtesy of: Warner Brothers

No. 4 — Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

This has to have been one of the trickiest assignments Hollywood has given out since Gone With the Wind. The novel, and indeed the entire series, has millions of devoted fans. All of whom have very specific opinions on what Harry looks like, what Hogwarts is like, and what should and shouldn’t be happening in the films. Here a screenwriter needs to tread lightly, or risk alienating the audience.

You can’t make sweeping changes, you can’t re-invent. So, what do you do? The first thing a writer needs to have is a deep understanding of genre.

In the case fantasy novels, the most important element is creating the world. No matter how deeply you have to edit the story you have to showcase the world of Harry Potter. It’s what the audience is there to see.

Gone Girl (2014) - Photo courtesy: Twentieth Century Fox

Gone Girl (2014) – Photo courtesy: Twentieth Century Fox

No. 5 — Gone Girl

A secret that good mystery writers know is that you don’t always have to trick the audience. If you write strong, compelling characters it won’t matter if the reader figures out who-dun-it before the ending. When adapting a best-selling thriller a large portion of your audience will already know the killer from having read the book. That makes it imperative to focus on character.

In the case of Gone Girl though, the screenwriter is the novelist. This was probably a wise choice. Gillian Flynn’s novel, in addition to being a thriller, has a lot to say about the roles of contemporary men and women, in addition to featuring one of the most diabolical femme fatales ever put onto paper. While using the same writer risks transferring the problems of the novel to the screen (and some might say that both have the same plot holes) in this instance what’s more important is the incredible character development. And that transferred very well to the screen.

I think Richard’s point was that you always owe the audience a good story, even if you have to deviate from the original material to get there. And I have to say I agree with that.

However, considering the audiences’ relationship to the story is just as important. Determining why a book was successful, and then making sure that element remains is probably the common denominator in these five successful adaptations.

What are your favorite adaptations and why? We’d like to hear from you.

author-avatar

Marshall Thornton has an MFA from UCLA in screenwriting. He spent ten years writing spec scripts and has been a semi-finalist or better in the Nicholl, Samuel Goldwyn, American Accolades, One-In-Ten and Austin Film Festival contests. As a novelist, he writes the Lambda Award-winning Boystown Mysteries. The eight book series follows the cases of a gay detective in turbulent 1980s Chicago. Marshall has also been known to write the occasional romantic comedy. You can find him online at marshallthorntonauthor.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @mrshllthornton

44 Replies to "The 5 Best Screenplay Adaptations From Novels"

  • comment-avatar
    MKC August 25, 2016 (12:45 pm)

    Silence of the Lambs is the king. Add in personal faves such as Misery, Die Hard, The Godfather, Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Exorcist, Apocalypse Now, and Dr. Strangelove.

  • comment-avatar
    Gus Nicholson August 25, 2016 (1:09 pm)

    The Exorcist. Both the book and the film riveting!

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton August 25, 2016 (1:33 pm)

      Love the Exorcist. Great film. I don’t remember the book very well, though. Other than that I liked it.

  • comment-avatar
    EC August 25, 2016 (1:10 pm)

    The most obvious film left out of this mix is To Kill A Mockingbird.

  • comment-avatar
    Dr. Michael Mercer August 25, 2016 (1:11 pm)

    I loved the movie “Lilith” starring Warren Beatty & Jean Seaborg — based on novel by the same name. I must admit, also, that part of the reason I love “Lilith” is I worked for the organization where the novel & movie took place — so I have a lot of pleasant memories about my experiences there.

  • comment-avatar
    Janet Arvia August 25, 2016 (1:33 pm)

    ELECTION
    GONE WITH THE WIND
    GOODFELLAS
    JUDE
    SENSE AND SENSIBILITY

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton August 25, 2016 (2:22 pm)

      I’d forgotten Election was from a book. And of course, Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility is wonderful.

  • comment-avatar
    William Sommerwerck August 25, 2016 (2:20 pm)

    The Harry Potter novels are of such weak literary quality that the quality of their adaptations is beside the point. “Dr Strangelove” is not based on any novel or short story.

    I suppose Larry McMurtry doesn’t exist? “The Last Picture Show” and “Lonesome Dove” are exceptionally fine adaptations that capture the “tone” of these novels almost perfectly. *

    Why not “Horseman, Pass By” (“Hud”)? The movie converts the morally “gray” characters of the book into stark black-and-white stereotypes. It’s not an accurate adaptation.

    * One might argue that “Lonesome Dove” shouldn’t be included, because it was a screenplay before it was a novel.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton August 25, 2016 (2:33 pm)

      The list is as much about different types of adaptation issues a writer may face as it is about great films. Thank you for mentioning Larry McMurtry. Love his books. I would have written about Terms of Endearment which has an extensive subplot about the maid which got cut for the film.

    • comment-avatar
      JG Edwards August 25, 2016 (4:35 pm)

      DR STRANGELOVE was based on Peter George’s RED ALERT, which was a straight, non-comic look at accidental nuclear war. Some have said that the timing of the film, which was shot after the assassination of Presodent Kennedy, had a lot to do with the black comic turn taken Kubrick’s masterpiece.

      Peter George later sued the writers of FAIL SAFE, for infringing on his copyright. I don’t recall if he won.

    • comment-avatar
      EC August 27, 2016 (6:20 pm)

      I disagree about your assessment of the Potter books. They are excellent stories, and have also been of great service to children, spawning an enormous horde of hungry readers. Against what standard are you evaluating their literary value? Have you read them?

  • comment-avatar
    Jack West August 25, 2016 (2:32 pm)

    I disagree with William Sommerwerck; Kubrick used a book Red Alert as the basis for the film. I’m trying to adapt a version of the book Carmilla re-written by Catherine Rose from the version by Joseph Sheridan LaFenu. It ain’t easy and I’ll take any suggestions.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton August 25, 2016 (3:53 pm)

      You’re right about Red Alert. Apparently there was a lot of drama about Fail-Safe possibly plagiarizing Red Alert. Interestingly, the films are basically about the same thing while being completely different. Good luck with Carmilla. I looked that up and it doesn’t look easy. Tastes in horror these days are so different than they were in the nineteenth century and today’s audience has so much vampire lore at their fingertips. You’ve got a real challenge on your hands.

  • comment-avatar
    Darren Silverman August 25, 2016 (2:41 pm)

    Shawshank Redemption came from a Stephen King short story… That’s gotta count!

  • comment-avatar
    Louise Johnson August 25, 2016 (2:47 pm)

    The English Patient.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton August 25, 2016 (3:43 pm)

      Love The English Patient… I tried the book though and couldn’t get into it.

  • comment-avatar
    Karen Grube August 25, 2016 (3:14 pm)

    The Color Purple and The Prince of Tides were also terrific. Oh, and don’t forget In Cold Blood and To Kill a Mockingbird.

  • comment-avatar
    Karen Grube August 25, 2016 (3:15 pm)

    Sorry, I see someone else mentioned “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I’m so glad!

  • comment-avatar
    Brian L Groseth August 25, 2016 (4:50 pm)

    I really liked “The Big Sleep.” That is, the original movie with Bogart. It captured the dark under world of early ’40s Los Angeles as well as the book, even though toned down a bit to get past the sensors. The Robert Mitchum version wasn’t as good. If I could ask Raymond Chandler one question it would be, “Who killed Owen Taylor?”

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton August 25, 2016 (6:15 pm)

      I think I remember Lauren Bacall telling a story about The Big Sleep and how there were parts of the story that they didn’t understand even as they were shooting the film. What’s interesting about that from a writing perspective is that it really doesn’t matter. It’s still a great movie – and a great book.

  • comment-avatar
    Mindi White August 25, 2016 (6:25 pm)

    Women in Love is, by far, the best adaptation I’ve ever seen. Superb as a film and as an adaptation.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton August 26, 2016 (6:11 pm)

      That is a good one. Larry Kramer who moved on to novels and plays…

  • comment-avatar
    MKC August 25, 2016 (7:04 pm)

    Gotta also throw in Planet of the Apes and The Maltese Falcon

  • comment-avatar
    Chuck August 25, 2016 (7:18 pm)

    How about altman’s “The Long Goodbye” with Elliot gould?

  • comment-avatar
    Chris Rosindale August 26, 2016 (7:20 am)

    The 1985 Canadian TV Miniseries of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s “Anne of Green Gables,” for which I have an autographed copy of the script, which starred Megan Follows as Anne Shirley, Coleen Dewhurst and Richard Farnsworth as Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert and Patricia Hamilton as Rachel Lynde. I have heard that the script from this is actually used to teach how to adapt a novel for the screen in Canada.

    The 1974 British film of Arthur Ransome’s “Swallows and Amazons,” which beautifully captures the spirit of the book.

  • comment-avatar
    Dave August 26, 2016 (12:17 pm)

    Stephen King adaptations which have did a good job capturing the book and telling the story: “Misery” and “The Shawshank Redemption” (both mentioned above) as well as “Stand By Me”, Kubrick’s “The Shining” (King would disagree with me on this one), and “Carrie”. Not-so-great ones: just about everything else (with “Maximum Overdrive” at the top of the list).

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton August 26, 2016 (6:09 pm)

      Yeah, you’re right. For the most part King has proven very hard to adapt.

  • comment-avatar
    Dave August 26, 2016 (12:19 pm)

    Does it count if the adaptation is from a stage play? I thought “Hedwig & The Angry Inch” was a super adaptation, successfully turning the 1-night concert that is the stage play into a tour was a fabulous idea. When the screenwriter had it, he must have said “Of course!”

    Worst adapatation? In the runnings would have to be “Atonement”. Talk about disappointing.

  • comment-avatar
    Jill Braden August 26, 2016 (3:44 pm)

    The Grifters was almost better than the book. I never say that.

  • comment-avatar
    Dave August 29, 2016 (6:32 am)

    And even though I know that to be true, I’ll check out every attempt! I hear “It” is being done again. Can’t wait!

  • comment-avatar
    Dave August 29, 2016 (6:33 am)

    ^– That was supposed to be a reply to Marshall’s comment about the difficulty in adapting Stephen King. :p

  • comment-avatar
    Paul August 29, 2016 (4:39 pm)

    I have to disagree with the idea that the writer owes nothing to the source material. A basic fidelity to the material should be a bare minumum, after all the sucess of the source material is why people will be paying money to see the film version, or at least the fan base of the original material. If not that then why not do something original. As for film examples, John Huston directed a number of films based on novels or novellas, some wtih himself as the screenwriter, some with others and his last film “The Dead” with a script by his son.

    A different question you could also ask is how does one adapt books that are not considered “cinematic” or visual or too complicated.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton August 29, 2016 (4:52 pm)

      Thanks for the comment. I don’t disagree with you. Keeping the audience in mind, does require some fidelity to the material as you point out.

  • comment-avatar
    Julius Neelley August 30, 2016 (6:38 am)

    “Tess” and “Gentlemen’s Agreement” and “A Place in the Sun” and From Here to Eternity”

  • comment-avatar
    Laura September 6, 2016 (12:26 pm)

    Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” was as good as the book, and it surprised me, because so many parts of the book read like poetry to me and I could not imagine how a director could translate those. Lee did a fabulous job with visuals that were as breathtaking as the book was poetic. Also, the The Silver Lining Playbook is one of those rare “better than the book” as was also The Devil Wears Prada. THe last one was not a great movie but it was a movie that redeemed a rather bad book. The Silver Lining Playbook brought characters to life that were otherwise dead and dull on the page.

  • comment-avatar
    Gonzalo September 6, 2016 (1:53 pm)

    One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest took a great novel and made it even better. To Kill a Mockingbird was also a superb adaptation. How could they be left out of the list? On the other hand, The French Lieutenant’s Woman took a very good novel and made it into a preposterous movie.

  • comment-avatar
    Jodie September 8, 2016 (5:22 am)

    What about The Book Thief? This film popped into mind immediately.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton September 8, 2016 (10:44 am)

      I didn’t happen to read that one. But I think the film did not do as well as the book…

  • comment-avatar
    Dona General September 8, 2016 (11:22 am)

    Most of Hitchcock’s films are adaptations: Psycho, The Birds, Rebecca, Rear Window, Marnie and the much maligned Vertigo (now considered to be a classic by some). I’ve not read the books (except Rebecca), but these films have not lost their sheen over the years since release which, to my mind, is the standard of quality storytelling by a masterful storyteller who creates a world, outstanding characters and cinematic suspense others cannot match.

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    Mariah September 20, 2016 (1:05 pm)

    The moment you said the 2005 Pride and Prejudice, you lost me. I couldn’t even get through it, it so utterly failed the book. A high school student’s retelling would have been more accurate.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton September 20, 2016 (2:23 pm)

      thanks for commenting. It’s all subjective, of course.

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