Adapting from different formats

The arena of language

Film has nothing to do with liter­ature; the char­acter and substance of the two art forms are usually in conflict. This prob­ably has some­thing to do with the receptive processes of the mind. The written word is read and assim­il­ated by a conscious act of the will in alli­ance with the intel­lect; little by little it affects the imagin­a­tion and the emotions. The process is different with a motion picture. When we exper­i­ence a film, we consciously prime ourselves for the illu­sion. Putting aside will and intel­lect, we make way for it in our imagination.”

Ingmar Bergman, “Bergman Discusses Film-making”.

Gener­ally movie people avoid books as if they were used needles”

David Thomson, Guardian 06.07.13

Never judge a book by its movie …”

Movie maxim

Reading a book, espe­cially an engrossing book, is to exper­i­ence language as one of the purest and most trans­parent forms of commu­nion. To be ‘lost in a book’ is a trans­fig­ur­ative exper­i­ence; the words on a page can trans­port a reader to a ‘different place’, an interior mental arena which is capable of being trans­form­ative and magical.

The language used in a script, however, has a number of different tasks to perform, and the words are never an end in them­selves. They are sign­posts, indic­ators of what the script aspires to become –  that is a ‘live’ event occur­ring in real time. This is the intended exper­i­ence, some­thing we witness extern­ally, that engages us through dramatic means.

The currency of drama is events and the focus is on the action. Char­acter and dialogue are major preoc­cu­pa­tions but only in service to the main task that the scriptwriter has set himself: to bring a story success­fully to life and to do it within a set time.

This constraint of time is one of the major differ­ences between the leis­urely act of reading, which can be protracted indef­in­itely, and the commit­ment that is asked of an audi­ence to watch a film or a play on the stage.

When people say, “Is it like the book?” the answer is, “There has never in the his­tory of the world been a movie that’s really been like the book.” Every­body says how faithful “Gone with the Wind” was. Well, “Gone with the Wind” was a three-and-a­ half-hour movie, which means you are talking about maybe a two-hundred-page screen­play of a nine-hundred-page novel in which the novel has, say, five hundred words per page; and the screen­play has maybe forty, maybe sixty, depending on what’s on the screen, maybe one hundred and fifty words per page. But you’re tak­ing a little, teeny slice; you’re just extracting little, teeny essences of scenes. All you can ever be in an adapt­a­tion is faitllful in spirit”.

William Goldman


Narrative shape and structure

Prose narrat­ives are constrained by their length but the shape and texture of the narrative is much more fluid and influ­enced by a number of factors. One of these is the style of narra­tion. From a screenwriter’s perspective, the narrative becomes more ‘focused’ or ‘diffused’ depending on these choices. The balance between ‘fore­ground’ and ‘back­ground’ stories (see Classic Story Struc­ture) is also important.

Often the most powerful scenes in a novel are those that deal with complex emotional or psycho­lo­gical states but these do not trans­late easily to the screen:

The rendi­tion of mental states – memory, dream, imagin­a­tion – cannot be as adequately repres­ented by film as by language… The film, by arran­ging external signs for our visual percep­tion, or by presenting us with dialogue, can lead us to infer thought. But it cannot show us thought directly. It can show us char­ac­ters thinking, feeling, and speaking, but it cannot show us their thoughts and feel­ings. A film is not thought; it is perceived.”

George Blue­stone, Novels into Film

For this reason, writers like Hemingway and Faulkner lend them­selves easily to film adapt­a­tion with their stripped down prose while so-called ‘stream of conscious­ness’ writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf present more of a challenge.

It is also often neces­sary to distil simpler narrat­ives shapes from books that are densely plotted. Signi­fic­antly a number of successful films have been made from novellas or short stories (i.e. Daphne Du Maurier’s “The Birds”) because it is easier to expand a narrative than condense it.

(Unfin­ished – awaiting content)


Adapt­a­tion – From “The Art Of Watching Films”


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